BrainTrust Query: How will social media transform consumer research?

Discussion
Mar 17, 2009

By Joel Rubinson,
chief research officer, The Advertising Research Foundation

"Research Methods are now years behind the consumers,
and falling farther behind," Leading Advertiser

In 2003, accountability was thought to be
the differentiator in market research; in fact, consultancy, leadership,
insights were listed as necessary but undifferentiated. The shift in research
strategy in only five years is profound…from an emphasis on report card
accountability metrics to becoming a learning organization that puts the
human at the center of marketing thinking.

There are three primary reasons that the
emphasis on learning is emerging now:

  1. New marketing questions. The human
    is now in control
    in an "always on" world of long tails
    of media and purchase choices, and where social media leads to information
    and opinions spreading like wildfire. Marketers now have a partner
    in managing their brand in a world where push marketing turns into
    pull in a blink of an eye, for example, where TV advertising leads
    to search as people are often media multi-tasking. In this world,marketing
    teams are seeking new ways of connectingtheir brands to people. These
    initiatives will require new mental models, which will lead to new
    tools and metrics, but first, we must re-learn the consumer.

  1. New mental models are emerging. Science
    has taught us that humans are different than we thought. Neuro-science,
    anthropology and behavioral economics have painted a totally different
    picture of how people absorb messaging, retrieve memories, and make decisions
    from what was believed only five-10 years ago. We have learned that "think-feel" is
    one word, that people often use fast and frugal heuristics (rather than
    elaborate trade-offs of attributes) to make decisions, and that one of
    those heuristics is based on copying from others in your "tribe" accelerated
    by social media which has connected people more than ever before). Those
    current research tools that only capture a piece of what matters based
    on this new learning must evolve.
  1. New data feeds, notably social media are
    now available that allow us to "listen" to naturally occurring
    conversations and behaviors…to hear the unexpected. These insights
    come at us like a continuous river, changing the cadence of research.
    Now, "listening
    pipes", as Pete Blackshaw from Nielsen
    Online calls them, go beyond "push surveys" to include social
    media conversation, search, digital analytics, customer interaction in
    the "brand backyard", interactions at retail, and managed communities.
    At our San Francisco conference on Research Transformation, Charlene
    Li referred to the rise of "activist consumers". She and Pete Blackshaw agree
    that these consumers demand to be heard.

So, if an enterprise wants to put humans
at the center, it must become a learning organization to anticipate the
human’s next move. This is the research function’s big opportunity…its
moment in time.

Discussion Questions: How will social media
transform consumer research? How must research methods
be redesigned to capture these changes in the consumer, their
communications, and their purchasing drivers?

[Author’s commentary] Many of
these insights were gleaned from the creation last July of the "Research
Transformation Super-Council." Members include advertisers (General
Mills, Levi Strauss, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Subway, Unilever),
research providers (Nielsen, TNS, Motivequest,
Keller Fray, Kantar) and media companies (ESPN, Razorfish, Digitas, Vivaki.)
The subject has also been the focus of two ARF Industry Leader Forums in
New York and San Francisco, and will be featured as well at its annual
Re: Think 2009 Conference in New York, from March 30-April 1.

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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20 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: How will social media transform consumer research?"


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Carol Spieckerman
Guest
Carol Spieckerman
13 years 2 months ago

I think Stephen makes a great point (jumping on “insights” from social media before vetting the significance) and a lot of that is happening right now as marketers leap into the social networking fray without having a clear plan.

That’s not to diminish social networking’s impact, particularly in the area of product research. Walmart knows that moms are their most influential customers so they harnessed the power of mom bloggers who already had followings based on their product tests, money-saving and green-friendly tips, etc. These “elevenmoms” (http://www.elevenmoms.com) were at South by Southwest (the Austin music festival, and now, social media rave) this week thanks to consumer products sponsors. At the event, they attended and conducted social media panels and served as advisors to brands seeking to navigate the social media waters, and to remain relevant to increasingly tech-savvy moms.

Walmart learns along with them and gets authenticity points by enabling the Moms’ missions (without controlling content); brands get to tap into a ready-made viral focus group. Smell the future.

Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
13 years 2 months ago

Social Media has great benefits. Immediate results (in some cases), lower cost, broad range of demographics and more validated info. The interesting thing about the younger generation is that they want to share their thoughts, opinions, amd ideas to the world.

Mary Baum
Guest
Mary Baum
13 years 2 months ago

One word: profoundly.

I can only imagine what this does–or has been doing–to the entire business model around old-fashioned quantitative research, because I’ve been away from the research business for a while now.

But it would seem to me that now, when we have this flood of qualitative data coming at us in the same volumes as the old quantitative studies, essentially for free, and we also have natural-language processing that lets us make sense of the qualitative data, the only question remains is the one that consumers have been asking for the last forty years: Are we going to bring products and services to market that demonstrate that corporate management paid attention to what consumers (and b2b end-users) said they wanted?

Gene Detroyer
Guest
13 years 2 months ago

Eight years ago with a start up venture, we used internet mining research for the first time. I was amazed at the results. It was the most useful and directional research we did. It told us about our product. It told us how to communicate. It told us who are targets were.

That was eight years ago and things have changed dramatically. The pace they are changing is really beyond conception. Social media, which did not exist in any great magnitude eight years ago, is gigas bigger today.

All the information a researcher needs is out there. The challenge is to get it, sift it and use it. The proper use of it will lead to new marketing initiatives that are much more focused than ever before. For the first time marketers will start to understand what half of the advertising they do is the wasted half.

Lisa Bradner
Guest
Lisa Bradner
13 years 2 months ago
I personally believe research is one of the places social media shines. By allowing us a window into what people think and do when we’re not around, how they engage with our products and services, the sentiment they hold for us, and how relevant we are or are not to their lives, social media gives us a chance to observe consumers in a more ‘unguarded state’ than traditional research. Even ethnographic research creates an artificial environment where someone knows they’re being watched. If we can keep social media more free form and unstructured it’ll be a bit harder to pull the insights out but it can keep the medium pure. I agree with many experts who say it’s not an either/or scenario but as we evolve from only asking questions and listening when we want to, to being able to hear what people are saying about us when we’re not around, market research will hopefully move from less episodic and reports-oriented to the group that has a constant pulse on the consumer.
Joel Warady
Guest
Joel Warady
13 years 2 months ago

One can simply look at the phenomenon of Twitter, and get an idea as to how Social Networking will alter consumer research. It has been our belief that the days of focus groups are offer. Why would a company trust their decisions to people sitting in thew room, who are being paid to provide responses, and they attempt to tell you things that they think you want to hear? If you want to know what people are thinking, all you have to do is follow the conversations on Twitter, or Facebook, and you will gain a real-time understanding as to what is on people’s minds.

Further, by the time a company might be able to read through all of the comments gleaned from a Focus Group meeting, attitudes most likely have changed. The connected world moves too quick today. Social Networks provide marketers with information as it is happening, and lets us know what is on people’s minds today, not yesterday.

Companies that don’t get this are going to find themselves left behind.

Ben Sprecher
Guest
Ben Sprecher
13 years 2 months ago
The explosion of social media and the attendant qualitative customer data will certainly be a boon in terms of understanding and anticipating what consumers think they want. However, the danger here is the same one faced in any qualitative survey or focus group–people say what they think other people want to hear. In the case of social media, the effect is amplified. Bloggers link to other bloggers, commenters form their own threads of discussion, friends forward each other links. But they all do this *for other people* (otherwise, the media wouldn’t be “social,” would it?). The purest measure of a person’s preferences and ultimate buying behavior is, unsurprisingly, the person’s *actual* buying behavior, not what they say they are going to do. This data exists today in the form of loyalty card databases, but it is sorely under-used. I think the real power of social media as a market research tool will come when people’s online opinions and social graphs can be tied to their actual purchase histories. Only then can we reconcile the gap… Read more »
Eliott Olson
Guest
Eliott Olson
13 years 2 months ago

