Social Media as a Tool: Methodologies

31st January, 2014

Our first post of the year concerned social media research methods. The excitement surrounding social media is understandable due to its potential reach and potential as a data source. Our previous blog explored that potential without drawing specifically on how social media research methods are different – or in many cases following to the exacting standards expected in market research.

As one of the largest communicative tools available to mankind, presented on the medium of arguably one the single most important communicative innovations in the history of the world we preside over reams of information. Social media maintains its importance by appropriating, measuring and valuing areas of information, transforming and even reversing traditional notions of consumer influence. This, I am sure we all understand. But has the way researchers approach the social media market actually diverged from market research dogma? The tried and tested techniques?

Whilst it would seem that due to the heightened levels of online congregation in social media settings it should be as simple as plucking fish from the barrel, the transition to social research has required researchers to exercise enhanced communication skills to truly ascertain the netizens they are dealing with. We currently find market researchers utilising social media through:

1)      Online consumer panels: Not dissimilar to traditional panels, though researchers must go to further lengths to verify an individual’s identity. The selected panel members engage in dialogue between themselves and the research team. Online digital capabilities have expanded the variety of individuals privy to a single panel, and are further enhanced by multi-screen video chat availabilities.

2)      Market Research Online Communities (MROC): Closed community groups recruited for specific interests and purposes. Whilst similar to the conventional research panel, MROC’s are usually deployed for longer, conducting in-depth research. MROC’s can create an open environment for individuals to discuss subject areas without a constant need for researcher prompting.

3)      Pattern recognition: The digital online era allows us to accurately monitor numerous web searchers across multiple engines. Of course, the most popular is Google, but when search is segmented into specialised social engines on dedicated sites it becomes infinitely easier to aggregate search terms, providing indications of opinion share, brand awareness, political weightings and many other sectors.

4)      Listening platforms: Similar to the above, but these tally the total mentions. A social media researcher can utilise this type of application to monitor for total mentions of any given topic, extremely useful for the long term data mining that now occurs, or sifting through big data packages.

5)      Geo-tagging: We all geo-tag. Whether we like it or not, we inevitably leave our grubby GPS prints all over whatever we have posted to whichever network. Foursquare and Slideshare, amongst others, have made this their business by developing social media applications that encourage users to check in when they reach specific locations, notifying other users of said networks in a gamified social media experience. All of this provides market researchers quantitative data, useful for companies and even other consumers.

6)      Social networks: Yes, the social networks themselves. Completely open networks when individuals can provide opinion toward whatever they so wish. It comes in the form of raw numbers, and in some cases is somewhat unverified due to the irrational nature of the web, but largely is consistent enough to be taken seriously. The emergence of Twitter as the go to mouthpiece for many individuals provide a broadcast medium with instant peer validation, whilst sites like LinkedIn provide business of any size the same opportunity – though this is often guarded and considered.

Achieving viable market research results should be possible utilising these techniques. And whilst this is not an exhaustive list of social media research techniques – we have not touched on the usage of social media as a questionnaire, or even as a replacement for the questionnaire – it details the similarities with traditional techniques.

As mentioned above, there are difficulties verifying the identities of individuals online. The very nature of the web requires that anyone be anyone and as such specific demographic sectors can be very difficult to chase down, either due to their reluctance to appear online or their lack of representation across the various social networks. Unsurprisingly, social media use peaks between the early teens and late 30’s, tailing off heavily after the mid-50’s age bracket. This will of course change as the current generation age, potentially taking their current astounding information drive with them.

Another aspect is over exposure to online research. Vast numbers of individuals already report jadedness toward any form of online research with many conditioned to stay away from anything outside their personal online aim. Conversely, others exercise the exact opposite behaviour and dominate discussion groups across a number of topics, leaving quieter members by wayside and inevitably skewing results.

Finally, the on-going media relations concerning the NSA and GCHQ have caused massive damage to the trustworthiness of online research settings. Whilst many netizens can discern between genuine market research and the outreach of the NSA/GCHQ the damage has already been done, by undermining a generation of web users and perhaps the entire web itself. Where market researchers may field questions concerning the ethical implications of utilising open social media data, other companies have trampled all over them.

The long term implications of social media research are unclear. Whether researchers decide it is a long term tool and should be further explored is one thing; whether people will continue to be so open with their data is another.