As a strategist I’ve used a number of research methods to answer questions and, if you strip it down, it is the essence of what I am here to do. If, like me, you’ve spent hours behind a two-way mirror listening to a carefully selected group of individuals methodically dissect their experience with ‘mayonnaise’ or hovered over a shopper’s shoulder as they discerned between brands of water, then you’ll see where I’m coming from when I say that it can be a dubious process.
However, while deciphering masses of survey results or plastering ‘battle rooms’ in sticky notes have their place, all roads lead through the harbour of the information: the individual. Herein lies the problem; while a seasoned veteran or long-held client trust can help to make a learning or action more credible, the process as a whole is entirely too subjective.
But subjectivity is not the enemy. At the end of the day, we deal with consumer research which is always going to be a subjective opinion. Yet crowding a small sample of your target audience into a workshop or an online survey can easily craft an echo chamber that provides such low volume that the strategist’s or analyst’s opinion is far too heavily weighted in the process. While not a flawless method, I firmly believe social listening is the one-two punch of answering business problems; moving us the closest to absolute truth that we have ever been.
The Benefits of Social Listening
The argument for social listening is essentially the same argument one might have for democracy: a system where a whole population or eligible members decide an outcome.
Let’s break that down a little.
If I can listen to a handful of 18-25 year old males living in East Coast urban environments tell me their detailed current opinion on whiskey, or the unprompted opinion of 100,000 mentions speaking freely about whiskey across the entire country over a year, I’m picking the 100,000 every time.
Following volume, is sentiment. Social Media essentially acts as a human voting machine, where one can use sentiment to tease out the pain and passion points of a group. While this is instantly valuable to marketers, it becomes digital gold in the hands of innovators. Say I have my 100,000 US adults discussing whiskey but I’ve come to populate my product pipeline instead of my Instagram feed. I can overlay all my R&D flavours into the whiskey conversation and tease out that, while 28% of the conversation might like black cherry, an overwhelming 62% of individuals rave about manuka honey when discussing whiskey. We essentially turn the anonymity that the internet is so often plagued by into the largest, unbiased polling system in history to help steer our product development.
While I could discuss the pros of this method ad nauseum, I want to wrap up my case for support by discussing sources. Social platforms each have their own USPs and specific purposes. For example, Twitter encourages you to express quick, digestible opinions in 280 characters, while Instagram provides aspirational behaviours in a highly visual manner. The sources that can be pulled from are vast, varied, and most importantly, always expanding. While I can filter news/media in and out of conversation at the push of a button, the benefit is really that, as the world becomes more and more interconnected, the closer we can push towards true objectivity in decision making. Whether providing mass volume to the most niche communities with Reddit, or defining Employer Brands through LinkedIn or Glassdoor, having the future opportunity to derive learnings from all aspects of an individual’s online behaviour can be the difference between winning and losing for business innovation and marketing.
The Limitations of Social Data
The drawbacks of social listening centre around two main points: control and behaviour. A disclaimer: While there has been a lot of rhetoric around morality and social listening, I have never found myself in a professional scenario where I’ve felt morality has ever been a consideration, let alone at risk of being compromised.
With that out of the way, let’s tackle control. In the most basic terms: As something grows, it becomes harder to control. While pulling in the right data, and ‘cleaning’ data sets is definitely an art form in itself, it is unlikely you will ever be privy to the same qualitative accuracy you may find in an interview or a focus group. For example, controlling a listening environment and bending it into capturing specific audiences or groups remains a bit of a speed bump in the process. However, great query writing, an ever-expanding list of diverse sources, and just the sheer volume go a long way to set one’s mind at ease when it comes to accuracy.
Secondly, I wanted to touch on human behaviour on social media. While a backseat point to the control issue, human behaviour on social media often suffers from what I like to call “the Yelp Review Theory”; people are more likely to air grievances on social than they are to praise something. For instance, if you were to discuss personal security; someone is more likely to proclaim “I don’t feel safe” than “I feel safe”. People tend to comment on the breaking of the status quo rather than constantly affirming it. While this has no bearing on capturing the sentiment itself, I’ve found it to be more of a ‘pinch of salt’ factor during analysis.
The purpose of documenting these experiences is not about picking sides or a debate on old school vs new school. I still believe, given the resources, that getting as many sources of information as possible to answer a question will always lead to the most coherent answer and, in an ideal world, companies would consider all methodologies to arrive at solutions. That being said, not utilising or even dismissing social listening as the most valuable research tool out there is, in my opinion, like betting against the internet or digitisation itself; unwise. While we haven’t touched on all aspects of using big social data in strategy (like the truly sci-fi world of modeling it through data science), I hope this short sum of my experiences has given you an insight into what I consider to be a truly revolutionary and constantly improving way of doing business.
I am always happy to discuss my thoughts and please feel encouraged to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org