Market research versus community engagement

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

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