B2B Market Research Ethics: The 4 Identities – Respondent, Firm, Client, Study: B2B Market Research podcast

Sean Campbell
Authored bySean Campbell

In this podcast, we cover ethics issues unique to the B2B market research and competitive intelligence space.

Episode #103 of the B2B Market Research Podcast

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During this podcast, we cover:

  • The ethics issues unique to the B2B market research and competitive intelligence space.
  • The various codes of ethics an individual or organization needs to consider, emphasizing those of SCIP and the MRA.
  • Our own code of ethics, framed by the “Four Identities”: Respondent, Firm, Client and Study.

Thank you for listening to this episode! If you enjoyed it, please feel free to share it using the social media buttons on this page.

Speaker: Sean Campbell – CEO of Cascade Insights

[Modified Transcript]

Today, we’re going to talk about ethics.

One of the quotes that I want to start off with is this one from Potter Stewart: “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

I think that quote epitomizes the challenges people face when it comes to ethics in any kind of B2B research. There are a lot of things you could do, but there’s only a limited set of things that you actually should do. When it comes to B2B market research and competitive intelligence, some types of activities are constrained by the code of ethics that have been published by organizations such as the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) Association, the Marketing Research Association (MRA), as well as a host of other associations such as CASRO and the AMA.

Ethics is also a common topic in business, it’s a common topic in the MBA canon, and it’s a common topic in HBR — which means this topic is discussed a lot. For example, when you look at SCIP, they have even published a fairly large tome called Navigating the Gray Zone that just focuses on the intersection of ethics and competitive intelligence work.

In addition, Richard Horowitz has written a number of articles focused solely on the topic of CI ethics and the legal implications around CI work. And there have been literally thousands of articles published in a variety of marketing research journals over the years, all of which have discussed how market research teams should deal with ethical issues.

So where are the first places we should go when we’re facing ethical challenges? Or simply wanting to learn more about ethics and market research, or ethics and competitive intelligence work? Obviously we can look at individual ethics codes as published by industry associations, and I’ll be doing a little bit of that during the podcast, emphasizing the MRA’s and SCIP’s codes of ethics.

Before we do though, I want to talk about a framing for this problem that I think is really critical. That framing is what I call the “Four Identities,” and it summarizes the way we look at our own ethics code. These four identities are:

  • Respondent Identity
  • Firm Identity
  • Client Identity
  • Study Identity (or the Study’s Purpose, if you prefer to think about it that way.)

Each of these identities have a large role to play, and frankly you see each of these reflected in the various code of ethics offered by industry associations. Interestingly enough, depending on which code of ethics you look at, one or more of these identities might be more emphasized than the others — or at the least, one may be more “protected” than the others. So let’s break down the identities a little bit.

Respondent Identity: Who Are You?

What do I mean by respondent identity? Well, respondent identity is essentially a fairly simple concept. If you’ve participated in any kind of research — competitive intelligence or B2B market research — you’ve obviously faced the issue of respondent identity.

For example, you might want to give your opinion, but you don’t necessarily want to be contacted directly by name after giving your opinion. You don’t want a research study to turn into kind of a veiled sales pitch, where you’re contacted immediately afterwards by a sales team member. You want your identity protected, and this is something that’s been done for a number of years. So what does identity protection mean? To some degree, that’s based on the study and some of the agreements that are made beforehand.

As an organization, you may commit to your clients to provide information about the sectors, meaning the industry groupings or verticals that interviewees relate to. You may give them titles about individual interviewees, but at some point you don’t give them enough information that they can personally identify the interviewee.

This first piece presents some interesting challenges, particularly when it comes to competitive intelligence work. The challenges you might face in soliciting information if you were to interview someone saying you are a competitive intelligence firm are frankly a little different than if you say you’re conducting B2B market research.

I think there’s a general difference of opinion in an interviewee’s mind about the activities that a competitive intelligence firm engages in versus those a B2B market research firm. Given we do both types of activities, it’s always been interesting for us to notice how respondents vary in their reactions to us, depending on the type of research activities we’re conducting. So what does the code of ethics say? Both the MRA and the SCIP code of ethics clearly state that you need to accurately disclose your own identity prior to conducting any research activities.

