Social Media Market Research: More than just “listening”

When Communispace first started building private online communities, using social media for market research was far from an inevitability. The connections that social tools have demonstrated the power to forge—bridging a digital chasm to link people from all corners of the globe and all mindsets—and the power they give people to create and share, have since become instrumental in businesses’ understanding of their customers … and their prospective customers.

Businesses’ hunger to make use of these connections and to learn what they can from the resulting content tsunami has bred a host of tools designed to make sense of it all.

Tools like Radian6, Google Alerts, and Twitter searches have given enterprises the ability to get a 10,000 ft. view of the universe of conversations going on around their brand in real-time, and even monitor the shifting tides of sentiment that color those conversations.

Their effect has been tremendous and well-documented across the enterprise: customer service, public outreach, demand generation, campaign measurement, and yes—even market research.

But people have had a tendency to ascribe “silver bullet” status to the slickness and newness of social media, seeing it as a new champion with the power to solve all problems. I’m here to tell you that it just ain’t so.

Monitoring social media is not the same as performing qualitative research.

As helpful as these tools are, they have limits—particularly when richness and insight is what’s needed most. The biggest danger is in buying a tool and thinking you’re now fully equipped to learn what your customers want from you. But there are other reasons why social media market research requires more than just a listening tool:

1. Listening alone is a limited lens

Let’s drop the marketing-speak of “engagement,” “synergy,” and “alignment” and get to the point:

Finding out what your customers want out of your product or service is not just about listening to them – it’s about conversing with them.

Seems obvious, right? But the second someone throws the words “social media” or “Facebook” into a sentence, droves of marketers immediately forget this important fact and think they’ve found a silver bullet.

In a conversation, both parties learn about one another, and drive to more and more in depth explorations of need, belief, feeling, and reaction. 140 characters is not enough, neither is a comment on a Facebook wall post. (To be completely honest, neither is a survey with ten checkboxes on it.)

When you’re just listening, you’re also not getting to know. An enormous amount of knowledge can be unlocked when you get to know customers over the course of months and years – truly getting into their minds, not just their tweets.

2. Social media monitoring tools are not nearly powerful or smart enough

As amazing as these tools are, and as helpful as a high-altitude bellwether of attitude can be, getting beneath the surface and into the mind of the consumer isn’t going to happen by aggregating millions of tweets and analyzing their trending sentiment.

Volume and aggregation necessarily leads to standardization and averaging. These things are all powerful when quantitative measurement is needed, but not so great when insights are required.

Besides the technical obstacles to accuracy, attention, rigor, attentiveness, tact, enthusiasm, and perception are required to really get deep. While leads us to…

3. The most profound insights require deep expertise to uncover

Qualitative market research is interpretive. It’s also a highly developed discipline, crossing a variety of perspectives and involving the study of anthropology, semiotics, linguistics, sociology, and psychology.

Doing it with a social media toolbox requires even more specialized skills. For instance, a deep understanding of best practices in community management—understanding the role vibrancy plays in cultivating an intimate environment in which customers are willing to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

These things require not only effort, but also specialized expertise. Buying a listening tool (or even a robust community platform) does not equip anyone to coax insights from customers.

I’m not saying that social media listening and monitoring tools don’t provide value. They do, and lots of it. If you’ve ever seen Radian6’s “River of News” you know how thrilling and illuminating it can be to watch comments, tweets, and articles about your brand fly by.

Social media listening tools things can help with “gut checks,” surface-level, and reactionary studies, and in tandem with deeper examination can be a very valuable tool in the researcher’s arsenal. But when the goal is the kind of insight that can transform an enterprise, you need to get into consumers’ minds—and in the realm of the mind, there’s no silver bullet.


4 thoughts on “Social Media Market Research: More than just “listening”

  1. Hm, I’m not sure I agree so much with you. Here’s the thing. Data is not insight. Data is simply data. Whether it is survey data, social media data, focus group data, it is all simply data. The only place you are going to find insight is inside the brain of a human being after they have read, distilled, and mulled over the data. Qualitative data does this no better or worse than any other type of data. It simply comes down to identifying your objective and choosing the method that will best solve that problem. Qual data will do that, Quant data will do that, and social media data, which can be both qual and quant, will do that as well.

  2. Interesting point you’re making here, Chris.
    On one end, I completely agree with you. A machine can’t just provide you with insight. I work for Sysomos (one of these social media monitoring and analytic software companies) and I while I highly believe that our product is fantastic and can come in very handy, I still always tell people that machines can only take you so far before the human element is really needed to come up with real insights.
    On the other hand, these tools can be very useful in helping to come up with these insights. If you’re a small brand, you may be able to read through everything being said about your brand/competitors/industry very easily to analyze for insights. However, if you’re a larger brand that people talk about a lot, these tools come in very handy as they help to gather, compress and analyze all that talk. There will still always be a need for the human element when trying to come up with insights, but by making the data easier to sort through, read and use, these social media monitoring tools can prove to be really invaluable.

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

  3. Annie: thanks for adding to this!

    I agree that insight comes from an understanding of data, and that data has many sources. But not all data is created equal, and while it all has it’s place, different types of data have different applications, and different underlying methods – there is a fundamental difference between quant and qual data, and the best qual data takes rich, sustained conversation – and a lot of expertise – to uncover.

    Ultimately, I think we’re saying the same thing: no tool is enough – and any marketer or researcher who thinks purchasing a listening tool will magically deliver them an understanding of their customer should keep in mind that results are directly related to effort.

    Sheldon: Absolutely! Glad to have Sysomos joining this thread – social media monitoring is powerful – no question about it, and its impact can be felt in so many different ways, particularly, as you mention, in large enterprises where it isn’t easy – or even possible – to otherwise keep track of all the conversations floating around on the web. In research, it’s important to find a mix that brings together the quant and qual pieces and ensures that they are used as effectively as possible.

  4. Love this blog post – it is exactly what we’re trying to do here at Cozi. Cozi is a software used by over 1.5M women that use our product to organize the chaos of family life. We’re helping brands tap into smaller segments of these women, based on relevancy, in their natural environments, as they go about their daily routines. What we’re trying to do is get brands to communicate with families inside their trusted environments so that they can have closed-loop, two-way conversations with them, gather deep and meaningful insights from them and foster a process of co-creation.

    Chris – would love to talk to you about working together – send me an email at


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *