Social media as a research tool: Volume one

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Even though it is no longer in its complete infancy, social media remains the latest “topic du jour,” especially among marketers. As was the case when the internet went mainstream, most businesses are still trying to figure out the real role social media can play for them, aside from corporate Facebook pages looking for new fans and “friends.”

It’s the same for market research: new offerings are popping up everywhere with some link to social media—from using Facebook to quickly poll people to setting up proprietary online communities for the purpose of research.

But what researchers really need to grapple with is not what to do, but why to do it.

The biggest challenge with social media is that one can’t just take traditional research objectives, expectations and ways of working and apply them. Just as it engenders new marketing tactics, it also requires new ways of thinking about research. Aside from all of the buzz and the cool tech, social media, is a channel one with unique characteristics but a channel nonetheless. As such, social media has three functions: accessing people, interacting with people and observing people. While each role is distinct and worthy of discussion, today I will just focus on the role of Access.

Using social media to access research audiences

Finding people is one of the big challenges for brands conducting market research, and it’s a challenge from which panel providers and recruiters make their living. At Siegel+Gale, when we customize research to a specific client’s objectives and audiences or sub-sets of audiences, the first thing we tackle is finding the right sample to research. For example, for a telecom client, we may consider a sample with executives who have one of three specific titles or mothers with no more than two children who happened to buy an HDTV in the last two months.

Social media, in theory, offers a great channel to find people. Individuals are sharing a wealth of information about themselves online, making it much easier to target them. But there is one big foil to this type of targeting: the privacy rules. The social media sites only enable interactions between opt-in individuals, not outreach by companies. So unlike traditional research processes, which allow you to define a screener and purchase access to qualified people, with a social media site, one has two non-exclusive options:

  • Leverage an individual/brand’s network of connections (or create one’s own community/sub-set of a social network for on-going research purposes)
  • Design a “viral” research approach that yields enough interest/incentive that it spreads throughout a social network beyond its initial launch audience

The upside of using social media to access people for research is that it is cost effective and efficient. The downside is the potential for a skewed sample given the above.

Researchers worry about how representative individuals who have signed up for general research panels are; if you add the filter of active users of social media, the sample is most likely not your standard consumers. Also, if you go with a “snowball” type recruit, you will skew to the social characteristics of your initial outreach effort. If, for example, your initial set of brand fans are all ping pong fanatics, you will most likely get a vast majority of ping pong fanatics in your sample.

However, brand managers could think that active social media participants are much more likely to be influencing others. As long as you buy into the concept and value of a sub-set of consumers as having sway and choice leadership over the more common mortal, the skew brought about by social media activity can actually be a positive.

The one area I am personally most skeptical of is the proprietary community to crowd source ideas from. In theory it sounds very exciting, an innovative implementation of open source development. However as Henry Ford said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

It is difficult for me to envision how basically putting a small group of customers on the payroll can really deliver value. Your brand’s most rabid fans are most likely not representative of your typical customer and lack a broader or strategic context to inform their thinking. I am always happy to be proven wrong, however. As I imagine for most, my knowledge and understanding of social media is still in a formative stage; ongoing adoption, new technology and transformed social mores can often lead to something one is unable to foresee before it happens.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in my exploration of market research within social media: using social media tools as a means to interact with respondents.

Brian Rafferty is the global director, customer insights, for the Siegel+Gale New York office.

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