Why we need specialist digital market research

In order to optimise insights generated from the wide range of new tools now available, Michalis Michael, managing director, DigitalMR explains why it is important for your market research agency to be a specialist in this area.

Social media monitoring, custom panels, branded online communities, online focus groups, co-creation, crowd sourcing, web usability… These are just some of the new research techniques and applications that have recently evolved alongside the social media revolution.

But while we have witnessed the growth of specialist digital advertising and marketing services agencies, there are relatively few specialist digital market research agencies. These agencies tend to be very niche rather than offering a comprehensive approach to web-based research. Why is this the case and how does it make a difference to you, the end user?

Social media research (SMR) covers many areas as hinted above. At its broadest you could define SMR as any research that utilises social media as a measurement tool; and research that measures the use of social media.

However, we think the way SMR has developed has led to a fragmentation of who supplies it and who the end users are, and this in turn has created fragmentation of SMR as a discipline. We believe now is the time for researchers to claim it back.

A blurring of the boundaries

SMR techniques have tended to be technology driven and as such developments have often been led by software companies, not market research agencies. Demand has been driven by different types of end-user, often outside the research department, creating multiple buying points for SMR related services. However this is changing and the use of SMR by marketing and PR functions has moved increasingly into the “insight” arena.

For example, marketing functions use branded online communities to stimulate higher levels of interaction among customers and brand owners. In using more sophisticated methods to elicit customer feedback (co-creation, online chat groups, pulse surveys) this space is becoming insight driven.

The same could be said for the new kid on the block, social media monitoring. The growth in use of social media has made it critical for organisations to understand what is being said about them. Online reputation management has been driven by PR and communications teams for monitoring the impact of web-based discussions.

However the demand for simple buzz tracking has been overtaken by the need for more detailed sentiment analysis which can provide actionable business insights. Organisations want to measure more than just number of mentions, they require analysis of mood and opinion to fully engage with customers and manage reputation. Again we are moving toward an “insight” remit.

In order to cross fertilise ideas, extract the full value from different SMR data sets and create insight, we believe these disciplines should become the remit of the insight team, or dedicated digital department.

A key theme here is the movement from measurement to insight and from software to research. And when it comes to delivering insight, it helps if your data suppliers are researchers who understand technology, not techies trying to do research, and that it is co-ordinated from a single source.

The story behind the headlines

An issue with Social Media Monitoring – either in aggregated form, or analysing responses from branded online communities – is that while it can measure and summarise the headlines of “what” is being said about a brand, it often misses the story behind the headline – the “why”.

And this is why a market research approach to SMR is crucial. Just how representative is your SMR data of your total customer base? To get a sense of perspective, how can findings be linked to ongoing research programmes?

The task of taking the measurement of online conversations and integrating the findings with other data would get a whole lot easier if your supplier is market research literate and is co-ordinating SMR from under one roof.

Integration not fragmentation – time for a more joined-up approach?

With data flooding into a variety of departments from a number of different sources, there is a real issue about how to handle “big data” – and how to use it, rather than being a slave to “dashboarditis” – an obsession with over-engineered dashboards and KPIs that no one has the time to follow, let alone react to.

Clients face a constant battle to manage data, connect the dots, draw insight and disseminate those findings across the organisation. Discovering these insights and making recommendations to clients are key market research skills. But these skills cannot be brought to the table if market research stands on the sidelines while solutions are being largely software driven.

So are clients missing a trick if they don’t co-ordinate their SMR from research experts in one place? We certainly think so.

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