It used to be timeshare salesman and hard-sell double-glaziers whose underhand tactics raised the ire of market researchers and respectable direct marketers.
More recently, the Labour Party – and even some of the more noble charities – have stood accused of “selling under guise” or “sugging”. The charge: that they have widely circulated what at first appear to be market research questionnaires which on closer inspection are little more than roundabout direct marketing forms soliciting the names, addresses, and ideally cash from those on the receiving end.
In the case of charities, the technique has even produced its own term of “frugging” – fundraising under guise, which may not have made it into the Oxford English Dictionary yet, but may well make it into the next update.
Against this backdrop of worst practice lurks a broader issue for direct marketers and market researchers. Organisations are increasingly circulating questionnaires designed to generate databases of respondents which, as well as helping assess consumer opinion, may also be exploited through a number of direct marketing techniques.
Market researchers may challenge the ethics of lifestyle questionnaires and other surveys designed to enhance direct marketing databases. But even when there are no grounds to criticise the transparency of such surveys, a rivalry persists between these two branches of marketing services.
Dennis Pirie, former member of the Market Research Society’s professional standards committee and consultant with CM&R, says: “Traditionally, consumers have had an open view towards market research and have wanted to help. People like to express an opinion. So our whole industry rests on the willingness of the public to offer information to companies doing research for clients to help them make strategic decisions.
“There are plenty of people who are willing to co-operate with market research but who don’t want to get involved in a sales approach.”
Martin Kiersnowski, director of lifestyle surveys at Experian, Britain’s biggest lifestyle questionnaire company, insists there is an unavoidable tension between pure market researchers and companies using survey techniques for a mix of research and database-building purposes.
“We are never going to be in agreement for market research purists,” says Kiersnowski. “One of the cardinal rules in market research is that it should be anonymous. Our business is to provide data for direct marketing use which includes names and addresses.
“We are providing information which people might be using to generate their own sales leads, or using to shape their own geodemographic data. There’s always going to be this friction. We use questionnaires because they work.
“If the consumer completes a questionnaire knowing what it’s for, what’s wrong with that?”
Experian, which earlier this year took over market leader ICD, itself claims to generate 2 million responses a year to its surveys, while other similar surveys may aggregate a total of 10 million responses a year. These surveys are distributed under titles such as Experian’s Consumer Products Survey, Claritas’ National Shoppers Survey, Consumer Access’s National Opinion Poll, and Consumer Surveys’ Centre for Consumer Interests.
For what Kiersnowski terms “pure” market researchers, Experian and its peers, alongside the in-house questionnaire activity undertaken by a range of advertisers and bodies, are not undermining any ethical base of market research. Rather, they are stepping on the commercial toes of the market research establishment in two ways.
First, by simply researching the attitudes and behaviour of identifiable respondents, they are impinging on the day-to-day demand for consumer research from the MORIs, Gallups, and Millward Browns of this world.
Secondly, the explosion of this form of questionnaire activity born out of the direct marketing sector is making life more difficult for “legitimate”, “pure” market research by reducing response rates to all questionnaires. But if response rates are dropping, this is because of the sheer volume of activity in the sector, he insists. Lifestyle questionnaire companies cannot be blamed alone for respondent fatigue.
Pirie is not entirely convinced with the notion that everyone is equally to blame for the dramatic fall in response rates, which according to some in the industry have fallen by up to 30 per cent over the past three years.
“Respondents need some respite,” says Pirie. “Perhaps 99 per cent of people don’t complain if they think they have been bothered by sales approaches after answering some questions. But the question is whether the person is going to take any more calls from market researchers.
“There is a real danger of respondent fatigue with the growing amount of activity, particularly in some business- to-business and specialist area. The risk is that, as far as the willingness of consumers to co-operate is concerned, that market research is going to get thrown out with the direct marketing bath water.”
But with clients prepared to pay a market price of 100 per 1,000 names, the margins are high enough for more and more companies to extend their questionnaire activities.
And some charities have tried to justify any ill-effects of their activities on the basis that any money raised is ultimately for a good cause.
This cuts little ice with Pirie. “The excuse that the end justifies the means used by some of these fundraisers is one that is often used by terrorist groups to justify their activities. Now I’m not saying that you can equate frugging with terrorism, but those involved in using market research as a guise to direct sell are hurting the market research industry. I think they should be told to frug off.”
Paul Robinson, director of Strategic Data Management (SDM), which works for British Airways Holidays and Greenpeace, accepts bad practice does lead to emotional debate. But he insists that most consumers are sophisticated enough to appreciate the difference between direct marketing-derived questionnaires and pure market research.
“The difference between a direct marketing questionnaire and market research is that you are interrogating your own database rather than a representative sample of the population at large,” he says.
“Inevitably, the whole questionnaire is intentionally skewed towards your own needs. But if it’s not pure market research, it’s not sugging. Ultimately, the important thing is not to mislead the consumer. If you haven’t, it’s up to the consumer whether they want to fill out a questionnaire.”
There is potential for malpractice, particularly in the area of rogue telesales techniques rather than postal questionnaires, concedes Robinson.
“There is a lot of selling on in marketing activity and there will be the ones who don’t stick to best practice. We hear about the conniving tactics of timeshare and double-glazing operators. It does go on and it’s difficult to stop. But blue chip clients won’t resort to that kind of thing.”
According to Pirie, the Market Research Society is keen to avoid the worst cases of companies using the guise of market research to conduct sugging campaigns by contacting trade groups and encouraging them to adopt anti-sugging clauses in their codes of conduct. This provides at least some sanction against operators tempted to sug those which value membership of their trade bodies.
The National Glass & Glazing Federation is one such group which has been able to clampdown on members who have used purported market research approaches as a crude door-opener for sales leads.
Andrew Greenyer, director of analytical services for The Database Management Group, insists that, whatever the theoretical and ethical disputes which surround the exploitation of quest- ionnaire responses, the technique will continue to grow despite fears over declining response rates and respondent fatigue.
“Blue-chip clients which are clearly branded on questionnaires will get a much better response than something sent out unbranded, using slight-of-hand techniques,” says Greenyer. “There certainly is an issue of best practice and instances of worst practice. But people are generally happy to give information to those companies which are acting responsibly.”
He adds: “In the past two years, the use of questionnaires has grown tremendously. Companies in the packaged goods and travel sectors, which haven’t previously been involved in direct marketing, are now building databases, and still need to populate their databases with information beyond names and addresses. If you haven’t got a database, you may go and buy information from lifestyle companies, or sometimes overlay their data with your own.”
But can this data, if exploited for strategic decision making rather than sales generation, ever be as good as “pure” market research? Pirie insists that market research derived from lifestyle data can never been properly representative or as rigorous compared with anonymous and properly recruited surveys. But he does concede that the sheer volume of identifiable respondents to lifestyle surveys can make them useful to recruit “unusual samples” for anonymous research.
He accepts the irony of the lack of symmetry between how the data collected by lifestyle questionnaires and market researchers can be exploited. “Lifestyle surveys are a booming business – it’s probably larger than market research. But it’s part of direct marketing,” says Pirie.
“So if you want odd samples, you might use this data as a way of finding them. You can use marketing databases for market research purposes, but you can’t do it the other way around.”