Web research needs its own trade group

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Having examined Dennis Gonier's Forum article "Fractionalization imperils market research groups" (AA, June 12), I am puzzled why Mr. Gonier [president-CEO of America Online Digital Marketing, and a director of the Council of American Survey Research Organizations] is taking such a strong stand against an effort to promote education and self-regulation within the online research industry. If, as he contends, adequate industry representation and leadership exists, then he is missing the tidal wave of uninformed and outrageous misuse of the Web as a "research" medium.

The newly launched Interactive Marketing Research Organization (the target of Dennis' ire) is dedicated to creation of ethical and best practices standards for research being done on the Internet. It is a coalition of professionals from leading research agencies, corporate research departments and academia. Board members include representatives from Audits & Surveys Worldwide, Dell Computer Corp., Greenfield Online, IBM.com, Intel Corp., InterSurvey, King Brown & Associates, Market Facts, Media Metrix, Modalis Research Technologies, Morpace, Motorola, NFO Interactive, NPD, Time Warner, Touchstone Research and Ziment. Several members from the academic community soon will be named to the board.

CAUSED BY NEWCOMERS

The discourteous and problematic behavior being observed on the Web is largely being exhibited by newcomers to Web research who simply are unaware of the differences between Web culture and traditional (particularly phone-based) survey culture.

Things such as random digit dialing, purchased lists of target respondents and collecting names of potential respondents at events and meetings are long-established phone survey customs that have no Web counterparts. Analogous activities on the Web would be highly offensive and considered violations of privacy.

Unsolicited contact (spam) is not an ethical form of recruitment. These differences are tripping people up as they experiment with Web-based surveying and could result in loss of Internet access (because they are violations of ISP service contracts).

LEADERSHIP

The online research industry (research agencies, client companies, academic organizations and tool providers) is clamoring for leadership in this area. Since the announcement of IMRO's formation, there's been a rush to request more information on participating in our discussion forum. Our board is organizing committees, educational programs, alliances, community outreach and other activities -- all of which deal with online research challenges.

Most international groups with research-related components realize their broad mandate, diversity of membership and the speed of change in this industry do not allow them to tackle these issues in a timely fashion. The American Marketing Association and Advertising Research Foundation have already said they wish to work with IMRO as a special interest group focused on these matters.

With the outpouring of support, why is Mr. Gonier opposed to this activity? What group or groups is he referring to when he suggests significant progress is being made on establishing standards and codes of ethics? If it is the Council of American Survey Research Organizations, then he is being seriously misled as to the progress being made.

I was on CASRO's Internet subcommittee beginning four years ago. After helping to write the fre- quently asked questions on Internet research and other "best practices" documents -- nothing happened. For two years, our committee met, prepared suggestions, gave presentations, etc. With absolutely no tangible evidence of a well-developed policy even being considered, our company left that organization.

TW0 YEARS LATER

It is now two years later. CASRO has issued a well meaning but vague policy statement. A published statement from

CASRO's director, Diane Bowers, describes this lengthy progress as "really foresight, not slow thinking."

Whatever you call it, four years to create anything for the Internet is out of touch with the rate at which the industry is changing. Even now this policy is not final. "A draft of the standards has been sent out to members for comment, and they will vote on them sometime this year," says Mel Rothstein, CASRO's chairman.

The basic problem with working with CASRO may also have more to do with the groups that form CASRO's key decision-making block. The "background and explanation" section of CASRO's policy paper states: "There is a core concern on the part of some members that such specialized [Internet research] standards would be interpreted as legitimizing the online research process and that such due credit was premature." The reticence even to acknowledge the permanence of Internet research as a field says more about why CASRO can't act than any other fact.

As founding members of IMRO will attest, more progress was made in one day in Chicago on establishing a credo for ethical online research sampling and recruitment than has ever come out of CASRO or is expected to.

TOUGH CODE

The IMRO code of ethics is tough. It says a lot of short cuts that make online research cheap are not ethical. It offends some agencies that are, to quote one IMRO board member, "poisoning the well" of Internet respondent goodwill. Therefore there will be some research entities that will not be interested in adopting this code as their standard of research ethics. Since I sincerely believe this doesn't apply to Dennis Gonier or AOL/DMS, what's the problem?

No one wants to re-engineer a working system. But when the train is rushing down the track, a new engineer is better than none. Instead of worrying about what might be duplicated effort, why don't Dennis Gonier and AOL/DMS pull a seat up to the table and participate in the IMRO conversation. I think they would find it stimulating, worthwhile and of great interest to the other organizations within which they are currently working.

Mr. MacElroy is president, Modalis Research Technologies (formerly Socratic Technologies), San Francisco, and president, Interactive Marketing Research Organization (imro.org).

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