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Social Media and Qualitative Research

Over the past weeks, we’ve explored how social networks might be used a source of research sample, the role social media can play in research planning, and asked whether social media mining could even be considered research.

Today, we’ll turn our attention to the use of social media as a platform for qualitative research.

Qualitative research has been moving to the Internet in recent years. The proliferation of online qualitative platforms ranging from discussion boards to live video chat and announcements from large research buyers like General Mills that online will now be the default qualitative method ensure the trend will accelerate.  These moves, as radical as they may seem to some, represent only a small evolution in data collection to keep pace with how people interact.

Much bigger changes for qualitative research in the age of the social web come in the form of MROCs and netnography.


MROCs have become the new darlings of the market research world.  It’s hard to have a conversation about online research without them coming up.  I’ll even go so far as to say MROCs are, to date, the only successful social media-based product introduced by the research industry.

MROCs have been touted as the answer for all a company’s voice of the customer needs.  They are, at once, a standing focus group, a product co-creation army, and a barometer of customer sentiment.  MROCs are a useful tool, to be sure, but they can be expensive to build and maintain, both in terms of monetary cost and human resources required to keep them going.  And, like any tool, they have their limitations.  As long as we’re careful to separate the hype from the reality, MROCs can play an important part in customer research.


The enormous number of existing online communities covering virtually any subject makes netnography an appealing research method. The method is flexible, as it can be strictly observational (take the data as you find it) or participatory (interact with the community).   It has two big advantages over its closest research alternative, online discussion boards:

  1. Netnography examines “real world” conversations versus a researcher-led conversation
  2. Netnography has lower time and monetary cost resulting from the elimination of recruiting, participation incentives, and use of a dedicated software platform to conduct the research.

The main argument netnography’s detractors usually make is that online forums are filled with people interested only in complaining about companies and their products.  They’ll also say that online forum users are such a non-representative group as to make the whole approach dangerous.  They will often add that findings are suspect because they don’t know much about the identity of the people making online comments.

My opinion (and experience) is that view of online forums represents a superficial understanding of the medium.  In his book “Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online,” Robert Kozinets devotes Chapter 2 to summarizing 30 years of academic research into online communities.  Those interested in a more complete understanding of online communities are encouraged to read it.

As for an online community’s “non-representativeness” and cloaked identities, traditional focus groups suffer from the same issues.  No one in the research industry has any problem accepting the fact that focus groups aren’t representative of anything but the people in the room, and that hasn’t stopped countless companies from making big decisions based on what they hear.  To use that as a reason to reject alternatives seems a bit disingenuous.

Do you really know who the people in the focus group are?

You can (more or less) visually confirm that the participants accurately reported their gender, ethnicity, and age.  But, for everything else, you have no way of knowing how truthful the self-reported information was.  Some lies can be exposed based on what the participants say, but that’s no different from judging the credibility of an online community member by reading what they’ve written.

I’m a proponent of using social media in research.  I believe it’s something researchers have to figure out because that’s how the people we research increasingly choose to interact. I also believe that the unique properties of the medium will drive a new generation of techniques and tools in research.  I don’t believe that the brave new world of social media means that existing approaches are no longer valid or valuable.

We’ve been doing some research here that looks at the substance of findings generated from traditional consumer focus groups and netnography. Our goal is to understand the extent to which the methods lead to similar conclusions, and where they don’t, to understand how they differ.

We’re sharing our findings privately with clients now and plan to publish a white paper on the subject in the next few weeks.  The best way to make sure you know when the paper is available is to subscribe to the RSS feed.

Research Tip: Beware of Focus Groups

Focus groups are fun.  Focus groups are easy to pull together quickly.  And who can deny the reality of a real live consumer talking about your company?

Unfortunately, focus groups are probably the most frequently misused research technique out there.

You can’t use focus groups to measure anything.  The “sample” in a focus group (or groups) is not projectable.  Any ratings, polls, or sentiments that you measure in a focus group are the opinions of the 8 to 10 people that were in the room.  Period.

Since you can”t reliably measure anything in a focus group, they are the wrong research method to use when making go/no-go decisions or selecting from alternatives.  Nevertheless, focus groups tend to be the preferred research method for agencies everywhere when evaluating creative execution for advertising.  I think they (and many other marketers) default to focus groups because they’re fast, easy, have the perk (for some anyway) of creating a road trip, and have a lot of face validity because words are coming directly from the mouths of consumers.

But focus groups just don’t work very well for the task they are being asked to perform.

So what are focus groups good for?

Focus groups are great for developing an understanding of why.

Why do people do what they do?  Why do people respond better to ad ”a” than ad ”b”?  Why do they feel so attached to this brand?  They’re also very useful to explore the range of attitudes toward a subject or product – and to understand the language used by the consumer when talking about something.

Returning to our ad testing example, the best use of focus groups in this area would be to help the creative team “get inside the head” of the target market – before they develop creative.  A few groups could deliver a treasure trove of insight into motivation and vernacular that can connect with the market.

If the team wants to test the different versions created, a quantitative survey should be used.

So, the next time someone suggests doing some focus groups, ask yourself a few questions.

Am I trying to understand..

…how many people might buy my product?

…which alternative is liked best?

…whether its a good idea to launch the new product?

…who the best prospects for my product are?

If you answered ”yes” to any of these questions, ask one of your own – “Shouldn’t we be doing a quantitative survey?”

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