Sign-Up for Newsletter

Market research versus community engagement

Market research versus community engagement

Matthew Crozier

Matthew Crozier

Matthew is a founding director and CEO of Bang the Table.

Despite the uptake of many traditional marketing research techniques by government agencies, there are many fundamental and  crucial differences between community engagement and market research methodologies.

I’ve been hinting in a number of recent posts at the dangers of passing off market research as community engagement. I see this trend as something that is very worrying. There is obvious appeal for managers and boards and Councils in market research – it feels very safe. People only answer the questions they are asked and when it suits those doing the asking.

But what effect does this have on the community? Do they feel that they are really participating in decision making? Or are they just being tapped as a source of information?

I think some of my reservations stem from my own feelings that market research is something that is being done to me – it is not really me participating. This is the case whether the survey is online or on the phone. I may want to add all sorts of things that really matter to me but there is rarely the capacity for that in a survey and even when there is I know deep down that the results are going to come down to a one liner – “54% of respondents said that they were satisfied with….” and this is what is so appealing to managers, CEOs et al.

There are also the dangers of push polling – where the questions are designed to elicit a specific response.

Way back when I was a pommie backpacker visiting Australia for the first time I had a job doing market research for a well known Australian research firm. Some of what I learned there horrified me. The biggest job I worked on was a survey that took around 40 minutes to complete. Believe me it required real skill to get people to stay on the line that long but when you did manage it you had some great discussions. I spoke to a number of people for well over an hour and even visited one respondent on my way round the country! The survey had all sorts of questions – I remember it started with a question about whether the curtain sticks to you in the shower (we had a few hang ups at that point) and it asked lots of consumer stuff. In the middle was a small section about human rights and towards the end of that section after a whole run of questions about people being deprived of essential rights was a question that ran along the lines of ‘do you think people have a right to smoke if they want to?”

Anyway to cut a long story short the survey finished and I awoke one day to find a media headline about most Australians thinking smoking is a right. It seems that this was all the survey was about. The other 29 minutes of questions were carefully placed to mask the intent of the survey and to get the correct answer.

I am not claiming that all market research is that shoddy but I would argue strongly that, while market research has a place, it is in no way a substitute for community engagement.

I found this article today called “Continuous engagement… the death of market research”
on the blog Marcom Professional by Philip Sheldrake and I thought it put the case well, albeit in a commercial context, (I think the lessons carry directly across to Government organisations) some key extracts follow below.

There are dozens of differences between the two approaches. Research is ad hoc or at regular intervals whereas continuous engagement is, well, continuous. Research is one-way, and engagement is two-way. Research is devoid of any direct brand benefit (and research purists will claim this is beneficial) whereas continuous engagement inculcates brand loyalty. Here’s a list of the primary differences:

  • Research is ad hoc or regular interval; engagement is continuous
  • Research is one-way (+ prize or payment!); engagement is two-way (mutually rewarding)
  • Research is unemotional; engagement is emotional
  • Research is independent of loyalty; engagement inculcates brand loyalty
  • Research has a tight focus; engagement has a wide focus
  • Research deals with sequential parameters; engagement is multi-parametric
  • Research is designed to achieve statistical confidence; engagement is designed to detect weak signals.

The disadvantages of traditional market research

Ad hoc regular intervals

  • Your last data set getting on a bit?
  • Trying to read between the lines because the last survey didn’t ask exactly the question you now need answering?
  • Is your market speeding up relative to your research frequency?
  • Do you need to ask new questions, but want to continue trending previous survey data?


  • What’s in it for your respondents?
  • Ever wondered if they’re answering your questions conscientiously?
  • Are they likely to benefit or suffer as a consequence of the information they share with you?


  • Quite simply, do they care?

Independent of loyalty

  • Ad hoc, one-way, unemotional interaction does not drive brand loyalty.

Tight focus

  • How long can you keep them interested for the remote chance of winning an iPod?
  • Once you’ve collected the demographics, how long remains to get to the crux?
  • By what degree can you change the subject?
  • How many times can you change the subject before their brain starts hurting?


After all that, it’s no wonder you need some mathematics to determine the statistical confidence.

Social media

The best way to understand your customers, is to have a relationship with them. Online. On the mobile. In store.

Social media is defined on Wikipedia today as:

“the democratization of content and the understanding of the role people play in the process of not only reading and disseminating information, but also how they share and create content for others to participate. It is the shift from a broadcast mechanism to a many-to-many model, rooted in a conversational format between authors and people”.

More simply, we define social media in the context here as:

“all integrated channels through which you can get people discussing you and your market, with each other and with you”.

Wide focus

Anything and everything is discussed by your customers in social forums. For each topic, you can choose to interact or just listen.

You can also seed the forums with topics relevant to your business tomorrow, not just today. Test their reaction. Harvest value-added feedback; qualitative and quantitative.


Traditional research addresses a limited sequence of parameters, whereas social media can embrace multiple parameters.
Nevertheless, your product road-map may encompass hundreds of parametric permutations. In this instance, you could chose to present ideas based on “runs” (parameter groupings based on Taguchi orthogonal arrays) to your most loyal and valued social media participants.

