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Market Research: When a Stranger Calls

July 5, 2011

Market Research is an indispensable tool for finding out what goods and services people actually buy and use.  Many of my clients depend on well-conducted market research to help make their business decisions.  I, therefore, participate enthusiastically when I have something to say about a company.  Just ask the good folks at Lucerne (makers of yummy dairy products for Safeway) or any of my small local theaters how thoroughly I answer their questions.  I do not, however, trust telephone surveys and after a recent experience I like them even less.

Somehow my unlisted phone number was randomly selected by Scarborough Research, a nationwide media research company that gathers information on radio, newspaper and TV preferences.  As a research firm, they do not have to abide by the terms of the FTC’s Do Not Call list and were entitled to ask me to participate in their survey.  But they continued to call me —  usually at dinner or bedtime — even after I told them 1) I do not participate in telephone surveys and they should remove me from their list.  2) I work in media and do not feel comfortable answering surveys about my industry and they should remove me from their list.  3) They were disturbing me by calling during dinner/at bedtime and they should remove me from their list.  4) They should attempt to do something biologically impossible while simultaneously removing me from their list!!!

The final straw was having an interviewer tell me that the calls could stop if I completed their survey.  My answers might trigger my removal from the list, she claimed.  It seemed impossible to me that this technique could be a valuable tool for securing statistically reliable information.  I understood that I was potentially a typical sample of the households in my neighborhood, but it should have been clear from my reaction that there was little chance I’d give my honest opinion, much less represent others.

In desperation, I contacted the Council of American Survey Research Organizations, CASRO, for help.  Their policy is clear. Respondents to survey research should be:

a.  willing participants in survey research;
b. appropriately informed about the survey’s intentions and how their personal information and survey responses will be used and protected;
c.  sufficiently satisfied with their survey experience;
d.  willing to participate again in survey research.

Since I was obviously none of the above, CASRO followed through promptly and thoroughly.  My name and number were removed from Scarborough’s database.   A week later, I received a follow-up from the Better Business Bureau that included a letter to me from Scarborough Research. The new piece of information it contained was that the interviewers who had called were not permitted to touch the database.  When I had asked them to remove me from the list, they literally couldn’t.  As my favorite market researcher Jean Durall put it, “I’m sure it makes sense that interviewers (who come and go) should not have access to the sample lists.  But, it does not make sense that there is no procedure for reporting issues that come up in the interview.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

My thoughts exactly.  It is my sincere hope that the leadership at Scarborough Research will review their procedures so that they tap only willing representative households and get a clear vision of viewing, reading and listening habits.  Otherwise, they are in danger of collecting garbage data created by busy people who just want to be let off the phone.  If my neighbors claim they all want to drop USA Network (a personal fav), I’ll have no one to blame but myself.  Frankly, I’m just relieved that dinnertime is mine again.   There’s some Lucerne sharp cheddar calling my name.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2011 11:10 am

    What a nightmare Cathy. It does seem ridiculous that you can’t simply request to be put on the “do not call” list and not have to worry about it again. Your diligence and persistence is admirable – I’m glad you were able to solve the issue. And somewhere hopefully the company (and market research industry) will look for ways to improve the system.

    • July 6, 2011 1:07 pm

      Thanks, David. I was motivated to resolve the issue because I really want to see fruitful research conducted on behalf of the entertainment industry. As I’ve mentioned a few times, it’s getting more difficult to figure out who is watching what. If they improve their internal communication, Scarborough may be able to become part of the solution. Here’s hoping that comes to pass.

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