Move over, traditional market research – as social media research becomes more prominent, will it replace other methodologies such as focus groups, consumer feedback surveys, & ethnography?
Before that question can be answered, it’s important to start with the basics and understand exactly what social research is. There are many variations of this term, including social listening and social media monitoring. While similar, they are not quite the same.
Social research can be defined as a methodology that utilizes public facing content from a variety of online & social sites in order to aggregate, monitor, and analyze content surrounding a topic, issue, product or service as a research methodology.
Social research is different than more generalized methods of using social data, such as listening or monitoring. Specifically, the goals of social research include:
- Using social media content to answer specific questions relative to a marketing or business initiative, or a related consumer study.
- Obtaining analytical data surrounding standard market research metrics to test hypotheses, conduct a deeper dive into consumer behavior, perception, or sentiment, or better understand consumer behavior.
- Gleaning consumer driven content outside of what is being shared/communicated directly with brands and companies to identify general consumer insights.
Given this information, social research is more beneficial than researchers are willing to concede. As a result, has been slow to gain traction as a research methodology. There are many ways in which social research can be more effective than some of its more traditional counterparts.
Social research yields larger pools of data and content to work with
Unlike focus groups or ethnography, social research encompasses all public facing online conversations happening online, almost in real time. The volume of data to work with is generally higher than any traditional study could easily collect.
Social research can create cost & time efficiencies
The cost for traditional market research can be high, and at times be too expensive for smaller and mid-size businesses. Similarly, it can be more of a challenge to find qualified participants. Social research allows a virtual panel, so to speak, of consumers that are posting hundreds of thousands of thoughts, opinions, and reviews on a daily basis.
Social research removes potential Hawthorne (observer) effects
The Hawthorne effect has always been a concern in market research. Simply put, the observer effect occurs when subjects of a study have a change in behavior or participation because they are aware of the fact that they are being observed.
Similarly, this is seen in focus groups when participants realize they are part of the study for a specific objective. While not knowing the exact nature of the objective or focus, they tend to form perceptions of the research focus and sometimes gauge their responses/behavior/participation accordingly, which may not mirror their true thoughts, feelings, or opinions and skew results.
This is where social research can trump traditional methods; people are not providing responses to a study or a focus group. Instead, they are sharing their thoughts and opinions in freely to the general public. When this happens, it tends to be more authentic than one might find in response to a survey, questionnaire, or other similar tools.
If social research can encompass a wider audience, take away potential bias, and therefore obtain a potentially more accurate set of information, all while reducing the time and cost associated with traditional studies, wouldn’t it make more sense to turn to social research as a main methodology?
Not so fast.
It’s true that there are many positive aspects of social media research as a market research methodology that cannot be discounted. With that being said, there are still some concerns and factors that may prohibit this methodology to replace the others.
Social media usage is still fluid
While it seems that everyone and their mother is on at least one social platform, there have been concerns with privacy, “fake news” and other factors that have shaken up social media usage in the last few years.
A recent study conducted by Edison Research and Triton Digital show that social media usage is falling compared to the prior two years. Specifically, the study shows that the overall percentage of people in the US using social media has fallen 3% in 2018 (77% in 2018, down from 80% in 2017). Facebook & Twitter are both experiencing a drop off in usage, and the more “traditional” networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) are down in general across younger users.
Similarly, recent privacy concerns may cause a decline in the volume of content available to social researchers. With privacy issues making front page news recently, consumers are more aware of settings on social sites and making better use of them. This, in turn, can cause less information to be available for research. The good news is, that while some consumers are being more vigilant, many are still conducting business as usual when it comes to their social media postings. While this may cause a slight decline, it is not likely a cause for concern, at least at this time.
How does this affect the future of social research? It may not in the long run. Like all things, activity and trends in social engagement tend to ebb and flow; usage was way up as social media became more of an everyday phenomenon, and now there seems to be slippage. While likely not permanent (I anticipate things will shift, but not continue to show a decrease in overall usages), it may be enough to make researchers hesitant to use social content as a form of research. This, coupled with recent privacy issues in the front of the news cycle, can increase that hesitation.
