Charting a course through the COVID-19 Pandemic

Two interesting pieces of research out this morning about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on research results.

The first comes from Zappi and an online test of 26 concepts and advertisements across six consumer categories (personal care, food and beverage, home hygiene, Telco, QSR, OTC) in five markets (US, UK, China, Italy and Mexico). All 26 were previously tested prior to March 1 and then retested March 17-18.  Zappi’s analysis found few meaningful differences across 78 comparisons.  My gut reaction: “How can this be?”

There also is a report just released from the Pew Research Center here in the US. It was conducted for a week stretching from March 10 to March 16 and asked about the perceived threat of COVID-19 to the US economy, the overall health of the US population, daily life in their communities, their personal financial situation, and their personal health. While 70% reported seeing the pandemic as a major threat to the US economy, only about a third saw it as a major threat to their personal financial situation and 27% as a major threat to their health. Another 23% saw COVID-19 as presenting no threat at all to their personal health. The obvious message would seem to be that only a small minority of the US population saw COVID-19 as a major threat to them personally. How can this be?

It might be partially explained by the changes in response over the survey period where four of the five measures rose significantly. For example, 29% of respondents who completed the Pew survey in the first two days (March 10-11) felt that the virus posed a major threat to their personal finances. By the last two days (March 16-17) that measure rose 11 points to 40%. On the other hand, respondent concerns about their personal health remained fairly consistent, although the alarm bells didn’t start ringing loudly here in the US until the week of March 16.

These are two different studies with different samples covering different time periods and there may be multiple ways to reconcile them. I’m not going to try to do that. However, I would note that it's of critical importance to have multiple measures and perspectives if we are to really know what is happening. I also want to reinforce the message that it's more important than ever to continue to do research even as the pandemic continues to unfold and hopefully subsides. The more multiple points of measurement you can bring to bear the better. Business, governments, non-profits—any organization that relies on data to make informed decisions--needs to understand how the attitudes and behaviors of the people they serve are evolving as we work our way through this crisis. If ever knowledge were power, this is that time.

For details on the Zappi work look here. For the Pew study look here.

The cost of privacy

My email this morning included a message from Hertz describing their new fleet of BMWs. I don’t rent from Hertz anymore and the emails they continue to send are mostly reminders that my driver’s license has expired, which was some while ago. But why the BMW pitch? Europe-3220193_960_720Perhaps because in 2009 I treated myself to a BMW 3 series rental in Ireland which was great fun on the winding roads of the Dingle Peninsula and Ring of Kerry? Maybe they have a long memory? Or maybe the fact that I currently drive a BMW somehow found its way into my profile?

In any case, it reminded me of Pew’s recently released study, “Americans and Privacy.” A few relevant findings:

  • 72% of US adults believe that all or most of what they do online is tracked by companies.
  • 79% are either very or somewhat concerned about how their personal data is being used by those companies.
  • 59% say they understand very little or nothing about “what companies do with their data” and only 18% say have a great deal or some control over their data.
  • 28% say they benefit a great deal or somewhat from the data companies collect on them and 81% say “the potential risks outweigh the potential benefits.
  • 75% say there should be more “regulation of what companies can do with their customers’ personal information.”

I could go on, but I think these few examples make the point: the US public is beyond fed up with daily and routine violations of their privacy. They are especially concerned about the amount of personal information about them collected by social media companies (85%), advertisers (84%), and the companies they buy things from (80%).

The old saying, “On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog,” is no longer a thing.

The sad reality is that most, although not all of this data collection and reuse is legal, at least in the US, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. One frequently cited reason for not taking privacy and personal data protection more seriously is that it just costs too much.

Earlier this year the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released a study, “The Costs of an Unnecessarily Stringent Federal Data Privacy Law.” By way of definition “unnecessarily stringent” means something similar to the GDPR or CCPA. And the report estimates that such a privacy regime would cost the US economy about $122 billion (sometimes they say “billion” but the tables say “million”) per year, or $483 per US adult. (By way of comparison, that’s more than 50% of what we spend on electricity every year.)  So what are those costs?

Around 10% would go to Data Protection Officers and upgraded data infrastructure,  two major areas of complaint about the GDPR. But the lion’s share, 85% of the total, would go to  two areas: Reduced Access to Data and Lower Ad Effectiveness.

In the case of the former, privacy requirements such as express consent, data minimization and purpose specification will reduce data sharing. In one of my favorite sentences in the report the authors write, “Unfortunately, opt-in requirements frame consumer choices in a way that leads to suboptimal data sharing because most users select the default option of not giving consent—for a number of irrational reasons.” So best we stop asking.

As for Lower Add Effectiveness, the report tells us that “Targeted advertising is beneficial to consumers and businesses.” Such advertising allows businesses to be more efficient and increase sales. “Consumers benefit by gaining more utility from relevant ads.” More utility?

