How GfK NOP manages privacy in the digital era

Not long ago, the market research industry was uncertain of its future. As the Internet offered up reams of new data on consumer behaviour, what would become of traditional market research agencies and the surveys and polls that they traditionally used to gauge public opinion?

That uncertainty is no more, says Richard Jameson, managing director of GfK NOP, the UK division of global market research agency GfK Group. “The problem for most of our clients now is information overload,” he explains. “Our job is to make that information meaningful, and we have the analytical and data processing skills to do it.”

The web is, of course, a rich source of information for the company, which it mines using a variety of methods. One service it offers, to help clients understand how consumers perceive their marketing materials, is to track the online behaviour of research subjects, or ‘panellists’, using a software client installed on their PCs.

“This is nirvana for our clients, who want to see how people are exposed to some marketing material online, and what outcomes it leads to,” explains Jameson.

Now, the mobile web is opening up another wave of new opportunities, Jameson says. “Retailers are beginning to explore the possibilities of communicating with customers through their smartphones, and soon they will want to know how effective that communication is.”

All this means that GfK NOP collects huge quantities of personal data about its research subjects. But Jameson insists that both GfK as a company and market research as an industry are ahead of the game when it comes to privacy and data protection.

“We think about data protection through three lenses,” he explains. “We think about it from an ethical perspective – we don’t do anything that might harm the research subject. Next, the Market Research Society requires that we abide by a code of conduct.

And thirdly, we abide by UK and EU regulations, which are fast moving in the digital sector.” This includes the forthcoming EU law requiring consent to collect web browser cookies.

Another thorny area is the fact that GfK often collects participants’ web browsing behaviour, which might include their bank account details and other sensitive data. “We have our own codes of conduct to make sure that data is not stored anywhere,” Jameson says. “We’re also very careful to make sure we encrypt personal or customer data if it’s on a memory stick or a laptop.”

Clients are not always as data protection- savvy as they might be, Jameson says, and GfK has to be careful to ensure that they are not handing over their customers’ data inappropriately. “We need to make sure that they have their customers’ permission to give us their data,” he explains.

Infrastructure Consolidation

The global company is currently transforming its IT service model, concentrating more of its infrastructure at its three data hubs, in Germany, the US and Malaysia. That means that GfK NOP’s customer data will increasingly be stored in Germany. “Most customers are very comfortable with that,” Jameson explains, “because German data protection laws are much stricter than ours.”

GfK’s majority shareholder, a not-for- profit think tank named the Verein, is currently investigating some cutting-edge applications of technology in market research. “They are looking into using brain scans as a way to assess people’s emotional response to advertising,” he explains.

It may be some time before brain scans become part of GfK NOP’s day-to-day operations, but Jameson argues that the fundamental approach to privacy that it applies today will be enough to navigate whatever issues may arise when they do.

“Our starting point is always to avoid doing anything covertly,” he explains. “And there’s always an explicit agreement with the participant that if they are not comfortable with the data that has been collected, then it can be erased with no questions asked.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media (now Bonhill Group plc) from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The...

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