Ah the relentless, onward march of Technology! It seems only yesterday that I was guiding Manic Miner around his lethal mine on my ZX Spectrum and now I can¹t move for kids looking after virtual puppies on their Nintendo DS.

And as at home, so at work; when I first started working in Field, respondent databases were card index files, then as computers became cheaper those card indexes became Excel spreadsheets. Phone fell before fax and then fax succumbed to email. The wheel of technology turned and the industry moved on.

Now that we have cheap internet and easy build websites, recruitment has taken the next and logical step and we have the relatively new phenomenon of recruiters advertising for respondents online on their own websites. You may be unaware of these sites. Essentially they are an online notice board, the recruiter posts details of groups coming up and those respondents interested in any of the subjects listed can then email the recruiter and register their interest with a view to taking part.

While these sites are to be broadly encouraged it is important that we as field managers and buyers of field services police them quite strictly that they don¹t endanger the integrity of our research projects. You may think that this is a small issue but consider this level of detail taken from a recent ad posted on one such website (name withheld to prevent a trip down The Strand with our learned friends):

  • Date and time of each group
  • W1 (which would narrow it down to two or three studios)
  • That the subject was a specific type of spirit (specified in the ad)
  • Gender of respondents
  • Age of respondents
  • They should drink spirits as their drink of choice
  • How often they should drink this specific type of spirit
  • Where they should drink it
  • What brand of this specific type they should drink
  • A need for the respondents to know about this specific type of spirit and its market

Now I¹m prepared to accept that this listing was posted in good faith as a way to get respondents to attend, although I appreciate that it is open to a less charitable interpretation.

Whatever the motive, however, this is, in essence, a blueprint for a professional respondent to gain access to these groups. What is far worse is that the level of detail included in this ad was enough to be of use to a far more insidious new breed of fraudulent respondent, namely the professional con artist.

Recently I had a group happening at a central London studio. A respondent arrived, signed for his incentive and then remembered he¹d left his mobile in his car. Needless to say we never saw him or my £50 again.

Just by knowing that the groups were to happen in W1 a determined con artist would be able to work out which studio it was by simply phoning round the three or four studios in the area, claim to be running late for the drinks group and immediately get confirmation as to whether or not there were drinks groups happening there that evening. Then all that would be needed would be to turn up. If there is a respondent list then they simply say they were asked to take part at the last minute to replace a drop out, if there isn¹t a list then so much the better.

Sound fanciful? Well don¹t forget that they¹ll fit the age and gender profile as they¹ll have read it online. They¹ll know the subject of the research. They¹ll know there are spirit groups happening there that evening. Heavens, they¹ll even know who was recruiting the group. What¹s not to believe?

So what do we, as an industry, do? Reach for the flaming torches and the pitchforks and demand the immediate destruction of these websites? Well, no, not really. As I say, sites like these are to be broadly encouraged but we should know if our recruiters intend to advertise for respondents on such websites and the only way we will know is if we ask them.

If the recruiter does intend to advertise there, then it¹s up to us to specify what can and what can¹t be revealed. For pity¹s sake, we don¹t spend days refining the recruitment questionnaire to ensure that the subject of the group is as hidden as possible only for the whole thing to be blown open on a website.

I would recommend that the very minimum of detail should be advertised along these lines:

  • Date
  • London area
  • Alcoholic drinks

I wouldn¹t even advertise the age or gender that are required, as a 31-year-old who is after the money would simply claim they were 35 if it meant they stood a better chance of getting into the group.

In addition to specifying what can go on the website we should be taking far greater steps to attempt to ensure these people are who they say they are. As these sites grow in number then the temptation for respondents to invent aliases and register free yahoo or hotmail accounts will increase.

Though not foolproof we can start to insist that those respondents recruited via these sites bring some official ID with them to the group, be it a photo driver¹s licence or a passport. It is worth noting that the majority of these sites advertise for groups that are held in viewing facilities, rather than in home, so the recruiter never meets these respondents. They really could be anybody.

As ever with field, there are no easy answers. On the one hand recruitment websites should be a great idea but on the other there are fundamental questions which need to be addressed about getting the respondents to come to us rather than us going to them. What is important is that we start to play a central role in the development and policing of these sites.

Otherwise we could be holding the doors wide open for a whole new generation of professional respondents.