John's Corner: The perils of non-professional language in MR

Posted by Megan McManaman on Mon, Dec 05, 2011

This month, John and Megan discuss the perils of unprofessional language for market researchers.

John's Corner LogoMM: Over the past few months, more than any other topic, we have talked about language. Of all the issues to address, why is this one so important?

JM: I believe the absence of professional language among market researchers endangers both the credibility of our profession and the process of scientific inquiry. The so-called “true” professions law, medicine, and engineering each have a carefully defined and universally agreed upon set of unique terms that allow professionals to communicate accurately and provide them legal protection by avoiding miscommunication. The language of market researchers is often so casual and imprecise that it impacts the validity of the work we do, affecting the insight and value we can provide clients.

MM: Can you give examples of some common language issues in market research?

JM: There are two main types of language problems.  The first is bad grammar, and that is not confined to market researchers or market research but is part of a larger threat to professional competence. For example, I often see incorrect use of tenses— findings “are” and what we did “was.”  Then I see reports with “We used research for the decision” – that is incorrect, you used the “results” to support a decision.  Often, there is confusion about the meaning of decisions, hypotheses, and “findings” versus “conclusions.”

Secondly, there is general laxity in the use of what little technical language we have.  For example, “the two variables are correlated” – no, the conclusion is that they are related or associated; the correlation coefficient supports that conclusion.  Then there is failure to recognize that the sample design (DATA SOURCE) and data collection (HOW) are different with distinct specifications that must be separated in reporting.  Furthermore, there is poor use of critical concepts, especially declaring “randomness” and/or representativeness when the requirements are not all met.  Finally, how often do you see the term “interview” incorrectly used to refer to internet data collection or a self-completion questionnaire? 

Especially aggravating to me is misuse of the term “survey” epitomized in a report I received once that stated “we conducted a survey using a survey.”  The term “survey” is widely used such as by engineers (land survey), librarians (literature survey), and auditors (resource survey).  It has a broad meaning, usually about examining multiple points for a review, investigation, assessment or inquiry.  However, in marketing research we must use more precise language: a product development study, a self-completion questionnaire, a telephone interview.       

MM: What is the main consequence of poor language?

JM: Lack of precision opens the researcher to criticism, especially from competitors, makes him or her look incompetent, and legally vulnerable.  Consider facing an expert in court where you testified a random sampling was used, yet all required specifications of this sample design were not met.  How would you respond to a cross examination pointing out the shortcomings? Would you state that you didn’t know?  Imagine if this was further compounded by the opposing lawyers submitting a document labeled “Questionnaire” that you referred to as a “survey,” claiming data collection was “internet interviews” when it was actually a self-completion questionnaire. The key issue is that an understanding of, and adherence to, a strict set of practices and guidelines lend credibility and consistency to what is basically a scientific process. 

MM: Why does market research, in particular, face these issues? What can be done?

JM: To your first question, unlike the requirements for doctors, lawyers and engineers, there is no common education or certification from a professional body that is required to be identified as a “market researcher.” Although there are standard rules of ethics and behavior (e.g., AMA, CASRO), there is no overarching mechanism to ensure professionalism for concepts and language. Unlike law or medicine, many people enter the field without formal training. It is inconceivable to go to a lawyer who did not graduate from law school or a doctor who didn’t graduate from a reputable medical school.   This issue is compounded when considering the hiring of research associates without any formal business training. So, you may hire a capable analyst who is good at math but without more formal training, they may not understand the nature of their new profession.

This brings me to the second part of your question.  The starting point is to take greater care when employing people.  Lack of training in marketing strategy and operations is a difficult deficit to overcome, and nearly impossible without training in research methods and statistics.  In the marketing space there are associations and vehicles through which people can try to be more professional but at present, most education comes from the employer.  It is now critical that the industry build the education and certification we need, until then it is up to all of us to seek individual improvement.

What do you think, is non-professional language a problem? What can be done?

Topics: John's Corner