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ESOMAR Online Research – a conference review

Last year, ESOMAR decided to replace its online research conference with a conference solely dedicated to online research. The program included a nice mix of traditional research into quality and reliability of online panels, along with the adoption of social media in market research. Moreover, I also presented a paper on a new methodology called social media nethnography together with Emilie Van den Bergh from RTL Nederland. Hungry for new insights and curious to see what people thought of our contribution, I headed for Chicago…

  • C from communities

Research communities were probably the most discussed topic at the conference. Ray Poynter did a great job at illustrating that the industry still has a long way to go. By looking at the respondent experience and evaluation of research participants using this new type of research tool, he demonstrated that online research communities are generally not as enjoyable and fulfilling as focus groups and not as convenient as online surveys. The most used application of online communities was co-creating. Two approaches were presented: on the one hand, Volker Bilgram brought a case study about Swarovski where they challenged research participants to come up with a new design for a watch with diamonds. In a second round, consumers could vote on the different concepts. Thewinning idea was produced as a prototype. A second approach was presented by Darren Lewis and Koen van der Mal: they took a more traditional qualitative approach to co-creation where they stimulated idea generation by making use of projective and creative techniques.

  • H from Hybrid researcher

A recurrent theme in many speeches and discussions was the need for education and training in the industry. Boundaries between qualitative and quantitative research are blurring. We need guidelines for analyzing visuals and multimedia in an efficient way. The gap between researchers who adopt social media in their toolbox and those who do not is becoming bigger. I was able to experience the need for more information about our industry myself in the Q&A after our presentation where I was quite overwhelmed by questions about text analytics and web scraping technology. Researchers increasingly need to expand their skill set and knowledge: the future is clearly in the direction of the hybrid research!

  • I from Implicit measurement

Market research is starting to realize that not all behavior is rational. This growing awareness is translated in two trends: first of all researchers are looking into emotions. Secondly, biometrics provides us with new information about what we look at (eye tracking) and what engages us (arousal, heart rate, motion and breathing).

  • C from codes

A substantial part of the conference was dedicated to ethical codes for online research. ESOMAR, ARF and ISO presented their ethical guidelines. A couple of important points were made: With the increasing adoption of social media tools in our profession, the danger exists that those tools will also be used as advertising channels to research participants. Therefore, a first important distinction between marketing and market research was put forward. Secondly, nowadays technology makes it possible to track consumers by installing cookies and other web tracking devices without the knowledge of research participants. The informed consent principle is in this case in danger. Finally, there are also guidelines under development for panel experience in order to maintain the quality of our data.

  • A from Authenticity

Authenticity is a real buzz word and this was not different at this conference. A first context where it popped up was in sampling: there is an increasing interest in sampling through social media. People however often take a different identity online. As a result, consumers who do not fit the profile can enter one’s sample or the quality of the data can be altered to the different identity. According to the people from Facebook and LinkedIn, the way to go is social networks. Because the aim of social networks is to connect with friends, there is no point in having a fake ID. A second context where authenticity comes in to place is in social media netnography. In order to place studies that are based on user-generated content into context, we must know more about the creator of the post. A first attempt for the blogosphere was given by Josephine Hansom. Based on qualitative research, she identified three types of bloggers: people who use blogs to work through their own ideas, people who blog for a large public and people who blog about a niche topic only. In the future, we should not only expand this profiling but also try to identify detectors of the different profiles by looking at the vocabulary they use in posts.

  • G from on the GO research

On the last day, a full session was dedicated to mobile research. Mobile phones are nothing other than a new channel to communicate between research participant and researcher. The simplest form is simply text sms: the researcher sends a question and the participant texts the answer back. A second form is flash surveys. The challenge here is to adapt the look,feel and type of questioning to mobile phone devices. The more advanced version of flash surveys are widgets. One last application that seems particularly interesting is interactive voice response: participants are invited to give the answer orally. Since this usage is not bounded to the size of the mobile phone screen and with the evolution in speech capturing techniques, I believe this will be the future!

  • O from observation

As I said at the beginning of my post, we presented a paper on social media nethnography. With the aid of a case study on X-Factor, we demonstrated how we can make use of user-generated-content to answer a certain research question (in this case, what do people think of the television program X-Factor?) It is of course difficult to judge your own work objectively but looking at the vast amount of positive reactions and questions about how exactly to conduct social media netnography, I can at least say that we were able to put this new research paradigm on the research map. Although many research companies are incorporating social media tools into their research designs, only a few companies are really doing something with the content. I am therefore especially happy that we were able to trigger other researchers to help fine-tune the methodology of social media netnography. As I said in one of the last slides of my presentation, we have many challenges ahead:

– How to communicate optimally with our clients in a research paradigm where there is often no real research question to answer.
– Further thinking about the sampling procedure, ethical guidelines, data collection and framework development should be encouraged
– How will we deal with the new set of research skills where the boundaries between quantitative and qualitative information are disappearing?
– What about representativity when you have thousands posts but no profile information?


Chicago is often called the windy city and looking back at the conference, it is clear that a fresh breeze has entered the online research landscape! Chicago is also the hometown of Obama and therefore interconnected with the concept of change. The Esomar online research conference 2009 demonstrated that market research will need to change to take research even more forward! Looking at the presentation and discussion of the last couple of days, I am confident to say: yes, we can!

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