Friday, August 24, 2007

On Students As Marketing Research Subjects

Being a double marketing major, there was a recent Wall Street Journal article which caught my attention. Two Fridays ago, the paper reported, in an article by Carl Bialik, on the pitfalls of too often using college students in marketing research studies.

I recall a marketing professor from my graduate days lamenting the amount of bad research and horrific consumer behavioral inferences based upon how college students evaluated stereo equipment. Back in my day, that seemed to be a favorite combination in which many marketing professors, no doubt on the tenure track, embedded their research concepts.

The Journal article details quite a few examples in which either products and concepts not really germane to college students are tested among them, or college students, as a group, are considered to be homogeneous. Neither of which makes for particularly valid conclusions.

A Professor Robert Peterson, marketing professor at University of Texas, Austin, found 63 examples in published research involving psychological relationships where students differed significantly from non-students.

Despite the Mr. Bialik's admonishment that the real fault lies with those who would apply such narrowly-based research results to non-students, I don't believe that's quite true. Studies using students for the sample, if they involve PhD work, are probably held out as offering real world conclusions. It's doubtful that so many student-based research projects would be done for nothing more than methodological validations.

No, I think the entire ethos of business school professors and graduate students using the available student population is an age-old, and recurring problem. Who knows how many products or services have had their basic concepts 'proven' this way?

It's an illuminating window onto a rather sordid and well-kept secret among the marketing department cognoscenti of academia.

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