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Beware the sponsored study in the online space

Marketers talk a lot about the beauty of the online advertising and marketing world. The once elusive “proof that this really working” an age-old issue for traditional marketing, is no longer a problem. There are ways to monitor and manage just about anything related to online campaigns to some degree or another. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot, but considering how young the online space is relative to the traditional marketing and advertising channels, there is little comparison between the two. For the most part, a marketer can measure online success metrics much more easily and readily than they can the offline options.

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Of course, every rose has its thorns, as the saying goes. One phenomenon that I have been witnessing in the online space is the amount of market research that is produced to convince those with control of the corporate marketing purse strings that the online space is a safe bet.
You would think that this would be obvious to the marketers of the world, but when you step back and take a real look at the online marketing space, it is rife with pitfalls, potholes, land mines, and other places where a marketer can easily make a misstep. The largest concern seems to be around privacy information of the online buyer and the rights of a marketer concerning vital personal information, for how long and to what degree as well. This keeps marketing executives up at night. The industry knows it and the industry has found a way to overcome it as well.
It’s called the sponsored study or report. This kind of research has been around since the dawn of modern market activity to some degree or another. Someone is always sponsoring a survey or report somewhere that helps them make their own business case and get some publicity along the way as well. What is happening in the online space, though, is different. The pace of production of these studies has accelerated to incredible speeds. If you have a position in the marketing field that needs some third party validation in order for you to get it approved, I bet there’s a report for that.
This sounds great, but I think it is something that is being abused to the nth degree, and in the process is sacrificing what the real truth is about much of the Internet marketing space. I just wrote about a study from the National Advertisers Initiative that sings the praises of a controversial marketing tactic called behavioral targeting. In BT, ads are served based on behavioral patterns that the online visitor has exhibited. The claim is that the likelihood of an online conversion doubles using this technique. The NAI makes it seem like a no-brainer to engage in this and why wouldn’t they? It is made up, after all, of online marketers and analytics providers. You get it right? These are the people that stand to gain the most by the validation of this practice.
This is just one instance of this type of self-regulated industry validation that I see come across my path on a weekly basis. The flood of reports and surveys by companies that we may never have heard of but happen to provide the exact same service that their ‘study’ is validating is endless.
Is this a real problem? I think so. It’s like telling a pack of wolves that they can make the rules for shepherds regarding the safety of their flocks. The interest of the flock is going to pale in comparison to the greater interest of the wolf. It should be no surprise then when a finding comes out that says that it is healthy to leave sheep unattended for several hours at a time. The shepherds say “I have always thought that and was hoping to catch a break during the day.”, Now their desired activity, which is not in the sheeps’ best interest, is validated by a third party that has their own best interest at heart. The end result is that the wolves get fed and the sheep…well, you get the picture.
So, what’s the bottom line here? As an Internet marketer, don’t be so quick and gullible as to take every bit of research that validates anything just so you can feel OK when you do it. If an industry is to be truly self-regulating and self-policing, they should not be the sponsor of studies that support every controversial claim they need to have validated. I would have been impressed if the behavioral targeting industry had allowed an outside auditor be chosen by another unassociated group, with the completely unbiased report was issued by that group.
Will that ever happen? Not likely. Why? Because there is a real risk for these marketing special interests. The risk is that an objective source may come up with findings that don’t support the group’s needs. We can’t have that now, can we? If we did, we would be moving forward in the Internet marketing space with the truth, and that might slow us down.

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