What Role Should Social Media Play in Consumer Research?

Posted by Tami Wessley on Dec 19, 2013

186682547In our last post, How Will New Communication Norms Change Consumer Research, we took a look at how social media is substantially affecting how people communicate, from the language they use, to the time they devote to online interaction, to the manners (or lack of) they exhibit online. Our takeaway from those observations was that researchers need to consider these evolving communication norms as they design studies, recognizing that research design must constantly adapt to the changing ways people communicate, think, interact, and solve problems. Stay tuned as the best minds in our industry continue to observe and share their observations and emerging insights.

There has also been much written recently about the expanded role social media could or should take in formal consumer research design. Some leading brands have already made social sites very important parts of their insight discovery processes. Starbucks has www.mystarbucksidea.com, a place for their customers to go to offer ideas on new products and services, to vote on ideas others have contributed, or to view the progress ideas experience as they’re vetted by other visitors/customers.

Intuit created a community page, https://community.intuit.com/,that encourages customers to post questions for the community to answer. With more than 400,000 questions posted to date, this has become an incredibly valuable source of information for Intuit about how customers use and sometimes struggle with various product features, and what issues are top of mind for small business owners that could be addressed with product improvements or new product developments. I have no doubt that the actual online conversations also provide plenty of potential inspiration for marketers seeking fresh ways to express how committed customers think, feel and talk about products as part of their lives. 

And for visual feedback, Pinterest offers marketers of all types of products, from technology and heavy industrial (GE, http://www.pinterest.com/generalelectric/) to health & beauty, fashion, food and home goods a platform to get a quick reaction to images of current products and rough concepts of new ones.

There’s no doubt that social media provides some new opportunities to supplement consumer research. But it’s equally clear that we as research professionals need to be smart about shifting expectations about the role social media can play. Here’s our take on where social media can perform a valuable function and where we urge caution.

1. Monitoring Brand Mentions

An obvious use of social media is to monitor consumers’ perceptions and attitudes about brands in real-time, 24/7. Using social monitoring tools brands can see both the number of times their brand is mentioned compared to competitors, and exactly what consumers are saying about them. Brands can also monitor the language consumers use when talking about a product/service; this helps measure sentiment, understand what factors consumers value the most, and understand how to best connect with specific demographic or psychographic segments.

In this article from CMO.com, Wendy’s CMO, Craig Bahner, described a recent Twitter campaign for their then recently-released Flatbread Grilled Chicken sandwich. After noticing the growing popularity of the “food-spotting” trend on Instagram and Twitter, Wendy’s launched its own hashtag campaign (#twEATfor1k). “The trend we saw was people wanting to take a photo of their food and share it across their social networks,” Bahner said. “We turned this into a traffic-driving promotion that engages and rewards consumers for visiting our restaurants and trying our new product. In addition, we use information regarding patterns [when people tweet to their networks] to better understand our loyalists.”

2. Securing Feedback Through Audience Engagement

Researchers can turn to social media for a quick, cost-effective way to engage brand advocates (or detractors) for inspiration. Social networks can be rich with potential consumer feedback because they can create an environment of open and relatively unguarded discussion and engagement. Proprietary social forums (like Intuit’s https://community.intuit.com/) are places where more casual, relaxed and candid discussions take place and participants feel free to express their thoughts or additional ideas. The caveat here is they might also not feel engaged in a way that motivates them to own and defend their ideas and contribute the raw material that can lead to new insights. And the lack of actively involved facilitation means discussion threads may go off independently in directions that don’t have great value for the researcher.

3. A Supplement to Deeper Qualitative Research

Using social media tools like LinkedIn Groups and specific customer forums allow participants to engage whenever it’s convenient – they could talk to you from their desk over a lunch break if they wanted. By collecting feedback and reactions via social media, researchers can use that to clearly identify themes and areas to probe in follow up qualitative research, potentially addressing topics they may not have previously considered.  

Social media is a great way to gauge initial reactions, gather facts and even provide direction for further consideration. However, marketers and researchers should be careful not to limit their investigation into these somewhat superficial findings. When considering a new concept, a big idea or even refining your company’s focus, it’s important to dig deeper in a more structured way to get at the “why” and true, forward-thinking insights.

Of course, consumers’ growing confidence and familiarity with social media make it possible to create proprietary social platforms designed specifically for consumer research. Our Sounding Boards platform allows our clients to create thinking partnerships with consumers and have multiple points of contact with them across time, creating opportunities for rich iterative dialogues with consumers that often result in insights of surprising depth and value. Sounding Boards is a wonderful tool, and an innovation that would never been possible without the generation of innovations we’ve witnessed in the social media space. 

What do your 2014 insights plans look like? Two things you can have lots of confidence in: your toolbox in 2014 will have more options to engage consumers than you had just two years ago; and you’ll likely be doing things in the back half of 2014 that you hadn’t fully considered today.

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Topics: social media, research, sounding boards