FEATURE1 September 2009

Blanket coverage

Snuggie, the ‘blanket with sleeves’, became a surprise social media phenomenon. Nielsen decided to look at the success of the Snuggie to test ‘listening’ and ‘asking’ based approaches to research.

?Mining online conversations for consumer insights is a seductive proposition. Every day, millions of consumers talk about all aspects of their lives online. This trove of naturally occurring consumer expression offers the richness of qualitative research, the sample sizes of quantitative studies, and the opportunity to understand consumers on their terms, not ours. By tuning in to relevant conversations, more can be learned about consumer attitudes and needs than through traditional ‘asking’ methods alone.

But what’s compelling about listening can also cause concern. Does mining online conversations yield the same learning as traditional survey techniques? In what ways does the learning differ and why? Can ‘listening’ and traditional methods complement each other?

Stop, look, listen
The Nielsen Company and Procter & Gamble collaborated on a project designed to answer these questions by researching six frequently occurring types of questions using both a traditional survey approach and a listening-based one. The results from each approach were contrasted to come up with the beginnings of a framework covering why results differ, and to develop initial guidelines for when and how to utilise the respective methods.

We looked at online grocery shopping, cloth nappies, men’s razors, personal care ads, Super Bowl ads, and an interesting word-of-mouth phenomenon, the Snuggie.

The Snuggie phenomenon in the US is a great example of the value of listening. Described by its makers as ‘The Blanket That Has Sleeves!™’, the Snuggie was marketed via a now famous direct response TV ad and became an overnight sensation, with more than six million units sold and online conversation levels rivalling those of hit TV shows. We included Snuggies as a topic in our research to test the hypothesis that listening might be more attuned to trendy or emergent phenomena than surveys. Our hypothesis did not bear out – survey-based awareness of Snuggies clocked in at an eye-popping 83%. But as is often the case, what we actually learned by studying Snuggies was far more interesting.

The six million snuggie question
If we were in the enviable position of being Snuggie brand managers, it seems there is one critical question we would want to answer: Why? Knowing why Snuggies became a runaway hit would help us perpetuate the Snuggie’s success and apply the winning formula to future new products.

To answer the question, we began by analysing the trend of online conversation about Snuggies. The availability of trend data is a useful aspect of monitoring online conversation. By overlaying key events with Snuggies’ online vapour trail it was apparent that while its origins were in its ad campaign, its evolution was shaped and accelerated by external forces, including YouTube ‘tribute’ videos that went viral and in turn led to pick-up by mainstream US media including the Today Show, CNN, and Time magazine.

We used the initial scan of online conversation to develop survey attributes that used actual consumer language to describe aspects of the Snuggie product, commercial and cultural appeal. The survey was then executed and the ‘listening’ analysis was completed.

The results were fascinating, and clearly demonstrate the power of listening to generate marketplace insight. The survey tells the story of a functional product supported by memorable advertising that clearly communicated product benefits. That’s a true story. The trouble is, it’s not the main story.

A New York Times article was uncovered with the following quote from Scott Boilen, CEO of AllStar Marketing, the maker of Snuggies: “We were definitely in on the joke. Do we expect a family to wear these to a football game? No.” This reference to one of the iconic images of the Snuggie ad indicates a deliberate attempt to go over the top to break through. Like the survey, listening detects evidence of a functional product backed by effective advertising. But the main story garnered from listening is different.

“?Listening portrays the Snuggie as a product that transcended its functional bounds to become something of a pop culture icon”

Listening portrays the Snuggie as a product that transcended its functional bounds to become something of a pop culture icon. Consumer comments centred on the utility of the product or elements of the commercial were often tongue in cheek. The pop culture story simply did not come through in the survey – either in attribute ratings or open-ended responses.

Taking a different path
The acid test of good research is how well it guides actions that improve marketplace performance. If we’d been Snuggie’s brand managers and relied on the survey learning and nothing else as a guide, we probably would have invested more in the commercial. It was noticed and it communicated the Snuggie’s functional benefits. But if we broke with typical industry practices and conducted a listening analysis instead of a survey, we would have taken a different path. Sure, the commercial campaign would have continued, but we would have encouraged more events like the pub crawls, celebrity sightings and video parodies to reinforce the magic mix of quirky, cool and functional, the secret to Snuggie’s success.

