Could our attitude toward marketing determine our field’s future?

In our office, we call it the “cocktail party question:” What do you do for a living? For those of us who work in the area of survey research, this can be a particularly difficult question to answer. Not only do people rarely know much about our work, but they rarely have a great deal of interest in it. I like to think of myself as a survey methodologist, but it is easier in social situations to discuss the focus of my research than my passion for methodology. I work at the American Institute of Physics, so I describe my work as “studying people who study physics.” Usually this description is greeted with an uncomfortable laugh, and the conversation progresses elsewhere. Score!

But the wider lack of understanding of survey research can have larger implications than simply awkward social situations. It can also cause tension with clients who don’t understand our work, our process, or where and how we add expertise to the process. Toward this end, I once wrote a guide for working with clients that separated out each stage in the survey process and detailed what expertise the researcher brings to the stage and what expertise we need from the client. I hoped that it would be a way of both separating and affirming the roles of client and researcher and advertising our firm and our field. I have not ye had the opportunity to use this piece, because of the nature of my current projects, but I’d be happy to share it with anyone who is interested in using or adapting it.

I think about that piece often as I see more talk about big data and social media analysis. Data seems to be everywhere and free, and I wonder what affect this buzz will have on a body of research consumers who might not have respected the role of the researchers from the get-go. We worried when Survey Monkey and other automated survey tools came along, but the current bevvy of tools and attitudes could have an exponentially larger impact on our practice.

Survey researchers often thumb their nose at advertising, despite the heavy methodological overlap. Oftentimes there is a knee-jerk reaction against marketing speak. Not only do survey methodologists often thumb their/our noses at the goal and importance of advertising, but they/we often thumb their/our nose at what appears to be evidence of less rigorous methodology. This has led us to a ridiculous point where data and analyses have evolved quickly with the demand and heavy use of advertising and market researchers and evolved strikingly little in more traditional survey areas, like polling and educational research. Much of the rhetoric about social media analysis, text analysis, social network analysis and big data is directed at the marketing and advertising crowd. Translating it to a wider research context and communicating it to a field that is often not eager to adapt to it can be difficult. And yet the exchange of ideas between the sister fields has never been more crucial to our mutual survival and relevance.

One of the goals of this blog has been to approach the changing landscape of research from a methodologically sound, interdisciplinary perspective that doesn’t suffer from the artificial walls and divisions. As I’ve worked on the blog, my own research methodology has evolved considerably. I’m relying more heavily on mixed methods and trying to use and integrate different tools into my work. I’ve learned quite a bit from researchers with a wide variety of backgrounds, and I often feel like I’m belted into a car with the windows down, hurtling down the highways of progress at top speed and trying to control the airflow. And then I often glimpse other survey researchers out the window, driving slowly, sensibly along the access road alongside the highway. I wonder if my mentors feel the change of landscape as viscerally as I do. I wonder how to carry forward the anchors and quality controls that led to such high quality research in the survey realm. I wonder about the future. And the present. About who’s driving, and who in what car is talking to who? Using what gps?

Mostly I wonder: could our negative attitude toward advertising and market research drive us right into obscurity? Are we too quick to misjudge the magnitude of the changes afoot?


This post is meant to be provocative, and I hope it inspires some good conversation.


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