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The dangers of unconscious bias in market research.

Don’t compromise critical business decision-making.

By Michael Alborough (Founder of MAC Research).

I love change, I believe the only way to progress is with change. I mean, look at evolution; slow progress over time has taken us from hunter-gatherers to where we are today. Technology has been a big part of that change and no doubt will continue to be. I also love technology. For most of my working life, I have worked in the market research industry. I used to tell people that I don’t stand on street corners with a clipboard, but I don’t need to explain that anymore because two or more decades ago a lot of research went online; that was an amazing change, it drove the cost down, and speed increased. Market research became more accessible, everyone was a winner.

In the last few years, again the market research industry has seen probably the greatest shift since the advent of the online era with the introduction of DIY research. I have been avidly following these new technologies for the last decade or so and am fascinated to see our industry transform with this new technology, for good or bad.

When change is so rapid, companies come out of nowhere and become huge players seemingly overnight, and our industry is no exception. Qualtrics was an unknown name a few years ago, but when it was sold to SAP in 2018 for $8bn this was four times the value of Kantar, an agency that has been around (under different names) for the whole of my working life and a few decades before that.

A few client-side companies I know have abandoned the client/agency model and have brought all (or most) research in-house, transfixed by the idea of cost efficiencies and agility and being able to do more research, more effectively. Additionally, everyone who can access a computer can conduct their own market research.

What could possibly go wrong?

When we have a toothache, we don’t (fortunately) tie a piece of string to the door and extract the tooth ourselves, because change and evolution have taught us that we entrust our dental care to our dentist. Actually, there might be a whole lot more at stake than our front teeth. Why don’t we apply the same rigour to our market research? Businesses are making critical decisions based on surveys designed in-house by people who are biased (alas it is impossible to be unbiased if you work for the end client), and in some cases have never designed a market research questionnaire before or even giving it much thought. I regularly see questionnaires that make me shudder, designed (usually unintentionally) to extract results that naturally favour the author’s intended subject.

Let me give you an example. Imagine a manufacturer of vegetarian ready meals. They are going to want to know the size of their potential audience and so may ask:

Q1. Are you a vegetarian?

· Yes

· No

No, no, no, no, no. What’s wrong with this, I hear some of you ask? Well, the answer is in the question and it is therefore leading. Next, the number one rule of designing a good questionnaire is never to have any Yes/No response options, a better way to ask would be:

Q1. How would you describe your diet?

· Vegan

· Vegetarian

· Pescatarian

· Flexitarian – I am reducing/have reduced my meat consumption

· Meat eater

· Other

Each of these will yield different results, and if your critical business decision is based on bad questionnaire design, your business is one step away from a serious abscess. This is just the tip of the iceberg and questionnaire design is one of many things that can go wrong.

Four years ago, I formed MAC Research, putting these new technologies in the hands of seasoned professionals. Darwin would be proud, it was a learning evolution. Now we have a thriving company, based on the latest technology, but with experts at the controls. We deliver smarter research, smarter speed, smarter pricing and support smarter decision-making.

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