FEATURE7 December 2011

Uninvited guests


Are brands that engage with their customers in social media crashing a party they were never invited to? We speak to TNS UK’s Sam Curtis about the agency’s study of digital behaviour.


When our parents were fans of a product or brand, they might bore their friends about it in the pub. If they were particularly dedicated, they might buy the T-shirt or join the fan club. Nowadays if you like a brand you can declare it just by clicking a button on Facebook. If you have a question for them or a problem with their service you can tweet them and wait for a reply. And if you make a comment about them elsewhere on the web, perhaps they’ll be listening.

The last few years have seen an explosion of this sort of activity as companies try to get in on the social media conversation. But a major new study by TNS warns that social networks ultimately belong to the consumer, and that brands need to make sure their presence is “proportionate and justified”.

TNS’s Digital Life study surveyed 72,000 consumers in 60 countries and found that, despite the growing enthusiasm of brands to get a foothold in social networks, around half of consumers just don’t want to be bothered by brands in these settings. In the UK the figure is approaching two-thirds.

We spoke to Sam Curtis, managing consultant specialising in digital consumer research at TNS UK, about what the findings mean for brands and research.

“If a brand doesn’t fancy engaging through these spaces, it doesn’t mean people won’t still talk about them”

Research: What did the study tell you about how people respond to brands online?
What we’re finding generally is that consumers in the UK especially are quite resistant to the idea of brands directly contacting them. The caveat to put around that is that it doesn’t mean these platforms are not important from a brand perspective, because we’re also finding that the majority of consumers are using these platforms to read comments that other users are leaving about brands on social networks; they’re changing their minds about purchase decisions based on comments people have left, and about a third of the consumers in the UK are actively writing about brands through these channels.

So there’s a really big challenge here for brands, and even if a brand doesn’t fancy engaging through these spaces, it doesn’t mean people won’t still talk about them. The amount of time people are spending online through these platforms and the amount that they’re talking about brands online is increasing all the time so there’s no doubt at all that this is an absolutely critical area.

The reverse of that is, we’re finding that the majority of brands aren’t doing a particularly good job in actually engaging with consumers. We don’t think a lot of the activity that’s happening at the moment is effective.

What does this mean for companies using social media for research?
There is a huge opportunity here from a research perspective. This is a relatively new area for a lot of brands and they are struggling to engage with consumers, so there is a real need for information and insight, and the best way of delivering that is for researchers to engage in these platforms themselves, to listen to what consumers are saying about brands, to understand how the interactions are working in this space and help our clients find the people who are willing to engage.

“The best, most engaging ideas spread online through consumers sharing them, and in theory that’s what the best research will do as well”

But there are a lot of implications for the way that we go about speaking to these consumers. What we know is that consumers do often respond to incentives, so you need to make sure that people are appropriately incentivised. We also know that, in terms of the way consumers communicate in this space, it’s lots of short, sharp messages. So if you’re going to stick up a 40-minute questionnaire and ask somebody from Facebook to come and answer it, they’re going to tell you to go away. You need to design research that is going to engage people as much as the social network itself does.

We also have to look at using that social effect. We know that the best, most engaging ideas spread online through consumers sharing them, and in theory that’s what the best research will do as well. The notion of sending a link out to consumers and asking them to fill something in – interrupting them – is probably not going to be the best form of contact in future. Elements such as gamification start to become more important in the way surveys are designed. Thinking about how we can dip in and out of these platforms and get that information quickly and succinctly is going to be important as well.

One of the other big things coming out of the study is the extent to which people are operating seamlessly across platforms. If we’re going to understand consumers’ digital behaviour, we need to track everything that they’re doing across every platform and every medium. When you look at a lot of the solutions out there at the moment, there are mobile solutions, there are desktop solutions, and they tend to be quite separate things, so the research industry is probably a bit behind where consumers are at the moment. There’s definitely a need to accelerate the technology that’s available to do these types of research.

“Maybe in research we are too democratic about who we speak to. I think we have to recognise that, especially in the online world, there are people who are more influential than others”

If people aren’t interested in engaging with brands online, are there recruitment crises ahead for online surveys and research communities?
With any type of research there’s going to be a finite pool of people there. But one of the big findings of the study is that maybe in research we are too democratic about who we speak to. I think we have to recognise that, especially in the online world, there are people who are more influential than others, there are people who will do a lot more writing, who will have bigger networks of friends, and if we as researchers can identify who those people are and engage with them, we’ll be able to develop more effective propositions for the clients that we work with. So there’s an argument that says, maybe being democratic isn’t necessarily the right thing to do in this space.

But also there is a need to overcome some of those barriers that people have around engaging with brands by making sure that you’re offering a really tangible benefit, because consumers do engage with brands when they find a good reason to, whether that’s a special offer or because they’re particularly excited about that category.

The role of research here may be changing, from going directly to people and asking them what they think about things, towards observing what people are doing, how they’re interacting and making conclusions off the back of that. When you find something interesting you may go into that conversation and ask them direct questions, but really you are getting maybe 60% or 70% of the way towards your big conclusion by observational techniques. Consumers tend not to make decisions in isolation – they’re often influenced by the social community around them, and if research can take place within that community and see those interactions, the conclusions put forward will be more relevant to the consumer decision-making process.

How might people’s resistance to brands online affect passive observation techniques like social media monitoring and behavioural advertising?
In a general sense most consumers aren’t really aware of those sorts of techniques and what’s happening. Around 60% of our consumers said they were worried about the amount of their own personal data that is stored online and the implications of that leaking out. We know from other studies we’ve done that most consumers don’t really know what they’re sharing and what they’re not sharing.

So there are a couple of things that could happen: if consumer awareness of these types of tactics does increase then there could be some reaction – consumers may close off more of their conversation so the ability of these web crawlers to go in and extract insight could be diminished somewhat.

The other impact it could have is around regulation. If research companies are using these technologies to go in, then in theory we’re impartial, but we know brands are using these technologies to actually go in and speak to consumers directly and try to influence conversations, so the danger is that there could be increased regulation that could affect what research companies are able to do. There’s definitely a danger a bit further along the line that parts of the web will be closed off, which is why observation alone will never be the only solution. There will still be a need to understand what’s happening in these private forums that technology can’t always reach.