Sadly, I hear similar arguments from within market research in the form of complaining about the cost of compliance as GDPR goes global.

One of my favorite lines in the old CASRO Code of Conduct is this one: “Since research participants are the lifeblood of the research industry, it is essential that those approached to participate be treated with respect and sensitivity.” I worry that we’ve lost that sense of respect for those whose data we rely on, whether when collecting from them directly or harvesting their data from the cloud. Online panels have led to us thinking of respondents as a commodity and our increasing reliance on big data sources has caused us to stop thinking about them as people at all. In the privacy debate they are an abstraction in a one-sided cost benefit exercise.

There are recent surveys that show those people who are our lifeblood don’t think very highly of us these days. They don’t trust us with their data any more than they trust social media networks or advertisers and, whether rational or irrational, they are less and less inclined to cooperate with research requests. This is not a good thing, to say the least. It’s important that we figure out sooner rather than later whose side we are on.

Today is Privacy Day!

Almost 20 years ago some colleagues and I edited a book with the inviting title, Computer Assisted Information Collection. Experts on a wide variety of computer-assisted methods contributed the chapters and I was tasked with writing the last chapter, a look into the future of technology and survey research. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I did a decent job of imagining the data rich world that we still believe is our future and worried what it would mean for surveys. My colleagues, all good friends, argued that while all those personal data might exist out there in cyberspace, public privacy concerns and supporting legislation would restrict our access to them.

Over the last five years I have had roughly that same argument on and off with numerous colleagues in MR, mostly taking the side of my friends back in the 1990s. I think it is now clear to all of us that Facebook did not redefine privacy, and ongoing public concerns about the use of personal data collected online and evolving regulatory frameworks will have a major impact on what we can and cannot do in market, opinion, and social research.

I am reminded of this because today is Privacy Day, at least in Europe. Its purpose is to alert consumers to the risks they face and to educate them about how to control the disclosure and use of their personal data. I think this is a good thing for us as researchers and here is why.

Cooperation is the elephant in the room every time we talk about what might be possible as technology becomes increasingly intertwined with the activities of our daily lives. Research requests are one-on-one conversations with potential participants and a key element of those conversations must include assurances about how their personal data will be used and protected. That conversation is easier when both parties share a common understanding about the risks and the steps that must be taken to mitigate them. The more the public understands about responsible data protection practices, the better off we all are.

Of course, this also depends on researchers understanding and meeting their responsibilities, both in terms of longstanding ethical principles and current legislative frameworks. In this researchers also require some education.

Today ESOMAR has done its part by releasing a Data Protection Checklist that sets out the key principles that form the foundation of data protection laws worldwide. It is a very practical document developed by a small group of experts from around the world. It is a ‘must read’ for all of us. Doing the right thing is more important now than ever before.



"Is it legal?" is not enough

I just posted a link to this Computerworld article on my Twitter feed, but I think it's so important that I have decided to mention it here as well. The article describes the dangers brands are beginning to face with over aggressive big data and data mining practices. The key point is that it's not just about what is legal, but that consumers are can also be sensitive to what they view as privacy violations and over aggressive marketing.

These are extra legal areas where codes of conduct developed by industry and trade associations have traditionally protected both research agencies and their clients from public backlash. It has become fashionable in some quarters to argue that these quaint notions are holding back market research and providing an opening for new entrants to realign the competitive balance in the industry. This is a good reminder that respect for consumers never goes out of fashion.

That old seat at the table

Attend an MR conference and chances are good that sooner or later a case of consulting envy will break out.  Symptoms include repeated use of phrases such as “seat Consultantat the table” and “C-level access.”  This is not a new phenomenon; it’s been a pretty steady part of the MR inferiority complex for the almost 20 years that I’ve been in the industry. The syndrome manifested itself at last week’s ESOMAR Congress in a session titled, “Think BIG: Imagine.”  It started from the premise that MR is twice as old and yet only one-tenth the size of management consulting (poor us) and then wondered how we might create “exponential growth” to close the gaps in revenue and prestige.  The answer, it turns out, is behavioral science.

To be clear, I agree that behavioral science is a megatrend with the potential to transform our industry.  But will its smart application make us rich and at long last bestow upon us that mythical seat at the table?  I doubt it. 

Management consultants and market researchers work at fundamentally different levels.  The consultant’s playing field includes corporate strategy and the full range of company operations, the whole enchilada.  Market researchers primarily provide tactical advice on how to take products to market. The two value propositions are fundamentally different and they result in fundamentally different ways of interacting with clients.

I am tempted to say that we should just get over it, enjoy the work that we do and take pride in the value we deliver. Then again, as tiresome as it can be maybe our fundamental insecurity is a good thing.  Maybe the constant fear of our lunch being eaten by management consultants and predictive analytics keeps us on our toes, pushes us to innovate, and makes us better if not bigger.  Andrew Grove probably was right; only the paranoid survive. 

I think we check that box.