Have the market research ethical goalposts shifted?


As the world of marketing continues to evolve and change, so do the ethical considerations surrounding market research and with the advent of big data, there are now more ways than ever for businesses to collect and use customer information. This has led to increased scrutiny of the way that market research is conducted, as well as how businesses use and protect the data they collect.

Big Data - Facts and Figures

Here is a short list of key facts and figures surrounding big data (Findstack 2022):

  • By 2025, experts indicate that over 463 exabytes of data will be created each day, the equivalent of around 212,765,957 DVDs.
  • Poor data quality can cost the US economy as much as $3.1 trillion per year.
  • The big data analytics market will reach a value of around $103 billion by 2027
  • 97.2% of organizations say they’re now investing in AI and big data
  • Around 95% of companies say their inability to understand and manage unstructured data is holding them back.
Big Data and Market Research Ethics

Where are Market Research Ethics Right Now?

Wikipedia's page on big data ethics states that this is:

Systemizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct in relation to data, in particular personal data.

With a broader and more straightforward view, the Open Data Institute states that data ethics are:

A branch of ethics that evaluates data practices with the potential to adversely impact on people and society – in data collection, sharing and use.

There are a number of existing ethical considerations that need to be taken into account when conducting market research in the age of big data. These include issues such as informed consent, data privacy, and data security.  Here we consider some of those issues.

When conducting market research, it is important to obtain informed consent from participants. This means that they should be made aware of what the research will involve, and should be given the opportunity to opt-out if they do not wish to take part. With big data, it can sometimes be difficult to obtain informed consent, as the data may be collected without the participants' knowledge. This can lead to ethical concerns, as people may feel that their privacy has been invaded.

A high-profile case in point: In 2018 an insider revealed how Cambridge Analytica used the personal information of 50 million individuals taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could target individual US voters, in order to smatter them with personalised political propaganda (Gadwaller and Graham-Harrison 2018). Documents viewed by the Observer and corroborated by a Facebook statement indicate that by the end of 2015, the organisation had discovered that an unprecedented amount of information had been taken. However, at the time it neglected to notify consumers and took only minimal measures to retrieve and safeguard the sensitive information of more than 50 million people.

Data Security

Data security is another key concern when it comes to market research. With big data, companies have the ability to collect and store large amounts of information, which makes it more important than ever for companies to have strong security measures in place. Data breaches are huge ethical concerns and can lead to bad PR and monumental financial losses for companies.

It was reported by multiple sources in 2021 that the personal data of 700 million LinkedIn users, 92% of the customer base at the time, were for sale online for the arguable small price tag of $5,000 (Morris 2021). The company responded later by declaring that this was not a conventional 'hack, but the result of 'web-scraping'; this seems both reasonable and feasible as no login data was found amongst the breached data. Although scraping data is a violation of their Terms of Service, it is still a trivial affair with the right software.

Data Privacy

Data privacy is a major concern when it comes to market research. Companies must take care to protect the personal information of their customers and employees. With big data, there is the potential for companies to collect a large amount of sensitive information. This makes it even more important for companies to have strong data privacy policies in place.

With the increased awareness of the need for privacy, many companies are proactively embracing the Privacy by Design framework and embedding ethical ideals into the design and development of any big data-using platform or service. This style of planning incorporates data ethics into any solution at the time of its invention, rather than modifying and incorporating it later. Mixon (2021) suggests that privacy-preserving data analytics (PPDA) solutions are increasingly adopted by organisations seeking to facilitate the exchange, processing, and analysis of personal data without sacrificing privacy. Rather than a single tool or technology, PPDA offers an approach to delivering data analytics that prioritises privacy.

Market Research Ethics in the Future

The future of market research ethics is likely to be shaped by the continued growth of big data. As more companies collect and use customer information, it will be important to consider the ethical implications of market research in the age of big data. With the increased scrutiny of the way that market research is conducted, companies will need to be transparent about their practices and ensure that they are protecting the data they collect. In addition, market research firms will need to continue to evolve their practices to keep up with the changing landscape.

In conclusion, the ethical considerations of market research are just as important to keep in mind in today’s age of big data. By obtaining consent from participants, protecting their data, and being transparent about how the data will be used, market researchers can help ensure that research is conducted ethically and that participants’ rights are protected.

Technology continues to influence each aspect of the research process, from data collection through analysis to the final communication of decision-driving results. Big data is another aspect that will continue to extend and broaden researchers' capacity to find and uncover crucial demand and/or consumer insights, but it will not replace market research data anytime soon. Big data is increasingly powering essential business processes, and privacy is a key priority for both end users and businesses; thus, the time has come for innovation. How can these platforms be made privacy-aware while keeping their essential functions? Or, are we ready to accept that the platforms that run the artificial intelligence and behaviour analytics that monitor our other essential systems are also susceptible to privacy violations and data breaches?

  • 1 - Cadwaller, C., and Graham-Harrison, E., 2018. 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach. The Guardian.
  • 2 - Carter, R., 2022. The Ultimate List of Big Data Statistics for 2022. Findstack.
  • 3 - Mixson, E., 2021. Privacy Preserving Analytics: Privacy-by-Design for Big Data Analytics. Cyber Security Hub.
  • 4 - Morris, C., 2021. Massive data leak exposes 700 million LinkedIn users’ information. Fortune.
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Posted by Steve King
This article was written by Steve King
I am a marketing and analytics professional with over 15 years experience in strategic marketing development. I am passionate about working with organisations that want to improve their marketing effectiveness and get more from their data; who wish to use its potential to describe what has happened, prescript operational activity and predict business outcomes.