The Impact of Social Research: a review on the workshop

Researchers – and research buyers – want their research to be impactful. NGO’s and donors want to create programs that are impactful. How can we unite the market research industry, NGO’s, and donors? How can we use Market Research methods to best fit the needs of NGO’s committed to creating positive social change in the world?

These questions were addressed in the Impact of Social Research Workshop, on the opening Sunday of the ESOMAR annual Congress. So many of us enter research because of a profound curiosity about people, and a need to leverage that curiosity professionally. And many of us would like to know how to use that curiosity to create social change. In this workshop, we heard concrete examples of how our skills can go to work for the world.

The workshop opened with an introduction by Phyllis Mcfarlane, the treasurer of the ESOMAR Foundation. The ESOMAR Foundation began in late 2013, staffed by a team of four volunteer ESOMAR members, hailing from the UK, India, and Argentina. After the initial growing pains of establishing an international foundation, the group focused its attention on its goals. These include the Education Programme, which focuses on the education and training of young professionals in the market research industry in countries where access to such training is traditionally limited, the Better Results Programme, which helps NGO’s around the world to obtain better results, and finally, and finally the Researcher in Need Programme, which aims to assist researchers who have suffered from political unrest or environmental catastrophe.

Mcfarlane spoke to us of the fantastic successes the Foundation has achieved in its first few years. The foundation launched its first education project, in 2013, in Myanmar. The Myanmar project was a great success, brought about through partnership with the Myanmar Marketing Services Association and the MMSA. The programme provided one week of training in market research techniques for 40 students and young professionals. It was such a success, that the programme will be repeated. The Foundation is also expanding this programme to Kenya, with cooperation from the Kenyan Social and Market Research Association and MSRA.

The Foundation has also assisted the survivors of the Rwandan genocide to develop business skills and market research skills. These skills will prove invaluable to those that will eventually use them to start their own businesses. The Foundation also provides scholarships to promising young scholars and aspiring market researchers, in countries such as South Africa And Kenya.

We heard next from Sally Panayiotou, the Director of Kantar Public Research UK. Ideally, social research can inform social policy so they can create the most positive impact. Panayiotou emphasized that social research requires us to engage frequently with at risk and difficult to engage research subjects. This requires us, as researchers, to be particularly careful when selecting our methodologies. How will we discuss sexual health with women in Africa? How will we talk to AIDS victims? How can we discuss child abuse? How can we be truly empathetic, make respondents feel comfortable enough to talk to us, and reassure them that their answers are confidential? How can we create research that does not alienate our respondents? These are all important questions when working with these groups. Sally noted that we can frame our questions in non-threatening ways, be empathetic, and help respondents to feel comfortable by giving them “examples” of what others might think or feel about an issue.

But most importantly to NGO’s and donors, how do we know if programmes are working? Social change must be measured, and that, of course, requires research. Ongoing partnerships between research vendors, NGO’s, and donors can help provide important insights along the way to social change. So, there are various points at which those committed to social change can benefit from ongoing research.

Panayiotou pointed out that through all of this, it is most important to remember that social research gives the underrepresented a voice. Social research must come back to people, and create meaningful progress in their lives. In order to be providing research that enables this, we must be methodologically rigorous, and we must design research that is appropriate for the intervention.

Next, we heard about a fabulous project with great potential to provide insights to NGO’s and policy makers. Imagine if survey by survey, IDI by IDI, we could all contribute to a global body of research, a constantly growing social dataset, accessible to anyone who might need the information…. Imagine that the data collected could be targeted towards issues, generating data that could answer some of our most pressing global questions? This would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? Well, this is the aim of Paragon Partnership. Paragon, presented Namika Mediratta of Unilever, partners companies such as Uniliver and Coca-Cola with research vendors such as Kantar and Nielsen, NGO’s, and organizations such as ESOMAR. The partnership aims to provide the research required to tackle the UN’s 17 point plan of Global Goals (

Next, imagine that Paragon’s data could be collected as easily as receiving a text message. It could be, with GeoPoll. SMS research is unique for its global reach, and the place that mobile phones play in our lives. Phones are now among the most personal of devices, especially in Africa. More affordable and more accessible than computers, mobile phones are a great avenue for research. In Africa, where respondents can be inaccessible due to low levels of internet penetration, rural conditions, and far distances, SMS research offers many solutions to these problems.   Cathy VonderHaar, of GeoPoll, USA, spoke about the phenomenal success GeoPoll has found through SMS based research around the continent. They have had remarkable success, owing partially to the fact that they have secured strategic partnerships with many of Africa’s mobile phone service provides, allowing them them to have databases that include least 50% of mobile phone users in all of the 26 countries in which they currently operate. This allows them amazing results even when incidence is low.

Research conducted through SMS has the benefit of being administered on a device with which the respondent is very comfortable. They can respond from their homes, and they will also respond succinctly, due to the format. But, since the device is so familiar, GeoPoll has gotten extremely personal, compelling responses, on everything from domestic violence and rape in the DRC, to the perceptions and fears surrounding the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. And just as importantly, since mobile technology is convenient and fast, GeoPoll is able to monitor quickly evolving situations.

These four fascinating projects have the unique commonality of leveraging market research tools in the service of the public good. As Maaya Sundaram of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pointed out during the panel discussion, their success relies on their ability to adapt their service and their language to the needs of the social and public sectors. Speaking to donors and NGO’s is a different language, and a different set of priorities than many of us on the consumer side are used to. Learning these languages, and recognizing the unique needs of this very important sector is essential if we, as a professional community, are to participate in the social changes that so many of us would want to see in the world around us.


First published on RW Connect. Written by Stephanie Alaimo