OPINION5 June 2012

Time to brush up on your social skills


Sinead Hasson investigates the emerging skills gap between traditional and social media research professionals.


As social media platforms attract a growing number of consumers keen to vent criticism and proclaim their undying loyalty towards brands, companies increasingly want a piece of the action and are prepared to pay for social media research to inform their engagement strategy.

But are traditional research agencies up to the job? It requires specialist expertise and knowledge to successfully navigate through the social media research minefield and obtain the required insights without risking damage to a client’s reputation. Research agency heads need to give this serious consideration when reviewing recruitment and team development strategies, or else they risk being overtaken by the branding, design and other creative agencies that have already started buying in social media research skills – enabling them to bypass research agencies and offer this service in-house.

Helpfully, TNS’s Digital Life survey has identified the ways in which brands can operate effectively on social media channels. With that as our starting point, let’s consider the attributes and skills that are most important to today’s professional researcher working in a socially-connected digital world.

An understanding of incentivisation

TNS found that consumers who are active on social media websites are responsive to incentives. Social media users do not, however, like to be bothered by brands with commercial messages in ‘their’ online space. As a result, a good social media research professional needs to be tuned into what will constitute an appealing and successful incentive that will be seen by the consumer as a reasonable benefit for engaging in research.

Creativity here is a character trait that could be key to a successful outcome. Researchers must also be ‘socially’ experienced enough to understand the differences between social media channels and social groups. Incentives must be tailored to different audiences – a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work in an online environment and poor or irrelevant incentivisation, or any initiative that looks like a blatant stab at advertising will not go down well with consumers and could do more harm than good.

A short, sharp communicator

TNS’s study supports the widely understood notion that consumers converse in short, sharp messages on social media. Asking consumers within an online community to fill out a long questionnaire with lengthy open-ended responses is the wrong approach. Researchers must be experts in brevity and the nuances of social media discourse and be able to apply this to what they are saying to audiences, as well as how they are saying it. After all, respondents can only be expected to engage with a brand if that brand has the courtesy to talk to them in their own language about subject matters that are really relevant to them. A brand’s reputation relies on the ability of a researcher to confidently communicate in ‘social media speak’.

If these attributes are not currently part of a traditional researcher’s capabilities, what alternative professions could research agencies draw from in order to plug the gap? Marketing and PR professionals are adept communicators and skilled in juggling the needs of multiple parties at the same time. Journalists are experts in precision writing, and are also notoriously prolific users of social media. Broadcast production is another field where professionals need to effectively assess an audience and meaningfully engage with it in real time.

Knowledge of an online influencer hierarchy

Some people are more influential online than others. In order to raise awareness of a research project and spark the social element that will lead to more respondents, researchers need to be able to identify and target the core influencer group for their particular category, brand or general subject matter. Gone are the days when selecting a sample of respondents was simply about identifying consumer traits. Social media requires a much more in-depth measure of a consumer’s influence.

A social media research professional requires refined skills in influencer targeting. In addition to understanding the online influencer landscape, an advanced knowledge and experience of the latest social media influencer tools such as Klout or Peerindex is essential.

Refined online observation techniques

According to TNS, future research projects may be comprised of 60-70 percent passive observation of online consumer behaviour and attitudes. In light of this, research agencies need to have the skills in-house to offer informed and advanced online monitoring services. A social researcher should be experienced in social media monitoring applications, such as Radian6 or Sentiment Metrics and have the capability, desire and scope within their job role to keep fully up to speed on developments relative to new and emerging social media monitoring applications.

What does the future hold?
While the popularity of individual social platforms may rise and fall, the act of conversing online with friends, family and followers is firmly established in society. For research agencies, there is no question that changes have to be made to traditional skill sets. What agency heads should now be considering is whether they have experienced sufficient demand yet for this type of research and whether they need to invest in people with social media research skills right away. If not, then there may be time to develop the necessary skills internally, but time should not be wasted; forward-thinking creative agencies are already getting a foot in the door of the data collection and insight world.

From a researcher’s perspective, opportunities to gain experience with social media platforms or applications should be grabbed with both hands. There is increasing demand for social media research skills; this evolution in the role of research represents a perfect chance for ambitious and fast-moving professionals to advance their careers and expose themselves to new challenges. CVs need to demonstrate the added value a researcher can bring to traditional research employers.

However, it is important to remember that there will always be a demand from clients for traditional research methods. From their point of view the greatest value lies in combining different techniques to provide the most accurate insight possible into consumer markets. Eager professionals should therefore ensure that their skills are evolving across all research channels, welcoming and incorporating innovative new ideas, while still being mindful of the existing traditions.

Sinead Hasson is managing director of Hasson Associates, a recruitment agency specialising in market research


12 years ago

An interesting post. But something still mystifies me. If we are to rely on 'short sharp' questions (I've seen some as short as 2 Qs), how are we going to come up with the deep and meaningful consumer insights that our clients are demanding? There is a reason quallies call them depth interviews - and it's a darned good reason. One of the problems as I see it is that we're beginning to confuse breadth with depth. It's much more expedient and convenient to ask a gazillion people a couple of questions than to actually plumb the deep thoughts and inter-relationships of the few. I think that there is also confusion over 'engagement'. We're shortening our questionnaires to keep response rates up all in the name of 'engagement'. Just maybe all we're doing is 'dumbing down' to pick up the 'polite refusers' (OK .. I'll answer your handful of questions to keep you happy') and the satisficers. Apologies for the long reply - but I believe in depth of understanding.

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12 years ago

John, I think you'd find much in common with Peter Mouncey, whose comment piece touches on many of the points you make: http://www.research-live.com/4007519.article

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