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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.

About the Author

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

5 comments

  1. As in all research it is how we apply the data that makes the difference to it’s usefullness or even correctness.

    Thanks for the reminder and the way you present social media discussions and thier revelancy to marketing.

  2. Ed, I think you make several very important points (all in one place too – very dense value!). I’ll agree that most of us need to face up to the fact that what we’re doing isn’t probability sampling, and quit pretending that we are. Further, your counsel in general is that we listen to all sources of input about companies, brands etc., with appropriate weight, and learn from it. Very good so far.

    Where I’ll reserve somewhat is on the assumption that the one-to-many communications in social media represent influencers. In some cases, it’s probably a good assumption – I’d follow blogs among software developers etc. if doing research for Cisco or Adobe or Microsoft. But is what’s going on in Facebook terribly meaningful in forming trends or influencing masses about Tide, or Charmin, or Bank of America? I don’t know, but I think not. There are entire web sites devoted to bashing or promoting this or that brand, but does that portend the fall or rise of those brands among large numbers of real consumers?

    This is an argument for “appropriate” weight. As researchers or our clients, it’s never okay to leave your skepticism at the door and take anyone’s data point as gospel.

  3. While I agree with most of the posting here and on linikedin.com, I would underline the importance of social network research on the following subjects:
    1. Research on the network reach, saturation and type of links between nodes and members. For example, for my Ph.D. I research how many cultural institutions are “linked” by friendships, twitter contacts, etc. with tour operators, policy makers in the tourism industry, DMOs, etc.
    2. The geographic reach of netowrks and therefore geographic reach of the marketing message.
    3. The influence of an individual on piers’ buying decision within a social network. For example, from the survey I am doing about the image of Buglaria abroad, more than 30% answer to “Yes” and more than 40% “maybe” to the question “Would you travel to Bulgaria if some friend of your social network recommend it to you?” (Here is the link to the survey if you are so kind to help me and fill it – it’s anonymous and I am using it only for research).

    In addition, since social networks are only a channel of communication, they cannot give the whole picture on any subject – all other channel should be researched too.

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