MARKET RESEARCH: Fishing by the Net

Market researchers are looking to new forms of interactive media to assist in their work. But firms are finding these tools have their limitations, writes David Murphy

Market researchers are looking to new forms of interactive media to

assist in their work. But firms are finding these tools have their

limitations, writes David Murphy

Any form of market research, whether it’s a postal questionnaire, a

telephone interview or a face-to-face, has some cost associated with it.

So when new media such as interactive television and the Internet come

along, offering the potential for significant cost reductions, it’s not

surprising that the market research industry is keen to embrace them.

The Internet, for instance, must seem like a market researcher’s dream:

millions of people all over the world meeting in cyberspace to chat and

exchange opinions on everything from this week’s episode of Friends to

the role of chocolate in a developed economy. For an industry whose

raison d’etre is the acquisition of facts, figures, attitudes and

opinions, such a global forum could have been heaven-sent.

But what market researchers investigating the Internet appear to be

finding is that, for the moment at least, it presents as many obstacles

as it does opportunities.

Peter Comley, from Simon Godfrey Associates, has been investigating the

Internet for the past 12 months and set up an SGA Web site last

December. He sees several benefits in using the Internet as a market

research tool within a narrowly-defined target audience.

Net benefits

‘As a way of getting to certain target groups, it’s great,’ says Comley.

‘Anything to do with IT, business people, early adopters and youth


But in those three words: ‘Certain target groups’ lie many of the

Internet’s problems. Internet penetration in the UK is still low, with

only 2% of UK households and around 5% of businesses having access. The

profile of the typical Internet user is so narrowly defined that it can

be ruled out as a source of any kind of representative sample. It’s a

problem not lost on market research companies, as Richard Jameson,

director of IT research at NOP, which runs an Internet User Profile

survey, explains.

‘When researching on the Internet, the basic problems are response

rates, self-selection and self-completion,’ he says. ‘These are all the

problems that postal researchers had historically, in that you’ve got to

persuade a big proportion of any given sample to respond before you’re

sure that it’s a representative proportion.

‘So, if you put a questionnaire on a Web site, or even put an advert in

more traditional media, saying ‘Please fill in our questionnaire on this

Web site’, what you’ll get is primarily the extremely heavy, frequent

users, who are very technically minded, so they don’t mind doing that

sort of thing.’

For these reasons, Jameson says that NOP would not yet consider doing

anything representative via the Internet. Until more people have access

to the Internet, the problems of self-selection and its lack of

representation will continue to restrict its usefulness as a tool.

Research International’s David Walker believes the Internet can be

useful to market researchers, as long as they accept it for what it is.

‘If you want to talk to technical people or academics it’s great, but if

you want to talk to a representative sample of Joe Public, it’s not

going to happen. You’ve got to recognise what you can and can’t use on-

line research for. You’ve got to accept its limitations.’

Problems of self-selection and self-completion are not the only ones

restricting the Internet’s appeal as a market research medium. Basic

techniques such as questionnaire design must be rethought.

‘If you conduct a survey via e-mail,’ says Peter Comley, ‘you are stuck

with an ASCII text file. You can’t bold it, you can’t underline it and

most e-mail readers only allow a 72-character line length, so that’s

something else you have to think about.’

It’s not surprising, given these difficulties, that some market

researchers have failed to be turned on by the Internet’s appeal. In the

past 15 months, MORI, in conjunction with accountancy firm Coopers &

Lybrand, has been studying the subject of interactive media for a

syndicate of major blue-chip clients from the retail, computer, airline

and financial services sector.

Looking at applications, which will be developed over the next five

years, including video-, TV-, and games-on-demand, electronic news

services, home shopping and teleworking, MORI has been investigating

consumer demand while Coopers & Lybrand has been looking at the supply

side to identify supply and demand mismatches.

While the results of the research are confidential to the two companies’

clients, MORI’s director of consumer research, Mike Riddler, has learnt

enough to come to some forthright conclusions.

‘We don’t regard using the Internet as a source of market research

information as a valid approach,’ argues Riddler ‘because attempting to

conduct a survey on the Internet means you have a self-selecting sample.

Only those people who want to reply will reply and you can’t be at all

sure that they, or the opinions they hold, are representative of

Internet users. So the Internet, is not an acceptable source of


Given the restrictions and the problems, why bother? Well, for certain

types of research, the Internet has some fervent supporters. SGA’s Peter

Comley believes it comes into its own for group discussions.

‘With an on-line discussion,’ says Comley, ‘you have an immediate

transcript, already in computer form, and the client can get involved

from anywhere in the world.’

NOP’s Richard Jameson concurs: ‘There are a number of potential

benefits. If you’re talking about a sensitive subject...(the

respondents) don’t have to sit there and say what they’re doing and what

they’re thinking in front of other people.

‘Another key benefit, particularly in business markets, is that in a

group discussion you’ll get some characters who are dominant and

knowledgeable about their subject, and if you’re not careful, you won’t

get an even spread of response, because everyone will feel overawed. In

an on-line discussion that doesn’t tend to happen.’

Many research companies point to the ease with which people interested

in a particular subject or hobby, no matter how obscure, can be

recruited via newsgroups to take part in research projects, whether

conducted by electronic or traditional media.

Robert Duncan, who has his own market research company in Canada and

lectures on the subject at the British Columbia Institute of Technology,

believes that research on the Internet dovetails nicely with the trend

towards niche marketing.

‘Over here, marketing is becoming less mass-market oriented,’ says

Duncan, ‘through direct marketing and database marketing. People are

interested in really small niches; I don’t think people market to the

general population as much and I’m not sure those representative samples

are relevant for anything except absolute mass marketing, where you’re

targeting everybody, say, for political research.’

Two-way TV

While the Internet hogs the limelight, it’s not the only new medium.

Cable companies like Videotron have experimented with interactive TV

services and when BSkyB launches its own digital broadcasts soon, it

will offer the potential for interactivity and the possibility of real-

time data capture for broadcasters and advertisers.

In September 1994, the Cambridge iTV (interactive television) trial was

launched, bringing together 20 organisations involved in providing and

creating services, and exploring commercial relationships within an

interactive environment. These included Tesco, the BBC, NatWest, the

Post Office, IPC magazines, ITN and NOP.

An ICL Media server was used to distribute programming to the homes of

the 100 triallists and to retrieve viewer data. NOP research allowed the

iTV partners to assign demographic information to the core data. The

data was collated into a report.

In addition, NOP distributed two interactive, multiple-choice

questionnaires to the homes, to be completed using a specially-designed

remote-control handset.

Alan Higgs, director of media research at NOP, is enthusiastic about the

trial. He cites the low cost of the exercise and the ease of completion

(respondents complete the questionnaire in their own time and do not

need to send it back in the post) as the major benefits of interactive

TV research.

It’s unlikely that either interactive TV or the Internet on their own

will replace traditional market research tools, but they may become

significant if used together. Consumer electronics company Mitsubishi

will begin selling a television with a built-in Web browser in Japan

later this year. When accessing the Internet from your armchair becomes

as easy as changing channels on the TV, maybe we will start to see these

new media take their place alongside established market research tools.

In the meantime, money remains the principal driving force behind the

interest in new media. ‘Cost has to be a major driver,’ says Jameson.

‘If everyone is logging in and doing their own thing, the one thing you

don’t need is an interviewer, so you don’t have the expenses associated

with a face-to-face or telephone interview.’


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