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OPINION11 April 2016

The strange state of social media in market research

Media Opinion Trends UK

Social media is part of people’s everyday lives and it’s time the market research industry recognised this, and used the data it offers to full effect, says Jess Owens.

Last month, I had the pleasure of being on the ‘Social Noise’ panel at the MRS Impact 2016 conference – which included some interesting, challenging discussion about the place of social media research in the industry today.

One point raised then warrants looking at in more detail. That is: while social media insight may be given ‘early adopter’ status by many researchers, that says more about us in research than it does about the platforms, which are now part of day-to-day communications in consumers’ lives.

Is social media insight really still at ‘early adoption’ stage in our industry – or do we just think it is?

Social media isn’t new any more

In a debrief last month, my visual social media insights were challenged: wasn’t Instagram just a niche platform for London hipsters? How could it be generalised to my client’s mainstream customer?

Let’s look at the data, mapping each social media platform’s UK user base as a share of total population against the innovation adoption curve (Everett Rogers, 1962 ). Twitter and Instagram are in ‘early majority’ territory and Facebook in ‘late majority’. Social media as a technology is, demonstrably, normal, everyday stuff. It is almost certainly relevant to your customer, no matter what brand you work for.


Next question: within the market research industry, how far has social insight got along the adoption curve? By instinct alone, it’s tempting to say ‘early adopter’ territory here too, given how much the discourse still positions social media research as novel, different, and perhaps a bit ‘here be dragons’.

We’ve got data here too. The GRIT 2015 industry trends report tracks the use of different types of research methods by market researchers around the world. Most popular overall is, unsurprisingly, quant research, with 90% adoption. Qual overall is at 79%.

And social media research is not that far behind. Nearly two thirds ( 63%) of client firms responding to the survey said they were already using social media analytics – putting it firmly in ‘late majority’ territory on the innovation adoption curve. By GRIT’s measures, social media analytics is the third-most adopted ‘new technique’ following mobile surveys and online communities.

Talks at the MRS conference made it apparent that something has shifted: social is becoming part of the ‘new normal’ for research. Unilever’s Stan Sthanunathan made it his #1 commandment: “Get social or get ready to be branded anti-social”, and is moving the company to a social-centric model for insight.

However, what’s also notable is that comparatively few research firms are using social techniques: 41% vs. 63% client side. This goes to show that social feels ‘newer’ to agencies than it does to the organisations we work with – yet also that it’s us that needs to change, not them.

It speaks as well to another strategic challenge for social media insight in the research industry: researchers are not necessarily the people in control.

Marketers are greater advocates than researchers

The World Federation of Advertisers, in association with BrainJuicer, recently published the Future of Insights Project. It’s fascinating reading on the thorny question of how insights leaders perceive their work vs. how senior marketers perceive insights – the two aren’t always quite aligned.

The study asked a question about new methods: ‘Which of these generate the most commercially advantageous insights?


The results for social media monitoring aren’t terribly strong – ranking 11th out of 15 (partly, I think, because ‘monitoring’ is not the most insightful way to use social – but more on that shortly!)

But what’s interesting is that marketers appear to be nearly twice as likely as insight specialists to think that social media monitoring is commercially useful. For marketers, social media for insight outranks online communities and mobile ethno, and it far outflanks the classic focus group. Of course, within client organisations it’s the marketing team – more than insights – who gain most exposure to social through all its other uses for advertising, content and communications. 

Overall, though, the story for social is strong: in consumer use, client use and advocacy in the wider marketing industry, it is higher than we think, and there are examples of best practice coming from dozens of firms. What needs to happen next is a mindset shift.

It’s certainly tempting to question why research takes a ‘glass half empty’ view – at Impact 2016, Twitter’s Jake Steadman talked about the ‘methodological policeman’ attitude, always searching for the problems with social rather than the opportunities it can offer.

But really our narratives just need to catch up with the data. As sci-fi author William Gibson said, “The future’s already here – it’s just unevenly distributed.”

Beyond ‘command and control’

What we don’t understand and don’t control scares us. On the conference panel, I was asked,’What happens when untrained people are analysing data? How do we stop them coming to the wrong conclusions?’ There’s actually an easy solution here: customise your social media monitoring tool’s dashboard so that it shows the ‘approved’ versions of all your charts, KPIs and search strings by default.

Yet the bigger picture answer is also: trust your people. In complex, rapidly-changing environments, accurate decisions can only be made from the ‘front lines’ rather than hierarchically from the centre. There’s not always time for marketers and product managers to ask the global CMI team to run a study. Instead, for modern businesses, social media intelligence dashboards can be part of the toolkit connecting everyone in the company with commercial and customer truths. The chance for insight to live throughout the organisation is only a positive if we want to create insight-led decision making.

The job to be done for social media insight is an education piece – this is much of what I’m hoping to achieve with my contribution to the IPA best practice guide. While we’re still talking social media ‘monitoring’ and ‘tracking’, we remain yoked to a quantitative brand tracking model of what social media can deliver: a framework that can conceive of social as nothing more than an alternative to surveys, which substantially limits what the method can actually deliver.

We need to assert the value of social data, especially Twitter, as real-time intelligence about people’s behaviour. At FACE we’ve been doing some very exciting work for tech clients using social as a means to understand people’s everyday behaviour such as listening to music and driving to work. Hundreds of thousands of people tweet, in real-time, about what they’re doing and how they feel – as Jake Steadman noted in his talk, Twitter is a very emotive place. And from these little behavioural signals, beautiful innovation platforms can start to be built.

We have to keep moving. Stan Sthanunathan’s #2 commandment hits it on the nose: “Data is commoditised but insights are getting democratised.” We can either cling to our methodologies and our data collection – and be commoditised out of existence – or be part of this moment where insight expands outwards into the world, and further outwards through the organisation, too.

Integrating ever more diverse sources of information, from tweets to images to operational data. And embedding our insights across our clients’ businesses, from the C-suite to the customer front line.

Jess Owens is associate research director at FACE

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