About 10 or 12 years ago, I was in a shopping mall and got approached by a surveyor with a clipboard. She asked if I would be interested in participating in some taste test research involving some sort of food product. I agreed, but strongly suspected that I would be rejected after the researcher ran through the list of screening questions on her clipboard. Sure enough, after passing all the other criteria, I was told I didn’t qualify after answering the last question about my profession: I was a market research analyst.

It is a common practice to screen people who work in marketing, market research or advertising out of market research projects. It has become almost an automatic screener question in the market research industry.  The conventional wisdom is that people in those professions are too sophisticated about the inner workings of the process and their feedback would be influenced by that knowledge, or perhaps even a desire to manipulate the results. In fact, it’s become so commonplace in surveys that market researchers automatically answering “yes” to the industry screener means – “thanks but no thanks.”

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In some cases, I think that’s a legitimate precaution. For example, I would not want to have a professional advertising copywriter as a participant in a focus group that was meant to test advertising messages. Such a person would likely dominate the discussion and would think about proposed taglines in a completely different way than a non-advertising person would. As for myself, I must confess that when I participate in surveys as a respondent, the market research part of my brain is always on, thinking as much about the construction of the questions and other subtleties of the process as I am about my answers.

That said, I’m not sure that knowledge about the process necessarily makes “insiders” bad market research participants across the board. In the case of the taste test all those years ago, there was nothing about my insights into the research process that would have caused me to give a different appraisal of any food I might have been given. I have been called a number of times for political polls and my expertise in telephone survey research has no influence over my answers about voting preferences and intentions. 

This leads me to question the standard practice of disqualifying marketing folks from participating in market research studies. Are they really that much of a threat to the integrity of the process? If sophistication about the process makes someone a bad research participant, where do we draw the line? Increasing numbers of people use Survey Monkey to create their own questionnaires these days. Many belong to research panels and take such a high volume of surveys that they come to the process with a certain level of knowledge. Or how about the sizeable fraction of the population who have taken college-level marketing classes in which market research is at least touched upon? One could argue that any of those activities makes someone a less than optimal participant, but as a practical matter, it seems unlikely that the considerable number of people in those categories would be routinely screened out of studies.

We in the Bunker are curious to know where you stand on this issue. Should people with marketing and research backgrounds automatically be excluded from being research participants? Should it be considered on a case by case basis? Or is the whole idea that somebody can know too much to be a good participant completely off base? Please share your thoughts on this in the comments section below.