Another case in which listening provided key learning that suggested a different set of marketplace actions is Gillette Fusion – the first five-blade razor which promised Gillette’s closest shave ever. Brisk year one sales in the US confirmed Fusion as a winner. So it was a mystery when sales of its refill cartridges started to soften in its second year.

Survey research determined that consumers had come to believe that other razors were just as good as Fusion and that it was too expensive. In other words, Fusion was a parity product with a premium price. Bad news.

Listening indicated the situation was not quite so simple – or so dire. In conversations comparing Fusion to competitors most consumers credited Fusion with providing a slightly better shave, just not enough to justify the price difference. Fusion was a superior product, but it was priced too high. Better news.

The survey clearly identified performance and pricing as the two areas that required attention. However, it did not articulate the connection between performance and pricing, nor did it fully dimensionalise either issue.

Our parallel studies revealed other instances in which surveys did not bring to the surface important connections and nuances. It seems that surveys necessarily deconstruct experiences like watching a commercial or using a product into discrete, measurable bits. Listening, on the other hand, preserves links between ideas and captures important subtleties to tell a holistic, textured story. In the case of Fusion, that was critical. Fusion did not need a major overhaul – it needed to remind consumers that it provides a superior shave and to align its pricing with that level of superiority.

The whole story
The results of our parallel studies were surprising. Our work confirmed the importance of surveys and other forms of ‘asking’ research to addressing questions of magnitude, questions such as ‘how many’ and ‘how often’. But our parallel studies clearly showed that listening is essential to telling the whole story. Indeed sometimes, as in the case of Snuggies, listening is essential to telling the right story.

Listening is spontaneous and open. It captures passion and intensity, areas that may be as important as size, but are often overlooked. Listening is holistic and contextual. It can articulate the linkages between different ideas, identify lifestyle connection points, and capture important nuances in consumers’ expressions and beliefs.

Adding listening to the mix is like going from an X-ray to a CAT scan. The CAT scan provides a richer, more complete view than the X-ray. And sometimes it reveals something important that could not be detected by the X-ray alone.

Five tips for learning how to listen

?Adopting new methods and protocols can be daunting on many levels. There are, however, a number of easy, effective ways to gain experience with listening, and to begin reaping its benefits. Here are five of our favourites.

  1. Organise a ‘listening lunch’ for your brand team. Nielsen has helped companies plan and conduct these live listening sessions. Reserve a conference room with internet access, order some pizza, and take your team on a virtual consumer safari. What are consumers saying about your brand, your advertising or the latest market trend right now? This is an exercise that is sure to inform, inspire and instill a connection between the day-to-day decisions of the team and the lives of consumers.
  2. Use listening to ask better questions. Prior to executing your next survey or focus group, log on to a social media site such as Facebook or Twitter, and do a search on your brand or category. What are the hot issues? What terms do consumers use to describe their needs or product features? This is an easy way to inform ‘asking’ content and language, and the benefits can be significant.
  3. Use listening to provide better answers. The next time you need to clarify or expand on survey results, use a search engine to identify leading blogs or user groups related to your brand, category, or target consumer. More often than not you will identify some relevant posts and threads that may help dimensionalise your survey results.
  4. Request a summary of recent customer relations activity. A frequently overlooked high-value listening post embedded in many companies is the customer relations organisation. Reviewing recent call transcripts and consumer emails on your brand can prompt new insights and generate new ideas. Better yet, sit down and have a conversation with some of these people. Nobody engages more frequently and more directly with your brand’s consumers than they do. They are worth getting to know.
  5. Conduct a listening audit to establish a baseline. What are consumers saying about your brand? Where are they saying it? How has this changed over time? How does your brand compare to competitors in terms of the volume and content of conversation? Such audits are surprisingly affordable.

?David Wiesenfeld is vice president of insights and innovation at Nielsen Online. Kristin Bush is senior manager for consumer and market knowledge at Procter & Gamble. Nielsen senior research analyst Ronjan Sikdar also contributed to this article.