Interestingly enough, the SCIP code of ethics is a little bit behind the times in that it talks about doing this prior to conducting all interviews. Unfortunately, I think this leaves a gaping hole when it comes to any kind of internet or social media activities in the mix.

That said, as a matter of practice we accurately disclose our firm’s identity in any kind of activity — whether it is digitally focused, whether it’s interviews with individuals, or really anything. It’s important to know that the actual SCIP code of ethics doesn’t expressly call that out. Now, the MRA actually has some fairly extensive commentary on this, not only in their primary code of ethics document but in an ancillary document that goes in depth, defining how you should interact with respondents when you’re connecting with them over the internet.

The Firm’s Identity: Who is that Researcher Behind the Curtain?

This firm identity issue is really the second identity and it becomes a fairly important issue to address. Obviously blind research has been done for a number of years and sometimes respondents are not going to participate in a study if it is unclear to them who the actual sponsor is.

They may have a clear understanding of who the research organization is, but if they don’t know what the actual sponsoring organization is — who’s paying the bills so to speak — they may not participate. That’s perfectly fine; you need to give them the ability to opt out in that regard. This affects both competitive intelligence research and B2B market research.

The Client Identity: How and When to Divulge the Study’s Sponsor

You need to be clear at the start of every study about this key point, “Do I have the ability to disclose my client as the sponsor of the study?” Frankly, this can have a positive or negative effect, and this type of disclosure can be used in a blended fashion as well. You may conduct interviews where you don’t disclose your client at the start, but you disclose them toward the end to obtain a reaction from the interviewee about how they feel about the organization that’s sponsoring the research.

Of course you don’t mention that sponsorship right up front in case it forces the interviewee into a certain line of thought, but you can disclose it later in the interview if you have the opportunity to do so. To take a simple, straightforward example in the tablet market, today there are a few different tablet choices you can make beyond the iPad. I’m an iPad fan myself — but if you were an organization that wanted to birth an iPad competitor, you might have wanted to ask iPad users, “What do you think about your device?” And if you say that you’re calling on behalf of a organization that isn’t Apple (ex. Microsoft, Google, Samsung, etc.), that disclosure alone may quickly color how the interviewee is going to respond to your questions.  In that they might start giving advice vs. giving their insights about their actual iPad usage. In sum, they may try to provide suggestions and advice for the sponsoring organization, when what you really wanted to get at is, “Why do you use an iPad in an educational or business context and how do you use it?”

This is a sticky area to navigate, but the process starts from having a clear discussion with your client about the following: “Do you want to be identified as the sponsor of the study, and if you do, in what way?”

The Study’s Identity: “Do No Harm”

The final identity to address is the study’s identity (or the study’s purpose). This gets into an issue that has shown up in market research ethics for a number of years, a theme which you could summarize as “do no harm.”

I think the problem that even that short summary presents, is that in any complex B2B marketplace that you might be investigating, there are going to be winners and losers. Hence if you are researching a given area on behalf of the competing organization or a competing product (ex. Google looking at the behavior and usage patterns of iPad users), I think the definition of “do no harm” becomes somewhat interesting.  Because those iPad “fans” might not want to “help” Google do their research – if they knew Google was the sponsoring organization – because they want the iPad to succeed per se. Given they are a “fan” of the iPad.

Considering this type of dynamic is ever present, I think where most B2B Market Researchers and competitive intelligence teams  move to is the following understanding – “We’re trying to provide the market a better set of services and products. And we’re working to educate our clients on what’s out there in the marketplace in an ethical fashion.”

In the end, all consumers and respondents, whether they’re on the business side or the consumer side, win by having better products and more efficient products in the marketplace. And I think that’s a fair way to look at it.

In sum, you’ve got four identities here — respondent identity, firm identity, client identity and the study’s identity — and all of these have to taken into account when you’re conducting research efforts.

Finally, the four identities are something that we’ll be dealing with for a long time to come. Hence it’s important to fully understand the various codes of ethics that are out there, not just the MRA’s and SCIP’s, but also other ones from CASRO.

And of course, you need to fully understand your company’s own legal counsel when it comes to these kinds of issues.

With that, we’re going to wrap up this episode. If you have any questions about the podcast at all feel free to email me at sean@cascadeinsights.com, and don’t forget to check out transcripts from past podcasts, our eBooks, and a host of other free resources available on our site.

Thanks for listening, and hope to have you along for the next episode.

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