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Advertising Age had an interesting story last week brought to my attention by a colleague, where a Procter & Gamble exec speculates that social media is already changing the world of market research. It’s an interesting story, mostly because of who is quoted. When a company with the marketing chops of P&G says something, you’ve got news. But the news is actually much bigger than what you are reading in Ad Age.

Not only is social media listening replacing some traditional market research already, but P&G (as quoted in Ad Age) says that it’s changing the willingness of consumers to even be part of panels because there are so many other different ways that they can tell a company what they are thinking. The allure of being part of a panel went far beyond the gift the participant received—it extended to the ability for a consumer to tell a big company what to do. But now they can do that every day through social media.

So, yes, the world is changing, but in an even bigger way than we think. Social media is not able to replace all uses for market research today, and won’t for many years, in my opinion. But I work with clients every day who use social media for market research. [Full disclosure: I serve as Chief Strategist for Converseon, a leader in social media listening platforms.] In fact, one of the largest companies I know has worked on social media for several years, led by its market intelligence team.

But that client (and a number of other smart clients) has always known that social media is only one part of market research. Market research has always depended on the statistical sample that is representative, something that social media cannot easily deliver today. But traditional research also suffered from the dilemma that you can’t get the answers to questions that you don’t ask. And that you can’t control for how the act of surveying changes people’s answers. So smart clients have used social media listening to find things they didn’t find with traditional research, using surveys and focus groups to confirm social findings when needed. So social is only a part of market research.

But while social media is only a part of market research, it is much larger than market research, too. Yes, customers have many ways of giving feedback to companies besides being chosen for a focus group. But you can’t just look at that for how it affects market research. You must recognize that social media has implications across many functions in the modern corporation. If market researchers recognize how these changes affect themselves, they ought to take a minute to tell their colleagues who it affects them.

The same tweet that complains about the poor battery life in your newest electronics product might need to be seen by many areas of the company:

  • Market research. Well, sure. We want to collect the voice of the customer through all means necessary, including social media.
  • Customer service. Wouldn’t you want to reach out to that customer and help?
  • Marketing. If power users are running out of battery life, might it make sense to target your marketing toward people who are lighter users?
  • Public relations. Is this meme taking off? Will this become a viral story that you need to respond to?
  • Product development. Shouldn’t they be thinking about how to fix this in the next version?

The list can go on and on. As each group (market research in this case) discovers how social media has an impact on them, they are reminiscent of the blind men examining the elephant. If they hadn’t shared their opinions with each other, they would have learned only a small part of the story. Don’t be seduced into thinking that social media will neatly affect your specialty without blurring it into five others. Those neat functional lines that we draw on our org charts won’t hold up as the new transparency comes crashing in.

The smartest clients I know are breaking out of these traditional roles and taking an enterprise approach to social media. You would be wise to follow.

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Mike Moran

About Mike Moran

Mike Moran has a unique blend of marketing and technology skills that he applies to raise return on investment for large marketing programs. Mike is a former IBM Distinguished Engineer and a senior strategist at Converseon, a leading social consultancy. Mike is the author of two books on digital marketing, an instructor at several leading universities, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research.

9 replies to this post
  1. Social media listening can never fully replace market research. Every tool in MR has a very specific purpose with very specific outcomes. Most times, these outcomes cannot be replaced by the fad or fancy of the day. While there are certain components of surveys or focus groups that will be replaced by social media research (not listening), we will always need the advantages of the methods we already know and love.
    Annie Pettit, PhD
    Chief Research Officer, Conversition Strategies
    http://www.conversition.com

  2. Yes, social media is huge, but I thing it is still only in it’s infancy. Business needs to listen to the social media because it can tell the business so much about the needs, wants, and desires of the public at large. It will have a big influence on how business operates in the future.

  3. I think the trick for large companies is to develop central processes across the company that ensures social media is shared across all the areas of the company that you mention Mike. But, overall I agree with your blog…Social Media is here to stay and now has a place in MI…but, has not replaced it..

  4. Totally agree, John. The smartest companies in social are creating those centralized processes, just as you say. Using social media listening tools to identify insights and distribute them to the team that needs them companywide is one of the things I am starting to see more and more. Thanks for the feedback.

  5. Social media listening is still in its infancy as even industry leaders in this space are still having difficulties analyzing sentiment due to sarcasm. However, I think that there is a lot of merit in social media not only for listening to brand enthusiasts and critics, but also asking them questions for market research. I recently wrote a post on how measuring market demand through social media may prove to be extremely valuable to entrepreneurs in the startup ecosystem who must operate on tight budgets. Polling is an especially useful method of measuring market demand. By using Q &A sites such as Quora or LinkedIn Answers, entrepreneurs can survey a multitude of people quickly and cost effectively. If you are interested in reading more, you can see my post here: http://bit.ly/h2zqmv I would really appreciate hearing your comments.

  6. Yep, it’s all about listening! Brands that just schedule out self-serving posts and tweets, and never take the time to interact with their fans and followers will never benefit the same than those brands that do.

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