Representivity ain't what it used to be
May 20, 2015
I am on my way back from ESOMAR APAC in Singapore where I gave a short presentation with the title, “What you need to know about online panels.” Part of the presentation was about the evolution of a set of widely-accepted QA practices that while standard in the US and much of Europe are sometimes missing in countries where online is still a maturing methodology. The other part was about the challenge of creating representative online samples, especially in countries with relatively low Internet penetration. How can you learn anything meaningful about the broader market in a country like India with only about 20% Internet penetration using an online panel that has only a tiny fraction of that 20%?
At the same time I have tried to keep an eye on what has been happening at the AAPOR conference in Florida this past week and am delighted to see the amount of attention that online nonprobability sampling is getting from academics and what the Europeans like to call “social policy” researchers. Their business is all about getting precise estimates out of representative samples, something that thus far has mostly eluded online researchers despite its increasing dominance in the research industry as a whole.
The conversation in Singapore was much different where solving this problem seems less important. The cynical view is that there is little impetus to do better because clients aren’t willing to spend the money it takes to get more accurate data. The more generous view is that market researchers paint with a much broader brush. Trends over time and large differences in estimates are more important than really precise numbers; research outcomes are an important part of the decision making process, but not the only part.
That said, it sill seems to be that we have a responsibility to understand just how soft our numbers might be, where the biases are, and what all of that implies for how results are used. The obvious danger is in ascribing a precision to our results that just is disconnected from reality. There already is way too much of that and not just with online. Social media, mobile, big data, text analytics, neuroscience—all of it is being oversold. And the thing is, when you talk to people one on one, they know it.
I subscribe to the idea that our future is one in which data will be plentiful and cheap. It also will almost always be imperfect, every bit as imperfect as online today. The most important skill for market researchers to develop is how to learn from imperfect data, a task that starts by recognizing those imperfections and then figuring out how to deal with them rather than pretending they don’t exist.