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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.

About the Author

Ed Erickson is the President of Erickson Research, a Chicago market research consulting firm. You can find Ed on LinkedIn and .

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