Social Media Market Research: More than just “listening”

When Communispace first started building private online communities, using social media for market research was far from an inevitability. The connections that social tools have demonstrated the power to forge—bridging a digital chasm to link people from all corners of the globe and all mindsets—and the power they give people to create and share, have since become instrumental in businesses’ understanding of their customers … and their prospective customers.

Businesses’ hunger to make use of these connections and to learn what they can from the resulting content tsunami has bred a host of tools designed to make sense of it all.

Tools like Radian6, Google Alerts, and Twitter searches have given enterprises the ability to get a 10,000 ft. view of the universe of conversations going on around their brand in real-time, and even monitor the shifting tides of sentiment that color those conversations.

Their effect has been tremendous and well-documented across the enterprise: customer service, public outreach, demand generation, campaign measurement, and yes—even market research.

But people have had a tendency to ascribe “silver bullet” status to the slickness and newness of social media, seeing it as a new champion with the power to solve all problems. I’m here to tell you that it just ain’t so.

Monitoring social media is not the same as performing qualitative research.

As helpful as these tools are, they have limits—particularly when richness and insight is what’s needed most. The biggest danger is in buying a tool and thinking you’re now fully equipped to learn what your customers want from you. But there are other reasons why social media market research requires more than just a listening tool:

1. Listening alone is a limited lens

Let’s drop the marketing-speak of “engagement,” “synergy,” and “alignment” and get to the point:

Finding out what your customers want out of your product or service is not just about listening to them – it’s about conversing with them.

Seems obvious, right? But the second someone throws the words “social media” or “Facebook” into a sentence, droves of marketers immediately forget this important fact and think they’ve found a silver bullet.

In a conversation, both parties learn about one another, and drive to more and more in depth explorations of need, belief, feeling, and reaction. 140 characters is not enough, neither is a comment on a Facebook wall post. (To be completely honest, neither is a survey with ten checkboxes on it.)

When you’re just listening, you’re also not getting to know. An enormous amount of knowledge can be unlocked when you get to know customers over the course of months and years – truly getting into their minds, not just their tweets.

2. Social media monitoring tools are not nearly powerful or smart enough

As amazing as these tools are, and as helpful as a high-altitude bellwether of attitude can be, getting beneath the surface and into the mind of the consumer isn’t going to happen by aggregating millions of tweets and analyzing their trending sentiment.

Volume and aggregation necessarily leads to standardization and averaging. These things are all powerful when quantitative measurement is needed, but not so great when insights are required.

Besides the technical obstacles to accuracy, attention, rigor, attentiveness, tact, enthusiasm, and perception are required to really get deep. While leads us to…

3. The most profound insights require deep expertise to uncover

Qualitative market research is interpretive. It’s also a highly developed discipline, crossing a variety of perspectives and involving the study of anthropology, semiotics, linguistics, sociology, and psychology.

Doing it with a social media toolbox requires even more specialized skills. For instance, a deep understanding of best practices in community management—understanding the role vibrancy plays in cultivating an intimate environment in which customers are willing to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

These things require not only effort, but also specialized expertise. Buying a listening tool (or even a robust community platform) does not equip anyone to coax insights from customers.

I’m not saying that social media listening and monitoring tools don’t provide value. They do, and lots of it. If you’ve ever seen Radian6’s “River of News” you know how thrilling and illuminating it can be to watch comments, tweets, and articles about your brand fly by.

Social media listening tools things can help with “gut checks,” surface-level, and reactionary studies, and in tandem with deeper examination can be a very valuable tool in the researcher’s arsenal. But when the goal is the kind of insight that can transform an enterprise, you need to get into consumers’ minds—and in the realm of the mind, there’s no silver bullet.