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Online samples – where lighting a few fires might help

flame on a struck matchIn Greek mythology, it was Prometheus who stole the secret of fire from Zeus and gave it to humankind. The new non-profit organisation being launched by rival research giants GfK and Kantar to address industry-wide concerns about the online survey quality, seems to make a nod to the myth in its chosen name, the Promedius Group.

The industry’s concerns about online research are many and various, but a common complaint is the lack of transparency of sample providers in the composition of their samples and the extent to which these overlap. It’s worrying enough that, as response rates dwindle, research firms are probably already relying on less than 20% of the population to answer more than 80% of their surveys. But what if it is the hyperactive 0.1% of the population that turn out to be answering 10%, or 20%, as some fear, turning survey data into junk? Without the vantage point of the gods, no-one can really tell what is happening.

Good research is always a balance of art, craft and science. The risk is that if survey results are no longer generally reproduceable, any claims to scientific validity are lost. Those that spend the big money in research, like General Mills and P&G, have noticed this, and are highly likely to start putting their money in consumer intelligence gathering elsewhere unless research can be made more accountable again.

The solution is staring at us from the problem. There is a vast trail of data that can be associated with every web-based interaction – put it all together and it becomes possible to pinpoint individuals and identify, within reasonable probabilities, that they do seem to be taking 20 surveys a day, or that they are very unlikely to be a gynaecologist because the digital wake emanating from the same PC speaks more of college student. Getting at this data, however, is much more difficult. If you are a big player, with a large volume of interactions, you can do this – but even the industry’s own demi-gods face a major hindrance, in that most of the panel providers don’t reveal the key information you need to start putting this information together, like respondent IDs or IP addresses.

Promedius will, it appears, be making use of a lot of technology to match data and perform checks on data, and they will be making this technology available for other research companies to use. This is welcome news, as the problem has been proving too big for anyone to solve on their own. There are already commercial services – MarketTools’ Truesample and Peanut Lab’s Optimus to name two – and these have gained some traction. They also add cost, and are restricted to some extent by only ever showing part of the picture – from those samples and providers that have opted in.

With three major players backing this initiative (IPSOS were involved in the development of the technology behind Promedius) it is likely that it will have the critical mass that is needed for it to become established. What the technology does, and how affordable and convenient that is (the announcements do not say that this will be offered to the industry for free) remains to be seen. I’ll be looking to secure a software review as soon as it becomes available. But there is a good chance that Promedius will be putting fire into the hands of the people, as far as panel and online survey transparency is concerned.

Hopefully Promedius will enjoy a better fate than its near namesake, who after several other skirmishes, found himself bound to a rock by the vengeful Zeus, with an eagle visiting him every day into eternity to peck away his liver.