Podcast: Annie Pettit and Elissa Molloy talk market research standards

We talk about the ISO 20252 standard for the market research industry with two individuals who were instrumental in bringing it to fruition, while discussing the importance of standards for the industry as a whole.

On this episode of the podcast, we spoke with two guests who play a key role in maintaining the high standards of practice in the market research space: Annie Pettit, Chief Research Officer at E2E Research, and Elissa Molloy, Director at ISO Audit Solutions. While we focused on standards, the bottom line was a consistent theme we’ve been hearing on our podcast: data quality. Check out our summarized Q&A with them below or listen to the complete podcast at the link below.

So, what’s the significant matter that’s drawn both of you on the show today?

Annie: I hope the key takeaway is that standards simplify the communication process. When buyers and sellers speak the same language and understand each other, it’s better for everyone. Buyers get the tools that meet their specific needs and sellers work with clients who appreciate what they have to offer.

Elissa: The market research and insights standard (20252:2019) has been designed for research businesses and it establishes what it means to run our businesses efficiently, ethically and securely. Achieving certification is proven to be easier and, in most cases, exponentially less expensive than you’d think. It increases profitability by infusing the highest efficiency into your operations, from project reproducibility, training, and document management to subcontractor/vendor oversight, information security, and more. 

It sounds like there’s an ISO standard for almost anything. How did ISO20252 come about, and what was your role in it, and who else was involved? 

Annie: I got involved with ISO 19731 when social media research was becoming better known. I was part of a start-up that was building automated sentiment and content analysis. We were focused on creating a tool that respected traditional marketing research techniques, so we built sampling techniques into it. We also built box scores and other technical tools that researchers are used to seeing. This caught the attention of the ISO team and they invited me to join them in building a standard. I was very keen to do so because it felt like there were no standards. Other companies were also building tools but they used such different language and techniques. It was nearly impossible to get an accurate idea of what any company was doing. Standards were essential so that buyers and sellers could communicate clearly.

Elissa: I was part of the initial international TC 225 committee that wrote the ISO 20252 standard for the research and insights industry. I was the CEO of The Research Society and I joined the international committee as the Australian expert. We had drafted our own Australian standard with Standards Australia and this experience was extremely beneficial when I joined the international team, who was tasked with developing the first global research standard. The international standards committee was made up of representatives from about 21 countries and together we spent several years developing a standard that would cover the requirements for the research management process and would work for all types of research organizations – whether they conducted market research, social research, opinion research or were a data analytics agency. This standard was launched as ISO 20252 in 2007 and then we released updated versions of this standard in 2012 and then 2019 to ensure it kept pace with methodological and technological developments in the industry. 

Let’s take a closer look at what the certification covers and  what boxes need to be ticked in order to comply with the standard? 

Elissa: This standard was written to suit all types of organizations working in research. It has a set of core requirements that covers things like: confidentiality of research; participant reassurance; documenting systems and practices; personnel and infrastructure responsibilities; information security; subcontracting services; planning delivery and reporting on projects; client relationship management; incentives; management review and improvement; and legal requirements for your country.  

Then there are 6 Annexes based on various methodologies that companies can select to be certified to (based on the research activities of their organization): 

  • Annex A – covers requirements of sampling including methodologies 

  • Annex B – covers fieldwork requirements including face to face and telephone interviewing and qualitative recruitment; 

  • Annex C – covers physical observation (mystery shopping) 

  • Annex D – digital observation 

  • Annex E – covers requirements of self-completion projects - including online research  

  • Annex F- Data management and processing requirements 

To be certified, a company is audited on the core requirements of the standard plus at least one Annex. 

Who is covered by the standard? 

Elissa: It is a standard that is suitable for all types of research and insight organizations. Its flexible structure means that organizations can choose which Annexes they wish to certify to and they can leave any Annexes that are not relevant for their business. It is a standard that is affordable and flexible for all types of organizations. 

Annie: When a company certifies or attests to the standard, it means you can trust that all the work they do complies with the standard. That includes any third parties they work with like data collection, sample suppliers, field houses. If the organization attests to that part of the standard, then you know all the work complies. 

Are there any aspects of the certification that insights teams should focus on first, areas that perhaps need the most work or that are the easiest to address? 

Elissa: There are two aspects to the standard – 1) business management in relation to research (to give quality outcomes) and 2) methodologies. I suggest they start by looking at the most common methodology they use in the business – for example online research and focus on that Annex with a couple of people to see what they have in place and what needs to be in place. Then allocate one person in the business to look at the structure and the organizational chart and see where roles fit in; what capabilities are; training required; etc.

What’s the overall awareness and uptake of the certification of this standard? 

Annie: Canada is making attesting or certification a requirement for all CRIC member companies. CRIC is the Canadian Research Insights Council, which has over 80 members or partners. Over the next couple of years, they will all be required to be certified. That means research buyers will have a lot of choices when it comes to finding a research company that values high quality and standards. In Canada and the USA, the main certification body is CIRQ, the Certification Institute for Research Quality. Of course, you can use any certification body you wish.

Elissa: Australia, UK, Spain, and Netherlands have some of the largest uptakes of this standard globally and use third party certification auditors to externally validate the requirements of the standard. Other countries like Japan have chosen to adopt the standard but not use a third-party verification process. More and more organizations across the APAC region are getting certified to the standard and are seeing the value in the annual audit process. 

Thinking about ROI, do you have any examples or case studies of organizations who have undertaken the necessary steps to comply? What impact or lift have they experienced? 

Elissa: I now run a business that audits companies to this standard and I have people tell me all the time the benefits they have seen for their business in implementing the standard. The main advantage is that implementing this standard avoids re-work costs and resource wastage. Yes, it takes an initial effort to implement the standard but in the long term it ensures consistent outcomes and saves re-work.

There is an annual opportunity to review processes and procedures and ensure that they are providing efficiencies. You might be still using the same processes from 5 years ago but are they the most efficient? Continuous improvement is a very good benefit of implementing a quality framework. For clients, it provides assurance of consistency of outcomes. Compliance also aids with the minimization of risk and assurance that suppliers are meeting legal requirements and best practice industry standards. 

What value can organizations and insights teams expect to gain when they get this right? 

They can expect clarity of process, outputs, expectations, communications - we’ve seen this happen in real life. In short, this ISO standard provides a clear framework for an organization’s research processes. It increases profitability by infusing the highest efficiency into all processes in the project lifecycle from project reproducibility, training and document management to subcontractor oversight, information security, and ensuring the client receives what was promised in the proposal. They get all the internal benefits of having documented procedures and processes in place that are monitored for continual improvement; as well as the benefit of being able to advertise their certification externally to clients and participants.

For clients, using an ISO 20252 certified supplier/vendor means they reduce their risk of things going wrong with their research; they can be assured that the company has been annually audited to a set of best practice industry standards for research project management and data collection, management and processing. 

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