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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.

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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