Our society sends out mixed signals about its attitudes to personal data. There is widespread consternation about high profile breaches of security and the consequent risk of identity theft. On the other hand social networking sites are enjoying exponential growth fuelled by the desire of the individual to connect using the medium of personal data transfer. Famous for five minutes has been well and truly eclipsed.

In a service economy personal data is a key commercial asset. Leveraging it effectively can provide an intelligent personalised service to individuals. Recent qualitative research for the Information Commission by Oliver Murphy of Diagnostics (entitled A Surveillance Society) confirms that the relevance of the approach is key. Many customers welcome tailored communications from companies they enjoy doing business with. What they do not like is non-personalised junk mail, cold calling and spam. Such tactics are seen as intrusive and time wasting.

Key weapon

Qualitative research is arguably the key weapon in the research industry's arsenal when it comes to exploiting an understanding of highly personal data. We shall need to remain vigilant about its security. Yet our discipline has long understood the basic principles of encouraging willing engagement from the individual.

Face-to-face recruitment sets up the basis of a relationship. A recruitment questionnaire screens out those for whom the research is not relevant. Safeguarding respondent data and adhering to the Oopt in' principle for future research contact ensures compliance with the Data Protection Act and the MRS Code of Conduct. These measures ensure that respondents are treated with respect and not subject to invasions of privacy. Consequently qualitative researchers have always benefited from a remarkably open culture of disclosure. What of the future? Arguably the major barrier we face in qualitative research is one also faced by marketing companies ­ not only the value people place on their personal data but the value they place on their time. Recruitment of high net worth individuals has long recognised this double consideration. Here, qualitative research has positioned itself as a networking opportunity, enhancing the value of the session far beyond the monetary expenses received.

Qualitative research will increasingly operate in a society in which everyone's time is valuable. Although there may be a relaxing of attitudes about what constitutes the private versus the personal, we shall have to take steps to ensure that those who participate feel really valued and stimulated.

As Sheila Keegan says, "We're moving away from the researcher-respondent model towards more co-creation where both sides (researcher, participant, client) are (at least hypothetically) equal but different. People will still be interested in research, but they will be motivated not only by money, but also by the experience. They will want to be part of growing a brand, or setting a trend or mixing with groups of like minded people.

Effective qualitative research will be an extension of the customer-company contract. The respondent will give us their personal data if we treat it with respect and give them the chance to really influence the marketing and communications process for brands that interest them.

The development of the customer panel may have been driven by technological possibilities and a desire to drive down recruitment costs and improve respondent quality. It is also an acknowledgement that creating a relationship with respondents ensures that they will continually trade their personal data to our benefit.

Special mention should be made of the 'hard to reach' sample. Increasingly, non commercial companies are using research to help them reconfigure their services for vulnerable people. Asking those individuals to share experiences and opinions can be powerful, raising expectations that do not occur in commercial research.

Alison Hardy of Headstrong Thinking, a social marketing expert, suggests that, "A BC1 woman who attends a focus group on washing powder does not expect to go into Tesco a week later and find all the products changed in line with her comments, and, even if they were, it would make little real difference to her life. But the heroin dependent mother who attends a group on maternity services may hope that explaining her needs to an apparently empowered individual will lead to changes in services that affect her life in a very real way."

Our code of conduct protects the often compromising personal data of such respondents. Moreover, it dictates that the client should have no further direct contact with them after a research session is concluded, but is this right? Protecting the individual is important but in such situations it could make our interventions seem tokenistic, perhaps even exploitative ­ an extreme example of Sheila Keegan's 'disposable' respondent.

Onus to foster relationship

Having raised expectations and in some cases identified real need, should we not explore how an ongoing relationship can be fostered between our clients and the people they are trying to help? In these cases, the participants want us to hand over responsibility for their personal data to those who have the real power.

Because of this such an approach would go further than the mediated continued contact that a research panel offers (with its attendant protection of the individual's personal data by the researcher). In future qual will need to balance the responsibility we have for protecting respondents and their personal data with a recognition that building a relationship with those individuals can help allay their fears and ensure their continued participation.