June 2012

Is Social Media Changing the Face of Market Research?

Dear Reader,

Social media – in its various forms – is affecting the way businesses interact with their customers. So much so, some pundits are even predicting that social media will soon replace traditional market research. But are they right?

In this issue, we take a closer look at what’s being said about social media and market research. And we give you our own, expert view of whether social media research really is the next big thing.

Happy reading!

Martin Holliss

e: martinh@research-insight.com
t: +44 1235 812 456
m: +44 7931 376501

Social Media vs Traditional Market Research Methods

Traditionally, when businesses have wanted to know more about their existing and prospective customers they’ve turned to market research. But the growth of social media – and sites such as Facebook, Google +, Twitter and LinkedIn – offers a new and direct way of communicating with customers.

If some experts are to be believed, the growth of social media heralds a move away from representation-based research methods such as surveys. But does social media represent a quantum shift in the way research should be done, or is the picture more complex than that?

There is no doubt that social media channels can give you direct insight into your customer base. For example, you can discover what your customers like, and don’t like; what they are interested in; aspects of your product that need improving. Those insights can be important in many different ways and not only – incidentally – to your research department, as this perceptive blog points out.  As well as providing insight that may be difficult to gain by other means, social media can add a more personal touch to your customer relationships and build brand loyalty.

But what about its limitations?

Social media research may tell you about people who are online and who have an interest in interacting with you and your product. But it has limitations when it comes to providing you with meaningfully-representative data. Traditional surveys are more broadly based, picking up people who don’t have internet access (there are a surprising number who don’t), or who don’t use social media.

Traditional surveys may also identify people who haven’t gone looking for information about you but who nevertheless are potentially interested in what you have to offer. And they can also tell you how many people are not interested in your product or service (in its current form) – something that is impossible to gauge from social media due to the self-selecting nature of your respondents.

Social Media – The Research Insight Analysis

There are clear benefits from using social media to do research. But there are drawbacks too. Here’s our guide to some of the key issues to be aware of.

An early warning system
Social media can act as a kind of radar screen, drawing issues to your attention that might otherwise go undetected for some time. Facebook and Twitter, for example, and to a lesser extent LinkedIn, can serve as an early warning system, alerting you to a particular reaction to your product.

Gathering market intelligence
Social media can make a valuable contribution to secondary research. LinkedIn, in particular, can be a good source of market intelligence – for example if you’re doing market profiling, or want to gather the views of specific individuals. Or you can data mine Twitter summarising, for example, how often particular words or phrases crop up.

Setting the agenda
Social media deliver subjective, indicative views not statistically-robust data. The views you gather could, for example, feed into a qualitative survey undertaken with a more representative group. (Beware, though, of relying on social media feedback alone for your qualitative research.)

Who’s online?
If you’re thinking about using social media for primary research, be cautious before placing too much weight on the data. Different social media attract different demographic profiles. For example, 2011 findings from the ONS  (see “Internet Activities” section on pages 3 & 4), indicate that while social networking overall is more popular with women than with men, men are more likely than women to use professional networking via sites like LinkedIn. We recommend you compare the data you get from – say – LinkedIn with the results of primary research conducted with a statistically robust sample. Unless the results are very similar, be cautious about placing too much weight on the social media findings.

Interpreting research is a skilled activity
But it’s one thing to gather data, and quite another to draw the correct conclusions from it. A skilled researcher has the experience to combine and analyse data from several different sources, to decide how much weight to place on different findings, and to make clear and balanced recommendations based on what the data is saying.

In summary, then, it’s helpful to view social media as a different and complementary option in the research toolkit available to your business. But be wary about using it in place of primary research. If you’d like to explore further how social media research could be useful as one aspect of your research activity, do get in touch.

LinkedIn Question

This month we’ve posed the following question on LinkedIn:

What is the most useful research insight your business has gained via social media?

You can click on the link above to tell us more. And if you’d like to ask us a question we’ll do our very best to answer it.