Using the net can tell us a lot about the qualitative state of mind of some consumers and it can be an invaluable tool. But keep in mind that before a capital investment is made, a quantitative analysis is still necessary. A foreign chain spent a great deal of time and money trying to get inside the American brain but forgot to quantify the number of like-brains that existed in their proposed markets.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
13 years 2 months ago

The answer is: Social Media has already transformed consumer research. Take one crazy example. In Australia, Kraft has a product called “Vegemite” that is a sandwich spread with a very unique flavor. Vegemite sells only 2 per cent of its 22 million jars a year outside Australia. Yet, 1.5 billion posts across 38 languages within social networking sites, blogs, message boards and online news have turned up 479,206 mentions of Vegemite, with brand affinity found more often than for any other product worldwide. VEGEMITE has trumped global marketing Goliaths Coca-Cola, Nike and Starbucks to be named the world’s “most loved brand” on the internet.

Does social media work? Yup! The impact is so significant, that these findings have prompted Kraft to revisit their marketing strategy.

Phil Rubin
Guest
Phil Rubin
13 years 2 months ago
Research, and more specifically, customer insights, is a key value of social media. There are many great examples, both documented and in real time every day (just search Twitter and see what people are saying about your brand). One real challenge that we are seeing is companies trying to understand, organize, and embrace social media in both a strategic and operational manner. There are turf battles (is it the marketing, loyalty/relationship customer group or PR/corp comm) who “owns” it? We don’t always see the research groups in that skirmish but then again, those groups are increasingly thinly staffed and stretched (like the others!). Clearly these turf battles lead to failure. The other pitfall is understanding who is reachable via SM today. Of course this varies greatly between industries, categories, and brands; yet in most cases we’re seeing the two ends of the (normal) curve: the advocates or promoters on one end, and the detractors on the other. Using SM for true research purposes needs to factor this in.
Dan Raftery
Guest
13 years 2 months ago

One interesting application for the social media networks–focus group research. Another–competitive intelligence. A third–counterfeit investigations. A fourth–consumer feedback. More to come….

Joan Treistman
Guest
13 years 2 months ago
Time out! Let’s look at the big picture. Historically, research has conducted “trends” research (e.g., Yankelovich, Roper Reports), to help marketers understand consumer attitudes, values, and behavior across the globe. Trends research is often used as a foundation for developing marketing strategy. This is where social media makes the biggest contribution. It allows companies to see what is happening now and plan for what can happen down the road. Marketers do not have to rely on the rear view mirror (traditional trends research) to anticipate the next curve or opportunity. Let’s not forget a basic need for marketing research–to minimize risk in business decisions. Social media provides access to consumer behavior and attitudes that can be channeled for a company’s information needs. It’s a tool that can be applied to understanding brand equities, reactions to new products and services. For those with greater analytic capabilities and insights social media can provide the groundwork for developing new ideas and products. That’s way beyond expectations three years ago. However, channeling and leveraging social media is not the… Read more »
Joel Rubinson
Guest
13 years 2 months ago

These are great comments and will continue to put social media (and search, managed communities, web logs, etc.) under a bright light as a source of insights. For the record, we believe that listening is critical to hearing the unexpected and fueling innovation strategies–however, it is a source of insights that must be integrated and synthesized with other sources as well.

For those who will be in NY, the ARF annual conference will have a “listening zone” in the expo (no charge to come just to the expo) where we will have 12 of the leading research firms in the segment all in one place. Details at http://thearf.org/assets/rethink-09-exhibitors or by e-mailing me joel@thearf.org

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
13 years 2 months ago

I’ll offer a different perspective from those above. Social media may be a great replacement for the focus group or directly asking people questions. However, our industry has been sloppy (to date) with data quality–we are very quick to accept anything we glean from social media without understanding whether it is representative of anything (the population, the target group, etc.).

Social media also represents only one half of the research world. If we divide the research we do into exploratory and confirmatory, social media is relevant only to the first function. There will be the occasional big hit for someone listening to the vibe and saying, “here’s what we should do” and then doing it. Mostly, without the confirmatory research part, you won’t know whether the idea will really work or how big an idea it is.

