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The Client-side View: We Ignore Social Media Research At Our Peril

As a Client side Researcher, I’d say that Social Media is often viewed with a lot of skepticism in terms of its usefulness, relevance, and validity as a insights source. There's a lot being published that highlights the negative elements of Social Media as an Insight tool.


By Edward Appleton

I’ve recently returned from a Market Research Consumer & Shoppers’ Insight Conference in Berlin, where I gave a talk on how Social Media Insights can be used for New Product Development.

As a Client side Researcher, I’d say that Social Media is an area often viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism in terms of its usefulness, relevance, not to mention validity as a source of Insights. There is certainly a lot being published that highlights the negative elements of Social Media as an Insight tool.

If – as in the case of Porsche highlighted at the recent Esomar 3D Conference – only 350 out of a total of 36.000 social media comments are deemed of value (, then the word word “buzz” doesn’t seem appropriate. Facebook’s relatively limited ability to help brands generate user engagement (1% – 2% according to the analysis) was documented earlier this year by the respected Ehrenberg Bass Institute ( Sir Martin Sorrell’s well publicized comments on Facebook’s limited relevance as an advertising medium ( probably point to a Marketing Community shifting to a more critical attitude towards a much-hyped media form.

Is Social Media getting a bad deal?

I can’t speak for Marketing, but for Insights I’d say that we ignore Social Media at our peril.

Here’s why.

1. It’s a fast evolving medium. 

We need to keep our fingers on the pulse in terms of touch point usage, however skeptical we may feel about the rather overused word “conversation”. New Apps are springing up all the time, who knows which will be the next big thing?

2. Competitions on the web can indeed generate a lot of relevant content for Insights.

Ask your Facebook fans for ideas on a given topic in a given category – ideas for Halloween parties for example – throw in an incentive, and you’re likely to generate some interesting ideas from your user base at very low cost. These can be used as valuable additions to other qualitative sources for up-front hypothesis generation.

3. Netnography* is simple, fast and comparatively cheap.

Whilst it’s certainly no replacement for proper immersions or Ethnographies, the Social Web is increasingly becoming an increasingly rich source for qualitative insights. Smart phone technology in particular has made the uploading of images and videos easy – allowing us, for example, to see areas of people’s homes, where they work/eat/sleep….should they wish to share this. If Netnography did have a weakness originally – that it was essentially text-based and decontextualised – it is becoming less of a reason for which to criticize it as a technique.

* Netnography: “the conduct of ethnographies using the Internet” (Dr. Robert V. Kozinets)

4. Pinterest is the latest example of a medium where Insights meets Ideation. 

Type in a category on Pinterest, and within seconds you can study often stunning visuals that people are sharing. It’s idealized – not a source of unmet needs, for sure – has a very high female bias, but nonetheless – it allows you to shortcut, develop hypotheses quickly. Ideal for an addition to the front-end of an innovation process.

My personal take is that Social Media has passed the phase where it’s a totally hot topic, but that there is likely to be a continuing stream of technology-lead ideas that will bubble up, and some of those will be immensely useful for Research. Pinterest to me is one such example.

So rather than concentrating on the negatives – the limitations of Text Analytics for example – I’d say we need to continue exploring this frontier with curiosity rather than dismiss it as a red herring.

Curious, as ever, to others’ views.

Please share...

5 responses to “The Client-side View: We Ignore Social Media Research At Our Peril

  1. Amen on the Netnography piece. I do it all the time. And, not to give away the special secret, but clients are continually shocked. The thing is, it’s hard to scale…so most people avoid it and lean on the numbers alone. The netnography process is different every time, based on the specific business objectives at hand.

    Taking your Pinterest point a bit further, let’s be platform agnostic, and instead ask the question, “where can I learn about my problem in social media? Where will real people be talking about this real problem in the digital sphere?” I’m continually surprised by the richness of sources I hadn’t considered. Youtube comments provided the best source of info on a project a month ago…parent forums provided to be a main source on another project. Get outside the box.

    Thanks for the contribution, Edward.

  2. @Rene – thanks for the comments. I absolutely see the value in Social listening in qual., esp. at Front end of the innovation process, esp. for hypothesis building.

    @Chris – your comment strikes me as borderline sarcastic. Do you have bad experience with Netnography that you can share? Pinterest offers a lot more than just pretty pictures, but if that’s all you see, then that’s all you see.

  3. Edward you article, perhaps too loosely titled, talks about some “perils” for marketers in not using social media. I am afraid nothing in your article made that point. These are all interesting uses, but primarily just exploratory tools prior to any serious research. In other words useful but hardly likely to be “need to know” type information. Not sarcastic at all, just cynical of the attempts by market research bloggers to make a case for social media, which consistently seems to be not delivering, regardless of the more obvious and serious concerns about representativeness, reach and attitudinal bias.

  4. @chris – if you read the article, my take is on the role Netnography can have for Qualitative Research, and specifially at the front end of the innovation process. I actually pointed out different roles that SM can have for Marketers (your reference) and Market Researchers – and that whilst Marketing seems to be turning a little against SM, Research in my view should not. The issues you mention of representativeness and reach is clear – nothing new there at all. Attitudinal bias is an interesting topic, but I would argue that cognitive bias is a given, just differs according to the channel you choose to talk. My use of the word peril is in the context of a phrase “at our peril” is not one I would change – the real dangers I see here are in missed opportunities with SM, that others outside of classical MR will grab in any case even if we choose not to.

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