More than just the right thing to do

Editor's note: Annabelle Phillips is founder of AP Research. She can be reached at

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It’s a movement many people in the larger business community are talking about and thinking about. It’s no different in the marketing research industry. Here we attempt to answer the following key questions: Why is DEI important for us and how is it shaping our industry? What is our industry doing about it? How can we work in a way that is more inclusive and embraces diversity?

Why is the DEI movement important and how is it shaping our industry?

I recently ran a panel event for independent research consultants and micro businesses as part of my diversity and inclusion role for the Independent Consultants Group (ICG) and I was struck by the powerful words of Georgina White, director of insight at U.K.-based health and well-being retailer Holland & Barrett and chair of the Market Research Society’s senior client council: “We are the sector that represents the voice of the consumer. And if we are not inclusive in our work then we are failing. And the reality is we have been failing in the past because we weren’t representing big parts of society. Our job is to represent the voice of the consumer to make sure organizations take the correct action to be more successful to deliver the right services, the right products, whatever it is.”

She is right. It is our responsibility to make sure the products and services that we represent have the best insight and also our ethical responsibility is to ensure that we are allowing all groups to be heard, not just the mainstream. And the insight team is the one that can make that happen.

Steven Lacey of the Outsiders, a firm specializing in research with people outside the mainstream, believes that diverse and inclusive research brings additional cultural insight that can help us understand societal trends. “It is essential to look at the edges, as the liberal bubble is so well-understood that only by going outside the bubble can you get a glimpse of what is happening culturally,” he says. 

He also points out that diversity is only growing in importance. So, while there can be a tendency to view the inclusion of different audiences as merely a tick-box exercise, doing so risks excluding huge swaths of the population who are doing the same things and reading, watching and buying the same products as everyone else. For example, 25% of the U.K. population is disabled and 18% is non-white. Do you really want to overlook all that spending power? 

What is the research industry doing to address diversity and inclusion? 

There is now so much activity happening around helping the industry address diversity and inclusion, both internally and in our research practices. Much of this stems from the MRS and key partners. These include: 

  • MRS has set up an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) committee that is overseeing and spearheading much of the activity.
  • Multiple groups across the industry have been set up to cover different aspects of EDI, for instance, social inclusion (for working-class and those from disadvantaged backgrounds); MRS Unlimited, to raise awareness of how we treat and behave around disability; MRS Pride, a network for the LGBTQ+ community; Women in Research; and Colour of Research (CORe), which advocates for the inclusion of ethnic professionals in the industry.
  • There is ongoing work to redefine representation in quantitative samples. In the U.K., the industry standard for a nationally representative U.K. adult sample has historically been based on age, gender, location and, sometimes, socioeconomic status. However this overlooks a host of minority groups, from ethnic minorities to the LGBTQIA+ community and those with a disability, who in total represent a not insubstantial portion of the population.
    Ultimately, this approach risks driving headlines, marketing campaigns and product development efforts that don’t reflect the full variety of human experience. The steering group working on this has been creating guides for researchers and has published the outcomes from work conducted that underpins and evidences their thinking. I highly recommend anyone involved in the world of insight to visit and explore the various documents and listen to the interviews that have been published.
  • The organization I am a part of, the Independent Consultants Group, has developed an inclusion pledge for independent research consultants and micro businesses to agree to adhere to. The MRS senior client council is working on a client-side pledge which should be available shortly.

How can we work in ways that are more inclusive and embrace diversity? 

Or, put another way, what can you do now to work differently? First, an acknowledgement: You and your organization may already be worlds ahead in this effort. For instance, in the U.K., the award-winning This Girl Can campaign has been pushing the boundaries in this area for nearly a decade in its quest to encourage more women and girls to be active, whatever their background, and to ensure that physical activities are inclusive. “In the early days we were about making sure we represented women from diverse backgrounds,” says Kate Dale, director of marketing at Sport England and This Girl Can lead. “We then moved to make sure that the team itself was diverse and that we were asking the right questions. Now we are moving to a more co-creative mind-set, where we are designing the research and the questions with diverse audiences.” 

