Social media has changed the way that companies market their products and services. Nielsen research indicates that 60 percent of social media users turn to sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to research product information. An even greater portion — almost 70 percent — of social media users regularly share their experiences, both positive and negative, on social media. Those who share positive experiences do so both to let their friends in on a great experience and to reward great companies. On the flip side, a quarter of people who share negative reviews do so as “punishment” to a less-than-stellar company.
What does this mean to you as a marketer? Quite simply, you need to recognize social media as the future of consumer research; in fact, most MBA programs are even adding social media training to their curricula. Social media is creating a shift from the traditional “asking” model of research to a “listening” model. By carefully monitoring what customers are saying on social media platforms, companies are better able to understand what their customers want, what they like and don’t like and what makes them choose one brand over another.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Social Listening
Listening-focused consumer research presents a number of advantages over the traditional methods of asking consumers for their opinions. First and foremost, social media is cost-effective. Instead of spending thousands of dollars designing and conducting a consumer research project or developing focus groups, companies can easily see what people are saying, discover trends and make competitive comparisons using free or low cost analytical tools. For example, Facebook insights is a free tool available to all commercial page owners that allows you to monitor your most popular posts to find what creates the most engagement.
Social media consumer research also has the advantage of being authentic. One of the major criticisms of focus group research is that it creates an “unnatural” environment for participants, and their input is often influenced by their surroundings. Individuals tend to be more honest on social media, basing their comments on actual experiences rather than the false scenarios created in traditional research environments.
However, some marketers caution that relying on social media research could skew the validity of the data, as it lacks the strict controls of traditional research. Most ask-based consumer research uses a representative sample of customers. Researchers aim for a broad sampling of participants in the hope that the results will be representative of their actual customer base. On social media, you can only collect the data you’re given. You may not reach a segment of your audience who does not use social media, talk about anything related to your brand or even connect with your brand. Some companies are addressing this issue by using social research in conjunction with traditional research, ensuring that they are collecting valid data from a cross-section of customers.
Engaging in Listening Focused Research
The major obstacle for many companies that want to use social media consumer research model is that it requires an engaged customer base. Simply having a social media profile is not enough. Your pages and feeds must be robust, active and engaging if you want to mine useful and actionable data.
If you already have an engaged community, research can focus on several specific areas. For example:
Who is engaging with you on social media, and who isn’t? Social media provides real time data about your audience and could reveal some surprises.
One mistake made by many companies is the use of social media research only as a means of damage control, monitoring for mentions of their brand to ensure that the sentiment is primarily positive. However, social media consumer research for product development, advertising or other functions needs to be proactive. Monitor your own brand as well as your competitors for trends and sentiment, and discover places where you are doing well or need improvement.
Limiting your social research to explicit mentions of your brand limits the power of this research tool. Drilling down into social media conversations about topics related to your brand can provide powerful insights. What are your customers talking about? Who are they talking with? Their interests and thoughts may give you new ideas and present opportunities you would have missed otherwise.
Businesses ranging from small mom-and-pop shops to major corporations like Kraft Foods are using social media listening to gain greater insights into their customers and access to data that may have been previously unattainable or too expensive to access. By shifting from an asking to a listening model, you gain greater insights into your business and more effectively leverage your marketing efforts, increasing profits and your overall market share.