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Social Media’s Role in Market Research Planning

Last week, I wrote about social media monitoring and asked if it qualified as “real research.” Today, I’m going to explore how using the conversations taking place on social media properties can support and – dare I say, improve – other research.

Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn get most of the attention whenever we start talking about social media, but they are really the tip of the iceberg.  Those properties aren’t where the real action is. The data mining I’m suggesting here is better done on the countless online forums and communities – the massive, hidden part of the social media iceberg.

The millions of conversations going on every day give market researchers clues about what’s on people’s minds and how they talk about products, brands, and ideas. Using this readily available information can help us better formulate research questions and write better data collection instruments.

Are we asking the right questions?

The discussions – or lack thereof – going on via social media can be a valuable source of inspiration when it comes to identifying and refining research hypotheses.  The next time you’re in the early planning stages of a research project, spend some time searching social media properties.  Use what you find as a reality check on your initial hypotheses.  Whatever you find will do a few things for you:

  • Validate that there is some market interest in /awareness of the issue you want to research
  • Provide information to help you refine your hypotheses
  • Suggest new lines of questioning that hadn’t occurred to you

And if you don’t find anything?  Seems to me, that’s a finding too.

Whether or not the people you find there are “representative” isn’t relevant here, you aren’t using them as a projectable quantitative sample.  At best, this application is qualitative research.  In qualitative research there are no “representative” samples, just the random opinions of the people you happened to talk to.  You are doing a reality check on your own thinking by getting another perspective and using what you learn to evolve your opinion.

Are we speaking their language?

The other thing social media mining can help with is writing the discussion guide or questionnaire.  Scanning discussions the target market is already having:

  • Clues you in to their vernacular
  • Suggests the range of response options for closed-end questions

Anyone who’s put together a survey knows that the language spoken by a company rarely matches the language spoken by its market.  The result is often a survey instrument filled with industry jargon, internal descriptors, and product and process distinctions driven by corporate organization rather than customer experience.

Also, as those of you with teenage children are painfully aware, their language is different from yours.  Usually, your attempts to sprinkle conversations with their slang goes awry because you don’t get it, and your misuse of the language makes it clear to them that you don’t get it. The same can be said of corporate marketers who don’t spend the time to understand how the market talks to each other.

Furthermore, getting those closed-end response lists right can sometimes make a huge difference in your research conclusions. Sure, you could take the easy way – er, cast a wide net – and go with the tried and true “other, please specify,” but that approach has it shortcomings.

Hey, what about focus groups?

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away we handled these pre-survey functions by spending 2 months and $100,000 jetting around the country conducting focus groups.  If you still have clients willing to invest that kind of time and money in those activities, all I can say is good for you.  For the rest of us, those free-spending days are over and we need another way to get that information.

Social media mining is a reasonably good way to get it.

Is it perfect? No, but neither is any other approach.  Is it better than assuming we already know everything and not bothering at all? Absolutely.

Next week, I’ll leap from the frying pan into the fire and talk about using social media as a sample source.  Don’t miss it, subscribe to the RSS feed now.

Social Media Monitoring: Is it “real” research?

Social media can be a ‘voice of the customer’ goldmine — monitoring comments and discussions, looking for consumer mentions of a company’s brand or product.

A big motivator for this work has been crisis management.  It’s no wonder.  At this point, no one can deny the power of social media to quickly spread and amplify experiences with a company, product, or brand – good or bad.  Two examples include the song on YouTube about United Airlines losing a customer’s guitar and the Motrin ads that set off a firestorm among ‘mommy-bloggers’ who felt that Johnson & Johnson was suggesting that their babies are a ‘pain.’

But is social media monitoring “real” research?

I think the answer depends on how you define “real research.”

Many researchers have avoided this practice and some have been pretty outspoken in their criticism. Usually, they question the representativeness of the information.  Because the information isn’t collected from a probability sample*, it’s not useful for anything more than collecting some stories.

(* Neither is most “reliable” quantitative research, but that’s a story for another post.)

Many skeptical researchers use the Motrin/Moms ad frenzy as a prime example of why social media monitoring can’t be trusted.  As a result of online outcry against the ad, Johnson & Johnson swiftly pulled it.   However, critics say, follow up quantitative research concluded that the advertising was not offensive to the vast majority of moms.  This, according to them, is irrefutable proof that using social media for research is unreliable and leads to bad business decisions.

