This title might sound like a relationship self-help article. In a way it is, but instead of romance and friendships, it is about your relationship with your respondents.

Much like our personal relationships, our connection with respondents can be improved by increasing intimacy. Intimacy produces greater trust, understanding, and knowledge of another person’s experiences, perceptions and perspectives. It’s what allows us to truly get to know another person or group of people, which is the whole point of research.

If we are going to build intimacy, an increasingly important part of marketing research even in a Big Data world,[1] we have to build rapport with the people we are asking to take part in our research projects. Recently, large companies such as General Mills[2] and Intel[3] have expressed their commitment to building more intimate relationships and achieving a better understanding of consumers’ stories as essential aspects of their research approach. Additionally, a recent study on the desires of CMOs cites the crucial need to build and maintain intimacy with customers.[4]

With intimacy becoming the new buzzword in the industry, it is important to step back and think about not only the opportunities we have to promote closer relationships, but also the barriers posed by past and current practices. That is the thing with buzzwords – they sound great as ideas, but too often reality impedes turning those ideas into action. If we are to achieve greater intimacy in our research and with our consumers, then we need to start by thinking about what changes and new innovations are necessary.

One of the first things I noticed when I started working in the field of online market research is the lack of a relationship with our respondents. We bid with sample vendors to supply respondents. They are sent through an exercise once and usually never engaged again. We take no time to get to know them. Even if we wanted to build more long-term relationships with respondents, the high turnover rate on most panels makes that difficult. Not to mention, we also treat people as a commodity for which we can get the lowest price per complete. In turn, we have many respondents who are only engaged via the incentive they get for completing a survey. This can result in bad data (e.g., straight-lining, bad open ends) and does little to create intimacy.

Overall, is this the best way to engage and build relationships with respondents? Can we find intimacy in a purely commoditized relationship? While incentives will always be a part of the deal with respondents, can we deepen our relationship by creating more of a community feel and reciprocity that goes beyond dollars, cents, and panel points?

Coming from a background in cultural anthropology, the impersonal relationships plaguing online market research are definitely a puzzling experience. As an anthropologist, the backbone to any research started and finished with building strong relationships with the people participating, or better yet, collaborating in my research. On the first day of grad school, developing rapport was stressed as one of the most important aspects of successful, quality research. And by rapport I mean building a close relationship through developing trust, communication and emotional connections. I found that once people realize you are truly interested in learning about their experiences, opinions, and lives, they open up and begin to share on a much deeper level. While monetary incentives were used, they were not the basis of the relationship that developed. I realize that online market research and ethnographic fieldwork are two very different animals, but if our industry wants to move to more intimate relationships with consumers in research, we can learn a lot from ethnography to do it.

When conducting fieldwork, I created personal connections. I thought of these people more like friends and family than research subjects (and I think they felt similarly towards me). This type of relationship allowed me to learn about the lives of people in, my case, Belize, but also for them to learn about my life back home and my experience living in their community. It was a two-way street where the exchange of knowledge went in both directions. This might be a larger point for another time, but through building greater rapport and more long-term research collaborations (as I think is best to think about the research process), the act of conducting research can be an important touch point. With properly-laid groundwork, people begin to feel some sort of belonging and thus intimacy is created beyond the research process. It just may be the case that conducting more thoughtful research can lead to stronger relationships between brand and consumer as people feel more connected to the companies with which they truly engage.

Now for the difficult part. How do we actualize more intimate research in an environment that currently is structured to promote the opposite? Is it possible to develop true rapport in an online environment? What would it look like? How do we make respondents feel more like collaborators? Are there new ways to keep participants engaged (and engaged for longer periods of time), and increase the ease of re-contacting them? As an industry, the answers to these questions will be crucial for developing deeper, long-lasting relationships.

While changes in how we sample need to be made by research and panel companies if we are going to move to greater intimacy, we can also think of designing new research projects that aim to engage participants in a more collaborative relationship. This will ultimately involve conducting more qualitative research, since it is the approach best suited to develop rapport. We should also ask how trackers would look if we qualitatively gauged changing perceptions/attitudes with the same set of participants over a whole year. How could the R&D phase improve if we had future consumers collaborating in the entire process? Can we work together with research participants in the creation of concepts instead of showing them a set of previously developed options? Can we find new ways to connect on a more emotional level?

If we want to cultivate greater intimacy with our research participants and consumers, we have to think of new and innovative ways to create more human relationships with them. This is essentially what rapport is all about – connecting on a personal level with someone in order to deepen relationships and develop mutual respect and understanding. In my mind, you can’t separate intimacy and rapport; they’re two sides of the same coin. If greater intimacy is the goal, then rapport is the path to that goal.