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We can't verify ESG measures unless we hear from the people impacted

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) indicators are now an indispensable part of investment decisions. They are no longer confined to an “impact investing” niche. Yet no matter how sophisticated ESG indicators become, they will always be limited by the timeliness and quality of data. 

The consequences of getting it wrong are not trivial. In 2010, dozens of women committed suicide with some pointing to the debt collection practices of microfinance lenders. While the adverse affects of their behaviour were clear to locals, no mechanism existed to alert investors who, from offices thousands of miles away,  had to rely on partial company sustainability reports and belated media articles.

A key challenge is that misleading results are only exposed when things have already gone badly wrong. When we helped investigate the barriers to making ethical recruitment in the Gulf profitable, it was clear that almost no employer of foreign labour was keeping more than the legal minimum records on employment conditions and health outcomes. Only the most egregious examples of employer bad practice made it into the press, by which time the reputational damage had already been done.

Set up geofenced communities in any place in the world and ask them a set of questions on a one-off or repeat, subscription basis.

Know what local communities think of the people, property or brand you invest in. Receive alerts when reputation-threatening events occur.

Reading community sentiment is getting easier

There are now many new tech-enabled tools to help you learn the knowledge, attitudes and practices of communities around the world. Whether you see them as consumers or beneficiaries, keeping in touch with these groups matters. Digital tools let you do so without the time and expense of traditional market research, and often with much better results. 

We can divide them into two broad categories: online and offline survey tools.

1. Digital tools that allow you to read consumer or beneficiary sentiment online:

  • Social media scrapers, like DataMinr or TweetDeck.
  • Social media surveys, like Sprockler, Qriously and Dalia.  
  • Survey wizards, like SurveyMonkey.

2. Digital tools that allow you to read consumer or beneficiary sentiment offline:

  • Panel survey tools like Premise, Attest, and Viamo.
  • Global data collection coordination and analysis tools, like 60 Decibels.
  • Community-driven tools, like StreetBees.
  • Technological aides for traditional data collection, like Kobo Toolbox or Sprockler.
  • Expert networks, like Tapis. 

Each of these tools has its own strengths that make it more suitable for one use case over another. The choice should reflect your needs. Trade-offs are around cost, reach, reliability, and type of data. Here’s our (non-exhaustive) view on where you should call first:

  • To know only when your company has been mentioned online or is getting attention on social media? > DataMinr , TweetDeck.
  • To reach a group within a population that you know is digitally literate and connected via social media and smartphone applications? > Qriously, Dalia.
  • To automate surveys to disconnected, less digitally literate populations, for example via SMS or automated phone calls? > Premise, Viamo. 
  • To quickly design a survey for your own, preselected online audience? > SurveyMonkey. 
  • To engage in-depth on consumer habits with consumers  in developed markets? > StreetBees.
  • To quickly mobilise trained teams of enumerators and interviewers almost anywhere in the world? > 60 Decibels

Many of us need to connect with people in harder to reach parts of the world. In our experience directing research in 15 countries and 3 continents, we’ve learned 3 key lessons.

  1. The explosion in mobile phone ownership in the developing world means digital solutions are becoming much more effective. Feature phones – and applications that run on them effectively – are one of the key ways in which groups from low-digital infrastructure countries communicate and interact with the outside world. 
  2. Reliable data requires meaningful engagement with the community. The reasons that more traditional, face-to-face market research methods are still going strong, even as technology spreads, is because trust matters. And it matters most in societies where digital infrastructure is least developed because people in those societies are less likely to trust faceless engagement from the tech world.
  3. You’ve got to keep up. All societies are in flux but countries where uncertainty and instability pervade are also the places where your research goes out of date the quickest. That sustainability, actuary or public relations report from two years ago is very unlikely to reflect the reality on the ground. You need a way to refresh the data without breaking the bank.


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