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Confidentiality in market research: Anonymity and why it’s important

Posted on by nanda

Confidentiality in market research: To be or not to be … anonymous.

When interviewing, maintaining anonymity of participants can be a contentious issue.  Here we outline when and why confidentiality in market research is important.

For a lot of consumer research, finding out exactly whether it’s Mabel in Mablethorpe or Bill in Bilton who feels a certain way about a product is immaterial.  What most clients really want to know is the kind of person who loves their brand, may buy their new product or will be the highest spenders, etc, eg: ‘working women over 40 who dislike cleaning’.  So it’s the profile of different audiences that can be of interest, not the actual names of respondents.

Yet business-to-business research can be different.  Especially in cases where a company has a small number of valued clients and wants to understand their views on a new product or service, they are often dying to know exactly who said what.  This can be for reasons such as:

  • The natural instinct to be defensive about negative feedback, eg: ‘I bet it’s Joe Bloggs who was so damning, but it’s not my fault, it’s only because we’ve stopped giving him a discount’
  • A wish to try and put it right if they’ve had criticism about poor service, product quality, etc
  • A temptation to follow up with a sales call if reaction to a new idea is particularly positive

In such cases researchers need to be really clear up front with clients about the rules around anonymity, and indeed the benefits, in order to manage expectations.  (This is especially true for companies that are not used to buying research and might assume there is no issue with naming names.)

Allowing respondents to speak in complete confidence to a market researcher has the following advantages:

  • It can enable them to speak openly and frankly about issues they face when they may not do so otherwise.  For example customers may tend to deal with the same sales reps and find them far too pushy and not good at listening.  Yet customers may find it incredibly difficult to state this openly when interviewed, knowing they have to face those reps every week.  Conversely, allowing them to speak in confidence, the client might learn some valuable lessons about the sales culture that might not otherwise have been forthcoming
  • Some information can be highly political or sensitive and while a respondent may be happy for a researcher to report an unattributed comment such as ‘I think the market is tough for delivery firms right now’ they would not want it to be widely known that ‘We, Company X, are struggling’
  • Others can be concerned that a report with their name on may be taken out of context or end up being made public and portrayed as the official view of the whole firm, when it’s only their personal opinion
  • Anonymity can improve participation rates, as some will not want to take part if they are to be named, yet find the chance to get things off their chest confidentially quite therapeutic!
  • Optimum response rates can be especially important if the pool of participants is limited – one would not want to risk lots of refusals and start running out of names, so anything that minimizes this hurdle is helpful
  • Some can be suspicious about research being a thinly disguised sales call.  Allaying these fears by explaining that they will not be named personally can put them much more at ease

So for all sorts of reasons, anonymity can yield far better results and is normally the favoured option.  It’s also worth explaining to clients that surely the key aim of the study is to gain overall understanding, learn how to improve a product or service, etc, not to get too hung up on exactly who said what.

If they are adamant that they would like results attributed to individuals, there are some ways to try and keep everyone happy, including:

  • Keeping anonymity as the default, but explaining to the client that if a respondent does flag a major issue, you’ll ask if you can identify them and relay their concerns back, so that someone can get in touch and try to resolve the problem
  • Explaining to participants that you would ideally like permission to attribute their answers, but will respect their wishes if they prefer not to.  Saying: ‘We can decide at the end if, after everything you’ve said, you’d like the interview anonymised’ can be enough to get them to relax and open up, knowing that you will honour their instructions afterwards, either way
  • Offering a part solution, eg saying: ‘If, at the end, you would like certain comments kept off the record’ can also help, as often people are happy for the bulk of what they say to be attributed, but may have made just a few inflammatory comments that they wish kept anonymous
  • Giving the client reassurance that you will provide some context to comments made, eg that you will not just report: ‘Your clients said X’, but that ‘large IT firms tend to think X’ or ‘those who have regular contact with you feel most aggrieved’, such that feedback is meaningful

Despite these workarounds, handling confidentiality does still need the utmost care.  For example, if the pool of participants is quite small and some are named and some not, it’s vital to mask responses in such a way that it’s not obvious who said what by process of elimination, eg: “IT firm X said this.  We only interviewed two IT firms and firm Y were happy to be identified, so it must be Joe Bloggs Co.”

To be or not to be anonymous – this can be quite a hot potato requiring a lot of up front consideration to ensure clients feel you have their interests at heart, yet respondents also feel valued, respected and positive about contributing if asked again.  The Market Research Society Code of Conduct provides further guidance, but hopefully these practical tips from a hands-on practitioner will also allow you to feel better armed and enable you to keep everyone happy!

© Nanda Marchant – added insight ltd – March 2015

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