But for most of us, we are just starting out and there is still a long way to go and we don’t always have influence over project designs, so here are some smaller steps we can take in our everyday professional lives:


Non-mainstream audiences are often referred to as hard to reach. But are they really or are they just seldom heard? “Hard to reach” suggests laziness on the part of the researcher. People from “different” backgrounds are often not hard to reach, we are just looking in the wrong places. We need to go where people are and reach out to them and their communities. We need to stop and think: Who are these people? What might they be doing? Where might they congregate? Where might our access points be? 

Communities aren’t hard to reach; they are just not where we usually look. And there are specialist agencies with specialist interviewers and recruiters who are tapped into those networks. 

Any good discourse analysis will point out the amount of “othering” people generally do, often without realizing it. It is important to use inclusive language, language that talks about “us” not “them.”

Research design

Is your research design appropriate for the group you are talking to? For instance, do you need smaller groups or friendship pairs for neurodiverse participants? Do you need to find ways to keep attention and interest during groups – or make the focus groups shorter?

And are you asking the right questions? Does your questionnaire imply “othering” or a lack of understanding? Having a diverse team or collaborating with consultants with experience working with or from different communities will help to ensure we are asking the right questions – and asking them with an understanding of a community rather than from the outside looking in.

The makeup of the research team conducting the research is also important. Do we have moderators who understand our audiences and are we using those specialists effectively? Many moderators who specialize in research with ethnic minorities or people with disabilities get frustrated as they are often brought in after the project has been designed and the guides or questionnaires finalized and thus find they are working with materials and on projects which do not fit their audience. Bring that knowledge and expertise in right at the beginning, at the design and proposal stage. One size does not always fit all.

Research experience

To find the golden nuggets of insight, we need to make participants’ research experience comfortable and enjoyable. An awkward interview or an irritating questionnaire will never give us the results we are looking for.

To that end, there are a number of things we need to think about in our preparation. For instance, do people with a disability need any extra support such as a signer or materials with Braille? Should we put pronouns on our names in a Zoom call so others can feel comfortable doing so? Is the questionnaire, stimulus, etc., easy to follow? Have you tested it properly? Is it audience-appropriate? And most importantly, does it make sense and can people understand why they are being asked these questions?

Research environment

If your research is face-to-face, have you ensured that your venue is accessible and is not going to make your participants feel uncomfortable or that they have to ask for help?

Thinking about other cultural considerations, in the old days it was standard to have focus groups held in pubs and I cringe now to think about how inappropriate and uncomfortable this might be for those who do not drink, either by choice or necessity. While we have moved a long way from that, there is more we need to do. For example:

  • Timing. When is the research being held? Be mindful in case it is during Ramadan or Eid. And don’t have a plate of biscuits in front of people.
  • Group composition. Is it more appropriate, for example, to not have older women and men together, particularly for Asian communities?
  • Setting. Are we asking blue-collar workers or unemployed people to sit in a stuffy hotel meeting room that’s set up boardroom-style?

More reflective

As mentioned above, there is great work being done to review representation in sampling to ensure that our samples are more reflective of the world around us – and therefore yield more powerful insights. Follow the work being done there and think about the changes you could make with the research you do. 

The goal is to bring everyone along with us. For some researchers, this mind-set is in their DNA but for others, it can be a big change. It is important for us to encourage others to be more inclusive and diverse in their thinking and to challenge the status quo. Speak up, form networks, follow the work being done by the MRS, ICG and other industry groups.

And talk to your internal clients about incorporating these ideas and approaches into the projects you are commissioning. Think about what doing so can bring to a project from its inception. Check with agencies and see if they have signed an inclusion pledge and are committed to diversity. And ask for their ideas and experiences, because, as This Girl Can’s Kate Dale has also said, “If clients aren't pushing for change, then where else is it going to come from?”