Conversely, if you define “real research” as any data collection and analysis activity that provides intelligence about the market to support business decisions, then, yes, social media monitoring is very much “real” research.  Like every other research technique, it all comes down to finding the appropriate application for the tool.

Will social media monitoring deliver a statistically valid sample of the market? No, not as it’s currently done. But that doesn’t invalidate the approach.

As I see it, social media monitoring helps marketers do two very valuable things:

  • Identify influencers who are talking about the company, brand, or product.
  • Understand the zeitgeist of the market’s opinion leaders.

Because much of social media monitoring focuses on blogs, social networks, and Twitter, the comments being found are mostly one-to-many communications.  So, social media monitoring is very good at finding the people with big soapboxes who are talking about the company.  Once found, companies have the opportunity to engage these people, which can go a long way to ensuring that the information being put out is accurate, or at least that the company’s perspective might be considered.

The tone and tenor of the social media chatter may or may not be representative of the broader market, but it is going to be fairly representative of the influencers.  For the most part, what the influencers are talking about today is going to become accepted truth among the broader market sooner or later.  To me, not paying attention to that discussion is just irresponsible.

I tend to have a broad view of what research should be.  To me, any activity that is primarily concerned with understanding what is going on in the market is something that should interest researchers. That absolutely includes social media monitoring.

It seems to me that the research industry’s narrow focus on the survey research model (and social science-based qualitative approaches) has closed researchers’ minds to emerging market data sources. This is to the industry’s detriment.

How about you?  Do you perform any sort of social media monitoring?  Do you think researchers should be involved in this work?  Let me know!

Next week, I’ll talk more about applications of social media to research.  Don’t miss it, subscribe to the RSS feed now.

How to use social media in market research

Whether it’s within online communities, research conference sessions, or private conversations with clients and colleagues, there seems to be more talk about “what’s next” than I can remember hearing in a long time. I think a big driver of all this talk about “next generation” market research is that changes in technology and behavior have made conditions more favorable than they have ever been for the rise of observational research methods.

It’s long been known in research that observational data is more reliable than self-reported behavioral data. Historically, transactional data was all that was (somewhat) readily available for analysis of observed behaviors.  This data can be valuable, to be sure, but it produces a narrow view of the market.  To get observational data on larger behavioral patterns, like how the consumer got to the point of the transaction, we’ve had to rely on things like ethnography or “ride-along” studies.  These research projects can produce incredibly rich data, but are slow, expensive, and qualitative in nature.

Enter social media.

The past few years have seen an explosion of interpersonal interaction online.  Millions of conversations that would have vanished into the ether are now forever stored in online databases. Thanks to the rise of social media, market researchers now are starting to gain access to the tools and sources to observe behaviors “in the wild” more easily than ever before.  This has given rise to the raging debate over how, or if, social media should be used in market research.

Extreme positions have been staked out on both sides.  On one side, there are those who believe social media is the future and anyone doing “old” market research is a dinosaur.  On the other side, there are those who think social media has no research value and using it is at best a waste of time and at worst dangerously misleading.  I’m not going to repeat the arguments for and against here.  The interested reader should look at the discussions on the NewMR LinkedIn group, among other places, to review some of the debates.

My own position is this – I think social media can be useful as a research medium, it just requires care in how it is used.  Leveraging social media is nothing more than a new tool in the market researcher’s toolbox. Like every medium and technique that has come before, it has unique strengths, but also has its own limitations and warnings.

There are four main areas where the role of social media in market research is being discussed today, in order (in my opinion) of least controversial to most controversial:

  1. The use of monitoring tools to monitor and track buzz
  2. Use of social media as an aid to research planning
  3. Use of social media / community sites as a source of research sample
  4. The use of social media sites for qualitative research data

Over the next four weeks, I’ll dive into each of these in more depth.  I think each is a good use of the medium for research, provided that we don’t lose sight of sound research practice and remain mindful of the limitations of the source.

How are you using social media for research? Share your thoughts in the comments.  Also, makes sure you subscribe to the RSS feed so you don’t miss any of the discussion.

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