Years ago, when I completed my dissertation, I chose to research data quality in online surveys. I was interested in random responding, straightlining, speeding and other data quality issues as they expressed themselves in mailed surveys vs online surveys. I have always worked in the online space.

But what about a world where online surveys are incomprehensible, a world where surveys are only done on paper. Ten to fifteen years ago, most research was done this way. You printed out a thousand surveys, stuffed them into envelopes, stuck on address labels and stamps, dumped that big wad of mail into the mail slot, and hoped for a deluge of completed surveys in 7 to 10 days. But we aren’t there yet. Imagine a world where paper surveys aren’t mailed at all, a world where those heavy stacks of paper surveys are lugged door to door by a researcher who risks their personal safety to trudge up and down hills knocking on doors hoping that someone will trust them enough to open the door and share their opinions.

Now you are starting to imagine market research in Venezuela, a place where possibly 90% of research is carried out face to face, one foot after the other. In Venezuela, 80% of the population lives in such poverty that besides having housing that would be hastily condemned in many first world countries, they do not have the luxuries of a computer, internet, or smartphones. Yes, nearly 100% of people have cell phones but they do not have smartphones, those devices that make mobile research such a hot button for researchers.

I loved that my research colleagues were so interested in social media listening research. I loved that they peppered me with questions trying to figure out how they could incorporate this new methodology into their existing toolkit. But, the state of their culture and the economic situation of their country made it extremely difficult for them for many of them to even comprehend what I was talking about. Many people simply couldn’t imagine that social media research was NOT putting surveys into the social media space.

Even with that error corrected, Venezuela is still a long way away from being able to conduct SMR in the same way that we do in Canada, US, Europe, and other first world countries. While we agonize over having less than perfect census rep results and not quite probability samples, Venezuelan researchers must worry about how to listen to the 80% of the population that essentially has no access to social media. Sure, 20% of the population plays on computers on a regular basis and can tweet from their phone if they really wanted to, but the remaining 80% of the population is so vastly different that we can’t simply ignore them as random error. Indeed, that eighty percent IS the target group.

Given that cell phone penetration is essentially 100%, I wonder if SMS surveys are an untapped alternative that needs to take priority over social media research. I suspect Nathan Eagle would have a lot of valuable information to share given his use of SMS surveys in rural Africa.

“Calling the next billion. . . Reaching emerging market consumers, by Nathan Eagle @McKQuarterly”—
(@Jana) December 05, 2011

For social media research, there is no solution other than time. In time, the economic situation will improve (I hope) and more and more people will have access to the internet (and adequate housing, I hope). Until then, social media listening research and online survey research, will continue to be secondary measures, far behind door to door surveys, and only a tiny piece of the research puzzle.

Read more: What You Should Know About Marketing in Less Developed Countries