Social Media Strategy: Does Social Media Offer Legitimate “Research?”

Some may say that social media is a “game changer” when it comes to marketing research. I offer a qualified “yes.” Yes, it is a new way of conducting research and intelligence gathering. However, it is my sense that, beyond building communities, there are those who maybe putting their faith in monitoring more so than prospective intelligence.

Before social media became prevalent, companies were moving more of their advertising budget to online media. The main reason being that online marketing was more accountable than using traditional print and electronic media. With the tracking technology and integrated dashboards (e.g. GoogleAnalytics; webtrends), marketers now had tools to track the efficacy of their campaign and establish performance metrics that align with promotional objectives.

With the current explosion of social media, marketers can build upon this accountability thrust and have more tools available to audit their brand and assess the efficacy of campaigns. There are ample number of firms out there offering tracking tools using a variety of techniques, such as webcrawlers and neuro-lingusitic programming (NLP), to flag online dialogue in various social media forums about brands and campaigns. Firms such as Radian6, Infegy, Sysomos and JamiQ, who provide online dashboards with stunning graphical interfaces to allow marketers to audit and track the performance of their brands online and across social media, offer these tools. These are sophisticated tools that offer deep insights. In my review of such tools, there are plenty of metrics available to assess a company’s brand within the online space.

This is wonderful. Companies now have more access to real-time, detailed information as to how their products, services and brands are performing online globally. They have insights into where, how, the frequency, the context and when they are being mentioned. This is a great complement to traditional media auditing where mentions in number of locations or articles got picked up in the print and electronic media. This new found ability to track campaigns and brands may lead marketers to conclude that social media offers up a rich resource for research.

Well, yes it does. But primarily monitoring and auditing research.

To assess the completeness of this information, marketers should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Are you getting a full snapshot of your product’s/service’s/brand’s universe?
  • What is the role of data obtained via social media mining/monitoring?
  • Is this actionable research for the sustainability and enhancement of the brand?
  • Would you support a business case/marketing plan based on research conducted via social media?

This leads to a broader discussion of the role of research in a Web 2.0 world. Especially as there are numerous questions arising about traditional research.

It is my belief that the traditional model for marketing research needs to be overhauled, and social media will be one of the impetuses for changing the role of research in the marketing toolkit. That said we should not throw out the existing research model too quickly.

I have noticed that there are some marketers and bloggers who are recommending using social media to replace traditional research tools. I recently read a blog post titled “Need quick focus groups, use Twitter.” This is key aspect of social media – if you want something quick and efficient, there are ample people online who are willing to share their opinions. This is justifiable if (and only if) your universe is clearly defined within social media users, depending upon interest and forum, and the limitations of such qualitative research identified. Another approach is to build engaged communities. This is increasingly being used as a “listening/iteration/evolution” vehicle by corporation. This is building out marketers toolkits… but marketers should not confuse “crowd sourcing” and “community” feedback as a structured and staged research program. I do acknowledge that such tools do offer rich insights and dialogue, but they do fulfil specific objectives and are bound by raison d’etre.

Marketers and researchers have to do a mutual reality check. For marketers, a key question is – Does using social media as a research tool yield valid insights? Another is, does it really matter? On the flipside, the critical question for the research industry is – What is a representative sample now? There is no denying, unless there is a clearly defined audience, polling and consumer research firms are challenged to define what a representative sample for most studies is. Research companies need to further consider – are we staying relevant with our clients’ research needs?

Social media has brought to the forefront the dialogue on hybrid methodologies. With Web 2.0 tools, hybrid methods can triangulate insights from “prospective” approaches using a combination of company access panels, online research communities, deliberative polling and traditional online, onsite and telephone surveys to those gleaned for “monitoring and audit” sources such as performance tracking metrics and transactional data. Marketers and researchers need to get more creative, as well as be more collaborative as organizations now have access to a war chest of tracking data – GoogleAnalytics, RFID tracking, transactional records and consumer databases. However, the skill will be to calibrate what is a reflection of an organization’s target audience.

In a recent experience, my company, ZINC Research, was challenged to get feedback from an exceptionally difficult to reach immigrant population. In the end, through a combination of Internet panel, Facebook surveys (hey, there are almost 12 million Canadian members – and the response rate-cost ratio was cheaper than the online panel sample), snowball and client sample, we were able to construct a representative reflection of an organization’s universe of interest to address a critical issue and establish a foundation for a long-term strategy. A strategy, which interestingly enough, entails using social media tools to deliver their message and engage their target market.

While social media tools are gaining a toe-hold and holding more promise for the future, there reality is it will never be a complete solution. For marketers, this is a time when the real research begins. With more creativity, usage and awareness, segmentation and trade-off type studies, will be assessed, verified and calibrated with host of monitoring and audit type data.

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