Ben Ball
Guest
13 years 2 months ago

One critical challenge to unlocking the power of social research will be to capture and quantify it in ways that can be used to influence management decisions. I’ve recently had occasion to be exposed to several of these tools, and was favorably impressed by the ability of some to get beyond “counting clicks and hits.” Making the information actionable is one thing. Making it convincing and compelling is another hurdle.

Amy Kasza
Guest
Amy Kasza
13 years 2 months ago
The key is appreciating the art while respecting the science of research. Plenty of consumer brands are actively courting social media, while most remain in the “flirting” stage. What’s clear is that consumers feel free to say things to each other that they would not say in the formal setting of a focus group, or in response to a survey. However, this freedom does not necessarily translate to greater validity. Think of how many informal conversations we have in which we spout off about a bad customer service experience, or disappointment with a product. What we say out of momentary frustration, or out of initial satisfaction, does not always represent what we *really* think. What we *really* think is only truly borne out by our behavior: repeat visits to a retailer, repeat purchases of a product. Think of this example–how many of us have actually taken the time to post a review for a product on a retailer’s Web site (a structured form of social media, after all)? If you have done so, and your… Read more »
Kevin Price
Guest
Kevin Price
13 years 2 months ago
Mr. Rubinson, with whom I had the opportunity to discuss these subjects a few weeks ago, is unquestionably WAY ahead of most of the marketplace on these issues he raises. Here’s what I have found over the past 18 months in developing and selling-in a new, 2nd generation ‘listening’ tool within CPG and many other industries: (1) Mr. Rubinson asks his discussion question, understandably, in the context of how social media will transform consumer research. I submit that the social media scope is larger than consumers to include the entire ‘market’ (i.e., including non-users, trier-rejectors, ‘considerers’, etc., however these groups might be defined). And therein lies an enormous opportunity to extend a company’s knowledge of the ‘market’, including both current and potential future consumers, in ways most market research ignores (given the traditional ‘user’ focus). (2) Given this broader ‘market’ research context the examination of social media allows, I would also submit that market research has ALREADY changed forever…but most companies simply don’t know it yet. In fairness to all, this is a whole new… Read more »
Steven Collinsworth
Guest
13 years 2 months ago

I am far from an expert on social media and my kids still refer to me as being “ancient.” I suppose this puts me in the same class as King Tut.

I believe there are many uses of social media which are yet to be created or even thought about. However, some very basic and foundational work needs to be performed in terms of understanding the “demographic/electronic media” person(s). I seriously doubt it mirrors the consumer as we understand them in traditional brick and mortar.

My belief is the users of the social media outlets on the internet are most likely younger and more sophisticated in their purchase behavior. We all understand most consumers to be more savvy with their expenditures in these economic conditions. However, this does not equate to being the equivalent of each other.

Therefore, marketers should approach this medium with relative level of caution. Don’t overdo it and turn off your audience, whoever they may be.

Carlos Arámbula
Guest
13 years 2 months ago

The vehicles to capture research in this era of Facebook and other social media already exist and have been used successfully by some companies–GSK used online communities in the development and launch of Alli diet pills.

The systems are designed to capture real-time consumer opinions, reactions to trends and other influences, even sampling and feedback. The nature of the approach allows for tremendous flexibility and depth, so we are big fans of the approach.

The biggest obstacle, as in anything new, is the resistance by marketing managers to change their approaches to research. Also the cost makes it prohibitive to small budgets, at least until databases are able to offer a wider pool of participants.

Ray Grikstas
Guest
Ray Grikstas
13 years 2 months ago

I wouldn’t be surprised if social media–in this context–was past its frothy peak. Sorry.

I’m already starting to see signs of *consumers* questioning information that comes from (practically) unverifiable sources. Glowing product reviews are particularly suspect right now. In one case, I heard from an SM user who stated, quite bluntly, that he would only ever trust negative product reviews–since there was less chance of ulterior motives coming into play.

Now I’m not saying I completely agree with his stance–but it does demonstrate that the new generation of consumers are pretty smart cookies. They spend so much time marketing *themselves* on their MySpace and Facebook pages, that they now have an *insider’s* understanding of the mind-games marketing departments can play.

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