OPINION10 November 2009

Pragmatism trumps hype in social media debate


The MRA’s First Outlook Conference aims to showcase ‘the research world of tomorrow’. Jeffrey Henning spotted hints of pragmatism amid the social media hype.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” quoted Reed Cundiff, senior director of central market research for Microsoft at the Marketing Research Association’s First Outlook Conference in San Diego last week. He was referring to the economy, which has forced Microsoft to be more creative about its $100m in annual market research spending while accelerating the (beneficial) centralisation of that spending.

However, he just as well could have been referring to later sessions on social media and market research, in which a newfound pragmatism could be heard amid the meta-hyping (the hyping of the benefits of communities for hyping brands).

Jane Mount, an executive vice president with Digital Research and seasoned focus group moderator, discussed how MROCs (market research online communities) represent a shift in qualitative research and are now an affordable alternative to focus groups. But while she said it was easy to glorify certain MROC activities as “ethnography”, true ethnography needs to take place offline, and some activities can never substitute for the face-to-face interaction of focus groups.

Karen Manne, VP of research with Disney, provided anecdotes from the thousand small, focused projects that have been conducted in her 1900-member MROC, the ABC Studios Advisory Panel. She was most enthusiastic about the viral marketing potential of her community, while confessing to having been burned by members pirating videos, leaking confidential materials to entertainment blogs and otherwise frightening some senior executives from wanting to use the panel for serious research. As Karen said, “I love my community, but it is not all puppies and rainbows.”

Ned Winsborough, manager of consumer networks at General Mills, was similarly excited by online communities and by the potential to create “buzz agents” from their members, but confessed to not having pursued the idea further. His enthusiasm diminished somewhat when one audience member pointed out that General Mills could get stung by negative buzz from unhappy community members.

Most of the rest of his presentation shared down-to-earth practical ideas culled from the 22 community projects conducted so far this year. Based on lessons learned, General Mills is using communities more for qualitative work rather than quantitative work, with smaller communities empanelled for shorter periods ( 6 to 8 weeks), with members getting larger incentives ($50/week) and being recruited near focus group facilities, so that the online work could be supplemented by offline work such as shelf studies, reviews of product packaging and taste tests. Ned has heard everything from “traditional research is dead” to skepticism about the value of online community research. “The truth is in the middle,” he said. “It has a place, and we need to approach it like any other new technology.”

While Ned called MROCs “consumer networks”, Howard Fienberg, director of government affairs of the MRA, pointed out new initiatives to legislate “social networks”. This could lead to the regulation of online focus groups and online research communities if they were classified as social networks. As a result, as an industry, avoiding using the word ‘network’ to describe community research and ceasing to contaminate such research with marketing might be a far, far better thing to do than we ever have done.

Jeffrey Henning is founder of Vovici and blogs at blog.vovici.com

1 Comment

15 years ago

this is a cool news. Thank you.

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