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social sciences

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Market Research  
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The Anonymity of the Net

Finding hard-to-reach populations has always strained researchers and posed costly obstacles to yielding meaningful and scientifically valid samples. Given overriding issues of privacy and stigma, gay men and lesbians have traditionally been among the most difficult if not most costly to track through conventional means such as face-to-face contacts, telephone, and mail surveys.

While some market researchers continue to poll at gay pride events or rely on other venues such as gay bars and publications, these samples--as pointed out previously--are notably problematic since they tend to include only the most open and fearless members of the glbtq population. Companies recognize that these respondents are a subset population, and almost never truly representative of all gay and lesbian households.

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Likewise, conducting conventional telephone surveys have produced very small incidence of self-identified lesbians and gay men--usually no more than 1 percent of any random population sample. Telephone surveys conducted in many cultures consistently produce very low response rates, particularly when asking sensitive questions about sexual orientation or income levels, reflecting the normal anxiety any person would have to disclose extremely private and personal details to a stranger. Even with written surveys, the incidence of gay men and lesbians may reach only as high as 2 or 3 percent in any randomized sample.

In the past several years, however, online survey techniques have emerged as a promising solution because of their convenience, cost-efficiency, and privacy safeguards. Online surveys allow respondents to maintain complete anonymity so that many more gay men and lesbians feel comfortable when asked to share their experiences, concerns, and details of their lives, partners, households, and spending patterns. Consistently, the incidence of glbtq people among online survey samples appears to range from 6 to 7 percent, which suggests that today as many as 15 million American adults self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

The application of Internet-based survey research methods within the gay and lesbian population has had a significant impact on the extent and reliability of data available about glbtq consumers. Dr. Lee Badgett, an academic critic of gay and lesbian consumer research, however, argues that earlier online studies of gay men and lesbians may have been skewed because "of the fact of owning computers (respondents) would naturally have higher incomes." The ability to get online has often meant that respondents to online surveys are "well-heeled."

The income disparity that Badgett highlighted is changing among Internet users, however, and there are proven statistical techniques to reduce obvious selection bias from online polling that are critical to confidentially surveying hard-to-reach populations such as gay men and lesbians.

One such technique is by using parallel online and telephone surveys--which pose precisely the same survey questions--and allowing researchers to use both traditional demographic weighting standards (i.e., age, gender, race, income, geography) as well as propensity weighting (i.e., weighting against behavioral or attitudinal characteristics that indicate the respondent has a higher than average propensity to be online than a person selected by random probability). Researchers believe that using this updated approach makes it increasingly possible to mirror the general population through research conducted online. Conducted properly, therefore, online representativeness in glbtq samples appears to be within reach.

Additional in-depth research suggests that online surveys are demonstrably more representative of the gay population than the outreach samples frequently used by market researchers studying the gay and lesbian population and that are carried out in venues frequented by gay men, especially bars and clubs.

For example, one such useful study on sexual behavior was published in AIDS Education and Prevention in 2002 by Scott D. Rhodes et al. Although the sexual orientation of study participants was defined in terms of sexual behavior, this research has significant implications for evaluating the promise and validity of online surveys of gay men and lesbians.

The authors of this study concluded that the findings of their research did not validate the assumption that "Internet respondents are younger and more educated than traditionally recruited adult samples." The results of the study were seen to be in line with other studies suggesting that "educational, economic, and employment differences (i.e., the 'digital divide') identified within the general population with regard to Internet use may not be evident among MSM [i.e., men who have sex with men]." The most likely reason for this phenomenon is "the adoption of the Internet by MSM as a safe place to interact without fear of negative social consequences." In simple terms, gay men and lesbians are early adopters of the web and find its virtual community a safe and anonymous place to connect with and meet others.

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