Have become heightened since the buzz surrounding recent privacy issues on social sites, specifically Facebook. This, of course, causes concern for the general public, who are more worried about their data being used in ways they don’t intend for them to, while researchers are hesitant to use such content for fear of violating privacy terms & conditions.
What’s important to remember is that social research gleans public facing content – research platforms dedicated to social content have strict protocols to abide by privacy standards from all sites content is collected from. This implied consent gives researchers the opportunity to collect such data for research purposes.
Additionally, the content collected is aggregated and analyzed in a general setting; that is, data collected is looked at in a broad spectrum of age, gender, geography, and the like. In this way, consumer specific data remains confidential and is not used beyond that scope.
The fear of not being “statistically significant”
Keeps researchers at bay: all research needs to be accurate, and statistical significance is a factor. It’s difficult for researchers to get their head around social research for this very reason; they believe they cannot provide such significance in social based research, and if it can’t be quantified, it cannot be used.
Michalis Michael, CEO of Digital MR addressed this in a recent article, where he writes: “Some die-hard purists stuck in their old ways still ask the question “how representative is the sample”. They’re unable to understand that we are not dealing with a sample and we are not dealing with participants!” He also shares great insight in an article as it relates to sentiment analysis in social research, as this is a long standing argument against using social research, believing that sentiment cannot be properly documented and analyzed.
It’s good to remember that social research is its own animal. The old rules of significance don’t need to apply in order to validate its worth in market research.
So…what’s the verdict?
Given the benefits and concerns over social media research, it’s not likely that this methodology will ever replace more traditional market research methodologies. However, it is extremely important for market research professionals to embrace social research as a valid data point and one that can be utilized to enhance current methodologies and obtain the best possible data for research initiatives.
If it can’t replace traditional methodologies, how can it complement them? The researchers who are embracing social research have found that it can be incredibly helpful in all phases of market research studies.
Study design becomes more efficient
By using social research during the program design period, researchers can gain a general understanding of the topic before getting started. What this can do is assist in creating the most effective program design, creating panel/survey questions, or better understand what objectives need to exist when engaging in consumer observations. It can also cut down on overall cost and productivity, as the scope may be better defined and a project can be executed efficiently to achieve optimal results.
Social data investigates “rabbit holes” quickly to gauge study progress in almost real time
During a study, researchers may find that the results are taking an unexpected turn. In these cases, social research can be quickly used to determine if these offshoots are in fact something to look into more extensively to enhance and elaborate on the current project, or if it is specific to the group of participants involved in the study.
As an example, a recent podcast episode talks about using social research side by side with netnography studies. Social research can be used to learn more about side topics/findings that arise during a netnography study to flesh out a study or even better understand how to expand on the current study.
Social data can corroborate and/or evaluate the study’s outcome
Once a traditional research project is conducted, turning to social research can provide a more thorough analysis by comparing the findings from the focused, targeted research and comparing it to more general consumer data compiled from online conversations. Similarities & differences can make an impact on traditional research findings. A corroboration of findings can strengthen the validity of the research conducted. While a disparity that is significant enough can give researchers pause to determine if the research needs to be expanded to gain a better understanding of the topic or look deeper at the disparity. Or if perhaps the Hawthorne effect played a significant role in the project in some way, which skewed results. This additional comparison and research may, in the end, create a broader and therefore useful study with concrete, definitive results for key stakeholders.
While social research is still in its infancy, and researchers are trying to embrace it. But it is still slow to catch on. It should not be feared. Instead, researchers should better understand what social media is and how it can work simultaneously and concurrently with traditional research methodologies. It’s important to remember that social content influences the masses, even if it doesn’t seem to be on the onset; when people aren’t posting, they are reading every day. They are being affected by the content they read about products, services, companies, and the like; the way social content has evolved, it cannot be ignored.
Despite the recent disruption with privacy issues, changes in the way consumers use social sites, and other concerns, social engagement will not fall off to the point where it becomes irrelevant; to that end, attention needs to be given to this methodology as a valuable tool for market researchers.
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