Social media as a research tool: Volume two

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As promised (or threatened, depending on how you look at it), here is the second part of my exploration of social media as a research tool. In part one, I explored social media as a means to access research audiences. In part two, I will look at social media and its associated tools as a means of interacting with research audiences. The last (and probably most interesting) part will be about social media as a means of observing and analyzing audiences.

But onto the topic at hand: what do social media bring to the table in enabling researchers to interact with their respondents? The answer: the enhancement of an old tool and the creation of a new one.

Viral flash polls
The first tool is not new but is uniquely enhanced when applied to social media: the flash opinion poll. Brands can post these on their Facebook pages and easily (and cheaply) gather feedback from their fans. The ultimate potential of this tool, however, is unleashed when the poll goes viral, i.e. is interesting enough that Facebook or Twitter users post it themselves and forward onto their friends. This provides access to a wide set of people virtually for free while gathering data from them.

However, given the necessary viral nature, the poll itself becomes a communication and marketing outreach. This is not a bad thing in most cases but should be considered in terms of its impact on the actual data. For example, are the answers in any way biased due to the buzz involved? Also, if your goal is to gather data on something that is less than engaging/fascinating to the common man/woman (like simplifying mortgage agreements, for example), this might not be the right tool.

Most social media sites provide you with a pre-fabricated means of conducting these types of polls: one example on Facebook can be found here. Another example can be found on LinkedIn. In essence, these are applications developed to run on their respective platforms, so savvy programmers can also create their own custom polling tools, many of which are for sale (just Google viral poll and the name of a social media site).

Online bulletin boards
The second tool basically repurposes the mechanics of social media to interact with respondents: online bulletin boards. Online bulletin boards allow respondents to interact with stimuli and/or a moderator and each other. They work as follows: respondents are recruited to log onto a site within a given time interval (say a day or two); there, they are exposed to stimuli that they can mark up as they answer both closed and open-end questions. If desired, they can be allowed to see others’ responses, asked to come back on another day to see revised stimuli or have a follow up discussion. Social media in many ways provides the template for these interactions: postings, discussions open to the group, interactions between individuals outside of the group, etc.

At Siegel+Gale, we have found this tool to be a very efficient and informative way to test value propositions and messaging. We can show respondents a set of messages or a value proposition for a brand, have respondents annotate them at the word level in terms of what resonates and what doesn’t, refine the stimuli and validate or further refine the messaging. We can also set up a live discussion (via text) with all or a selection of respondents, if further exploration appears called for.

From a timing standpoint, once you have the respondents recruited, you can go in and out of field twice within a week; so this is extremely time-efficient. Depending on the need/category, the recruited sample can be of qualitative or quantitative size. If the goal is maximum interaction with the respondents, keeping the study to a smaller, qualitative sample size is recommended.

Stay tuned for the final chapter in my social media and market research saga: the applications of observing, measuring and analyzing social media interactions. One hint at things to come: some say it can be used to predict the stock market.

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

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