The Grouse and Claret Pub in London’s Belgravia is not a common haunt of In Brief’s editor. Indeed, I probably wouldn’t have set foot in the door if it hadn’t been for a random phone call from Silver Dialogue’s Nicola Stanley, an AQR member.

She alerted me to a debate, part-sponsored by the Association of Survey Companies (ASC) and the Market Research Society (MRS), at the pub one evening in January. The motion up for debate? ‘This house deplores the rise of DIY research software that has the potential to damage the professional market research industry.’

Now, on the face of it, this is a very quant-oriented issue. But as I spoke to Nicola about her proposed speech, the issues around it suddenly seemed to be more wide ranging. Was it just a case of the big software manufacturers — and the big research houses — being worried about cowboy operators, or was there a deeper fear that clients were — like Annie Lennox — increasingly ‘doing it for themselves’?

Setting the scene

So it was that, having got incredibly lost, I arrived at the pub just before the start. The chair, a certain A.J. Johnson, set the scene and encouraged everyone present to text a mobile number he read out, so that at the end they could vote on the motion. “Attempting to vote,” he said, “is in itself a type of research.” So it proved, but more of that later.

Before he introduced Ipsos MORI’s Greg Smith, who proposed the motion, he set the scene, talking about the proliferation of new budget software. He also tweaked the motion slightly: it wasn’t so much the existence of DIY software but the fact that, perish the thought, clients might use it themselves.

But on to Greg, who delivered an entertaining, and what he called ‘burbling’, monologue about the dangers of DIY software, prefacing his comments by saying that they were entirely personal. Never, he said, had there been a time when we had been able to vote — and produce research — in so many different ways, from the red buttons on our TV to texting.This has led to a culture of button pressing and form filling, and might itself have damaged the reputation of the industry.

“As professionals,” he said, “we have a duty to protect our clients, ourselves, but most importantly all the users of research, particularly respondents.” He warned that “the technology and the software that drives the research processes is, in the wrong hands, like putting a loaded gun into the hands of a three- year-old. We fall into a trap if we let this proliferate and go on.”

Potential damage

In the long term, he mused, it could damage the industry’s professional standing. Emotive stuff, but what caught my ear was his reflection that maybe it was not so much the software at fault, but the lack of any guidelines from industry bodies as to how and where it should be used. Indeed, should it be used by people who aren’t market researchers?

Peter Wills from Snap Surveys then offered a spirited response. He outlined how technology had progressed, and the growing take-up of DIY software. He also described the financial pressure on clients, who increasingly want bigger bangs for their bucks, and their frustration at having to use software like Word and Excel if they don’t have access to more sophisticated products.

Third up was Steve Taylor from Inputech, who stepped in at the ‘nth hour following a last minute cancellation, and was so caught up in his argument that he overran his allotted time. He told horror stories about cowboys that would have had Roy Rogers handing in his spurs. Tales of incorrect data collection, of badly integrated data, interspersed with data that can’t be collected by hand — frequently leading to situations where the poor researcher has to pick up the pieces.

Finally, Nicola took the floor. In contrast to the other three speakers, she talked of her experiences on both sides of the fence: as a client and as an independent researcher. Her business, she claimed, would never have been able to grow as it has without DIY software.

The client’s view

She also put forward the client’s view. What do they want? Firstly, speed. DIY software enables her to talk over the phone with them while simultaneously inserting changes to a survey or producing additional cross-tabs.

Then there’s no ‘toing and froing’. She’s able to just press a few keys and then email the revisions to the client — thus streamlining the whole process. Her clients, meanwhile, might just as easily be independent consultants or research agencies who wish to interact with the survey data themselves, possibly using the results in a final presentation for their end-client.

Her impassioned defence of DIY software — how it has enabled her company to deliver a professional and responsive multimodal survey capability to clients, and empowered them to interact with data at no additional cost — attracted loud applause and signalled the start of some fascinating questions.

But as the smell from the overloaded buffet table became overwhelming, and the evening drew to a close, I had to leave (the bass guitarist from my jazz band was playing on the other side of town and we were off to provide moral support).

A little bird tells me that after I left there were a few problems with the voting technology, although pre and post-voting showed a moderate swing against the motion. The final number? Victory for the opposition, 52% to 48%.

I wonder how the debate would have gone if repeated in a more ‘qualitative’ environment?