It is no secret to PR practitioners or journalists that surveys make great headlines. From the tabloid fodder of quirky, apparently random stories proclaiming that a certain percentage of the population feels a certain way about everything under the sun, to heavyweight medical data, market research is a ready-made opinion former.
Carrying out market research has, until relatively recently, been an expensive, time-consuming process of face-to-face or telephone interviews or written questionnaires. This is now starting to change, though, with market research companies latching on to the power of the internet to reach large numbers of people and process data extremely quickly.
Both tickbox.net and online researcher GMI have recently launched services specifically to provide in-house and agency PR teams with fast research to create stories. GMI claims to be able to turn around a piece of market research in as little as 24 hours with its Net-MR software and samples taken from five million respondents across the world. Tickbox surveys are similarly completed by volunteers registered on the tickbox database.
Emails alert them to new surveys, incentivised with prizes.
But with reduced time comes a much-needed debate on whether speed is detrimental to substance.
The story will prevail
Alex Wade freelances for newspapers including The Independent. He says he is seeing far too many PR-driven pieces of research that do not hold up to proper investigation: 'A good story will always prevail, whether it's formed by the most serious research or the most flippant. But I think PROs need to resist the temptation to fire off hastily cobbled together research in favour of those with a bit more thought.'
Research providers are keen to point out that you can have the best of both worlds. GMI account manager Lars Long says most of his clients demand both speed and weightiness: 'There's no point in being able to get research out quickly if it isn't news-worthy or issue-led.'
Long argues there will always be a role for traditional ways of capturing data. Jane A'Court, director at market research company Ipsos, which carries out complex 'in-home research', also believes online surveys will never replace face-to-face research because they are not necessarily representative of the UK as a whole.
'If you just want a quick answer to a short survey, online research has its place,' she explains. 'But it is going to be a long time before everyone in the country has a computer, so online surveys can never completely represent the UK population.'
So who is right? Real Business editor Adam Leyland says the advent of online research has delivered plenty of good stories. 'The advantages are obvious: you can get quick turnaround on topical stories, and from a client perspective, they can be cheaper, too. With even a half-decent response rate, they're more valuable than the traditional vox-pop.'
But he adds a caveat: 'Where PR companies get into trouble is that online polls encourage sloppiness and even dishonesty. But get the sample size right and make the methodology open and fair and they can work every bit as well as a 200-page report.'
Skopos Market Insight MD Darren Noyce says that if there is doubt about the sample of potential respondents - say, if a social group with low internet penetration is a specific target of the research - then it can be supplemented with more traditional techniques.
He admits that a slightly negative reputation lingers for online research, but says technological improvements mean there is no reason why samples cannot be as large and representative as any other research mechanism, particularly if the researching company is a member of a recognised industry body.
'While you need to be careful about sampling, online research takes the slow and messy bit out of the process, where you are most likely to annoy people by phoning them in the evening or stopping them in the street,' he says.
Many online research companies cite the rise of the YouGov online polls as a respected source of data - polls used extensively in the run-up to the general election - as an indication that online is becoming a valid part of the research landscape.
Tickbox head of client services Andy Gallacher says for timely PR stories 'speed is absolutely what online is all about'. One client wanted to respond to the last budget in time for survey results to hit the Evening Standard at the same time as Gordon Brown's speech finished, and Tickbox was able to turn around a credible survey of 500 respondents in an hour and a half.
Gallacher also says the expertise of online research should not be underestimated either. 'We can run anything from a serious technology survey for a blue-chip to something daintier for a charity, but the objective is always to get branded coverage. Journalists need research to be rigorous, and they are becoming more selective because there are so many surveys, but we've had some great media results for budgets as little as £2,500.'
PROs are certainly aware of the differences between online and traditional methods, and most use a blend of techniques depending on the nature of the research.
Vodafone's series of Working Nation reports, face-to-face and telephone interviews with business leaders and opinion formers, gave senior PR manager Lucy Rich a bank of informed content, and she then worked with PR agency Communications Management on Tickbox research to augment this in-depth information with online data.
'Online research captures a mood very quickly,' she says. 'Because respondents aren't tied to doing it at a particular time, you often get incisive and well-thought-through responses.'
But however successful this strategy has been for Vodafone, Rich cautions against online research being used to go after headlines for headlines' sake: 'Research may be PR-generated , but it still has to link with other business objectives. To be credible it has to be about more than just headlines. Speed must never be a substitute for credibility.'
- Company: Office Angels
The story: A bluff a day keeps the boss at bay. Ninety-six per cent of UK office workers have lied at work. Top five fibs included 'my cat pressed delete on the keyboard'.
Picked up by: The Times, The Daily Telegraph, CNN, Sky and the BBC.
Research method: 1,500 employees and managers from Office Angels' database surveyed online.
PR: The Red Consultancy
- Company: Marks & Spencer Financial Services
The story: Our love affair with the colour black. As part of the launch of the &More black credit card, M&S found that we each own 23 black items on average, including clothes, cars and pets. Coverage included the Daily Express, Daily Mirror, The Sun and Daily Mail.
Research method: Online survey of 2,061 people aged over 18 by YouGov between 1-4 April
PR: In-house - Company: Philips
The story: The body-grooming habits of British men. The survey supported the launch of Philips' first electric razor for a man's body. The findings confirmed that bald is best, with coverage in April in the Daily Express, Daily Mail and The Sun.
Research method: Tickbox online survey of 3,200 people
PR Manning Selvage & Lee
MORI's 'You Are What You Read' survey was its own report into relationship between the newspapers people read and their attitudes and beliefs.
While data collection for this is done monthly (with 2,000 people interviewed face-to-face as part of its regular Omnibus study of over-14s), MORI wanted the data to be compiled between January and October.
Specifically, this was to ensure the report was more rigorous, statistically valid and robust, especially given the apparent contentiousness of some of the findings.
Headline results showed Guardian and Daily Express readers had similar levels of concern about crime and the NHS, but Guardian readers were far more worried about defence and Express readers were twice as likely to be concerned about race and immigration.
Surprises included the fact that Financial Times readers - not usually known for adopting sensationalist reporting - were almost as likely as Daily Mail readers to consider immigration as the main issue facing Britain (44 per cent).
Simon Atkinson, research director, says: 'It was only with eight months' worth of information that we could get a much stronger report. Only by waiting did the fuller picture develop.'