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Will social media listening replace market research?

Advertising Age had an interesting story that was 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.

Logo for Procter & Gamble. Source of the logo.

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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 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 how 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

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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