The Value of Online Research Panels: Issue of Ethical Business Activity

As we note in Part 1 of our look at online research panels, many leading marketing research organizations recruit members of research panels by using pay-to-participate appeals in online advertising. In addition to building panel membership through their own recruitment efforts, several research firms are finding participants are also being directed to their panels through the marketing activities of websites and mobile apps operated by organizations not controlled by the marketing research firm. These research intermediaries are promoted as offering a one-stop shop for locating hundreds of opportunities to take part in incentive-based online research. For their services, some of these intermediaries charge respondents a fee to establish an account before providing access to the listing of paid research opportunities.

In addition to research quality issues that may arise when compensating panels members (discussed in Part 1), ethical issues are also a concern if, at some point, people have to pay to be part of a research panel. While it may seem having people pay to be on a research panel would clearly be a breach of ethical behavior, this may not be so clear cut. Evaluating ethical behavior can be a tricky thing since what is right and wrong differs depending on such factors as nationality, culture and even industry. Because the issue is a complex one, let?s evaluate the ethics of research intermediaries in terms of commonly accepted standards in the U.S. Keep in mind things may be different in other parts of the world.

To understand the ethical issues surrounding intermediaries, it is useful to look at the Council of American Survey Research Organizations (CASRO), a trade group whose mission includes promoting ethical practices within the research industry. A scan CASRO’s Member Directory shows that it contains most of the major market research firms operating in the United States as well as many that operate internationally.

By being a member of CASRO, research companies (and others) agree to abide by the organization?s Code of Standards and Ethics. Reading this code should be a requirement of all market researchers, whether they are members of CASRO or not. The code includes information on market researchers’ responsibilities to clients and respondents. Some of the most notable statements include:

  • Information gained from respondents should not be used ?for individual marketing efforts, and that no action may be taken toward an individual participant simply because of his or her participation in the research project.?
  • Market researchers are in violation of the code if they use ?deceptive practices and misrepresentation, such as using research as a guise for sales or solicitation purposes, are expressly prohibited.?
  • In relation to research that recruits respondents or distributes surveys via email or text messaging, the code prohibits researchers ?from using any subterfuge in obtaining email addresses or mobile phone numbers of potential participants, such as collecting email addresses or mobile phone numbers from public domains, using technologies or techniques to collect email addresses or mobile phone numbers without individuals’ awareness, and collecting email addresses or mobile phone numbers under the guise of some other activity.?
  • If a researcher hires others to do the work, the research must ensure that the ?subcontractors and consultants are aware of and agree to maintain and respect participant privacy and confidentiality whenever the identity of participants or participant-identifiable information is disclosed to such entities.?

In reading these statements, as well as the rest of the code, it would seem intermediary sites are running afoul of the CASRO ethics code especially since they are making money off the participants, which appears to be a violation of the no ?individual marketing efforts? statement. Yet, there are at least two reasons why intermediary sites may not cross the line on ethical policies established by CASRO. First, these sites are not per se research sites; they are agents that bring research companies together with respondents. While their mechanism for locating respondents may be questionable since they are charging customers to participate, this itself may not necessarily be a violation of the code, especially if these sites are not violating privacy issues laid out in the code.

Second, most intermediary sites that engage in pay-to-participate methods to attract respondents are probably not members of CASRO, so technically speaking, CASRO?s ethics policy would not apply to them. This is not to suggest that these sites are not involved in unethical practices, some may be. In fact, there have been several reports in the past about such sites being spam centers through their collection of users? email addresses or, even worse, perpetrating fraud by gaining access to registrants? credit card information.

Overall, reputable intermediaries are probably not performing an unethical business activity and they may actually help in the market research process by directing qualified respondents to legitimate research panels. Consequently, the lesson for marketers looking to use research panels is to focus more attention on the quality of the panel than whether panel members were recruited through intermediary sites.