Detect weak signals

Weak signals are easily overlooked in traditional research. But understanding how to identify the most authoritative members in your social media, and learning to listen to them, can place you weeks if not months ahead of your competition in timely new product launches.

New skills

Supplanting or supplementing market research with continuous engagement requires:

  • A new strategy
  • An implementation framework
  • New analyses methods
  • Sound corporate performance measurement to close the loop

For and against

Unsurprisingly, there are advocates and detractors from this point of view. Take an interview with Bill Neal of SDR Consulting for example:

“..But I have some real problems with consumer generated media as a source of credible and reliable information. In many ways it combines the worst elements of non-scientific research – self selection and advocacy – both positive and negative.

The information they generate may be true, or not true – there is no way to discern which. Therefore, the information generated by those folks is neither credible nor reliable.”

However, this perspective could not be more strongly countered by the assertions made in the Cluetrain manifesto:

“A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter – and getting smarter faster than most companies.

These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.”

OK, continuous engagement may not signal the death of traditional market research, but it marks a distinct and influential turning point; a turning point leading companies are adopting today for competitive advantage.

Photo Credits: Nomadic Lass

Thanks for getting all the way to bottom! Subscribe to our monthly digest newsletter if you’d like to be kept up to date about community engagement practice globally. Take a look at our two product websites: EngagementHQ if you need a complete online engagement solution, and BudgetAllocator if you need a participatory budgeting solution. Or get in touch if you have a story idea you think is worth sharing.

Published Date: 14 March 2009 Last modified on November 15, 2017
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share on Pinterest
Share with your friends


Online Public Engagement

FREE E-Guide


  1. Katie Harris says:

    Nice piece. Although I would argue that qualitative research – either on or offline – DOES actually fit within your definition of community engagement!

  2. Hi Katie,

    I agree with you but would argue that there is qualitative research and qualitative research. Not all qualitative research is born equal!

    Open question surveys where a skilled “questioner” has lots of flexibility to explore the rambling pathways of the conversation with generosity and goodwill are invaluable sources of qualitative information. They also build rapport and encourage ongoing dialogue and “engagement”.

    On the other hand, closed question surveys can too easily, and quite possibly unconsciously, be preordained to lead the “questioned” to a particular conclusion. I heard a great example of this recently where the question was framed so extraordinarily broadly that anyone answering “No” would have seemed completely unreasonable – “Should we have any standards at all to manage this issue?” These kinds of questions are pretty much inevitably designed to produce “quantitative” output to support a pre-existing policy position, e.g. 51% of residents think we’re doing a great job (therefore we must be on the right track!).

  3. Matt Crozier says:


    I think Crispin has put the case well – I suppose what I am arguing against is a trend to commission a quarterly survey of a thousand or so people and tick the box on community engagement – job done, no need to talk to them any more.

    I agree that well managed and delivered qualitative research engages the community, though I wonder what your thoughts are on how this should best be supported with open dialogue?

    Thanks for the interest (by the way I love your blog – I wish ours looked that good!)

  4. Katie Harris says:

    Hi Matt and Crispin

    I actually agree with you both about the difference between “researching” the community (with either a commercial or social policy agenda) vs starting/maintaining a “dialogue” with them wholeheartedly.

    What I should have said was that qualitative METHODS (not necessarily qualitative market research per se) can work beautifully to develop that dialogue.

    (And thank you for the kind words; very glad you like my blog! : ) It’s a WordPress platform).

  5. I think market research and social media can work symbiotically. By taking the best of social media philosophy and applying the best of market research we can develop new and valid methodologies.

    In Australia market research agencies have been slow to embrace the changing marketing landscape compared to UK/US counterparts.

    Internationally qual and quant silos are being broken down into a more dynamic and organic style of research.

    Next time you speak with a market researcher ask them how the changing marketing environment has impacted on their methodologies.

    It makes sense to support marketers in a social media environment with market research that

    (a) understands what they are trying to achieve and

    (b)treats research participants with respect (rather than the old parent/child structure).

    Who knows your research participants might just be your WOM/ brand advocates in the near future.


  6. Jared says:

    Agree with the overall premise that you have raised here,

  7. Jared says:

    First off all, congratulations on a really well thought out post. After reading through it more I have a fairly good idea on what you mean by ‘engagement’.
    I do question whether this level of engagement is really desired by a large section of the community. I would suggest that a large amount of people neither have the time or inclination for this type of engagement and are put off by it.

  8. Matt Crozier says:

    Hi Jared, I think it has been an issue in the past that organisations have either ‘over engaged’ their communities making multiple demands on their time or have engaged them without sincerity so that people feel tricked. However, in my experience when genuine engagement is carried out people readily participate and are glad to actually be part of decisions that affect their lives.

    The type of engagement we specialise in is online and so requires very little of people’s time to participate. We find that people will happily and readily participate on issues of concern to them and that they will pick and choose what to engage on.

    I think this picking and choosing is the key. Market research does not allow the community to choose it asks only specific questions and often also limits the answers.

  9. Jared says:

    Thanks Matt, I take your point that market research decides what questions are asked, although I think there is value in having questions which ‘guide’ the topic and enable focused discussion in order to help generate some conclusive findings to aid the decision making process.