Social media breathes life into research

The emergence of social media has benefited traditional research methodology by forcing it to become more engaging and interactive. By Morag Cuddeford-Jones

If you had to describe the process of market research, you’d probably say it was all about building a profile of the consumer, keeping up to date with their relationships, cultural influences and day-to-day habits.

But these days, companies don’t have to conduct lengthy, costly research studies to get this kind of data. Social networks, blogs and forums have put information about both consumers and what they think of brands into the public domain. Personal profiles on sites like Bebo and MySpace don’t simply state vital statistics, they allow marketers access to preferences, allegiances, recommendations and conversations that they could not have dreamed of even five years ago.

So can social media channels really become a substitute for traditional, rigorous product testing and face-to-face focus groups? As sites such as Facebook offer an increasing number of self-service tools for companies to carry out their own research, is it time for the research industry to worry? Neil Kleiner, social media strategist at agency greenroom@momentum, says: “Social media is not just another channel – it’s a listening tool. There’s never been an easier time in the history of brand communications to find out what consumers think.”

Even those in traditional research companies see its potential. Joe Webb, a consultant at research agency TNS, admits: “People have more freedom online as an extension of themselves in the context of their behaviour. People are more truthful when they are talking among friends than they would be about talking to strangers or marketing professionals.”

For Facebook, its usefulness as a research tool is a key part of its monetisation strategy. Trevor Johnson, head of market development (EMEA) at Facebook, explains that the network has a number of research-focused services on offer for companies.

There is a self-service option that allows advertisers to explore different demographics of people on the site from their own desktops. Meanwhile, Facebook Lexicon tracks “buzz” about brands through looking at the use of words and phrases on profiles, groups and event walls. Users can query a single word or two-word combinations and compare as many as five strings per query. The results display a chart plotting the frequency with which the words are being discussed each day.

Johnson says this balances the demands of marketers for information with Facebook users’ concerns over their more personal data on their individual profiles. “This gives brands the ability to hear the diverse voices on Facebook while maintaining users’ privacy,” he claims.

Although Johnson may be hoping to make his tools appeal to a wider corporate audience, David Penn, managing director of Conquest Research and the creator of avatar-based research tool Metaphorix, argues traditional researchers will not be put out of business by the social networks.

But he warns they should learn from the popularity of social media and incorporate its functions into their own techniques.

“If research was invented today it wouldn’t look like it does. It is rooted in a thinking that predates even Web 1.0 – find people, ask questions. With the advent of the internet, researchers transferred that style into the online environment. But it wasn’t effective.”

Penn says many types of traditional research are out of date because they are “neither engaging or interactive – the two things Web 2.0 and beyond has taught consumers to expect.” Rather than seeing social media as a threat, he argues that the area has given research methodology a boost.

Penn refers to his company’s polling tool, the Metaphorix avatar. This allows people to create their own cartoon-style figure online and respond to questions about brands through interacting with corporate-branded figures. For example, if someone likes Cadbury, they might get their avatar to snuggle up to the branded avatar. If they dislike it, they might position their figure on the other side of the screen.

“The project began because we wanted to measure an emotional response to brands that is generally hard to articulate,” he says. “We found that consumers were already doing this through platforms such as [virtual world] Second Life and even Nintendo’s Wii, with game players creating ‘Wii Miis’ to interact with each other.”

He claims that using an avatar is liberating because it allows consumers to divulge their true feelings, unfettered by social embarrassment or a lacking vocabulary.

He illustrates this with the example of the London Mayoral Elections, on which Metaphorix did some research for the ITN news service. It found that despite traditional research polls claiming the two candidates, current mayor Boris Johnson and his predecessor Ken Livingston, were practically neck and neck, Metaphorix placed Johnson significantly ahead.

This was found through using a cartoon avatar representing each person taking part sitting on the sofa next to, alternately, a cartoon Johnson and Livingston. Penn relates: “Many avatars wanted to sit next to Johnson and give him a cuddle, while many didn’t want to just move away from Livingston but jump off the sofa and run away.”

While this method borrows from social media – and specifically virtual worlds – the concept of using online representations of people continues to follow the well-trodden path of question and answer market research. Ultimately, how close or far avatars are from each other can be measured behind the scenes on a numerical scale.

Others are using social media tools to enrich their data through two-way communication with consumers. Neil Jones, director of research and audience insight at MTV Networks UK & Ireland, acknowledges that social media plays a large part in gaining audience insight. He says: “The web has become a powerful communication tool for our audience to share and convey their identities and attitudes.

“Consumers are using blogs to tell their story, Twitter to convey the moment, Flickr to share photos, YouTube to share videos as well as spaces such as Facebook and Bebo to connect with one another.”

Simon Braier, qualitative research director at research agency Kadence, emphasises the importance of the conversational element. “Media has been democratised and the consumers are more active,” he says. “They feel they don’t just have the opportunity to voice an opinion, they have the right. This, in turn, has prompted clients and researchers to respond.”

Many brands are creating their own forums, consumer-generated blogs and even social networks. British Airways has Metrotwin, designed to create a community of the “NyLon” traveller – those commuting between New York and London, the airline’s most popular route.

Ben & Jerry’s hosts recipe ideas and encourages consumers to create their own flavours, while Heinz does something similar for its Mum’s Own baby food range. But this doesn’t always lead to unbiased data. “Corporate blogs tend to be populated by loyalists and advocates,” Braier points out, although he denies that their feedback is any less valuable because it is not entirely unbiased or unprompted.

Momentum’s Kleiner agrees that brands’ view of their customers’ opinions has been affected by social media. He says that the attitude within social media about co-creating content has seeped through to elements of product development, including going as far as to involve the consumer directly in product innovation.

“Google is making the ultimate use of co-creation and real-time feedback offered by blogs, tweets and profiles. It puts deliberately unfinished products out, such as the Beta browser Google Chrome, and allows consumers to feed back information,” he says. By playing up the co-creational aspect, Google has permission from consumers to canvass their opinion, not just once, but regularly.

MTV’s Jones is quick to point out, however, that simply because it is the most talked-about aspect of life today, social media is not the be all and end all for accurate research: “We believe that no research tool is more ‘real’ or ‘valid’ than any other if conducted properly and at a robust level. At MTV, we tend to use a variety of tools within a research project depending on the type of insight we are looking for.”

Webb at TNS also points out that while insight gained from sites like Facebook or Twitter might be useful for its honesty, people are growing more wary about what they give away. A significant proportion of the Facebook users have made their voices heard about the use of their data by third parties. A recent discussion over the site’s ownership of users’ information after a profile had been removed proved heated; the debate about the spread of personal details continues.

With the wealth of data swimming around in the online social space, it might be tempting for companies to store as much as possible. Braier at Kadence cautions against going crazy in the social media data area. “We know there is a wealth of data out there, but the challenge is how to harness the relevant issues. You shouldn’t confuse quality with quantity.”

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