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Social media conversations versus market research

By James (JT) Turner, Founder and CEO Delineate

I recently read an opinion piece that said the biggest and most powerful market research tool we have is social media. With Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter offering instant and uncensored conversations from consumers, there’s no longer a need for techniques like focus groups or online surveys. The author, a CEO of a communications agency, suggested you can simply read consumer conversations and you’ll find out all you need to know. [I think they meant that social media listening was the answer to everything!]

Delineate JT

Why listening is not the same as asking!

At a glance this might seem like a valid point. In fact, I’ve worked in organisations that have done amazing work using social media conversations to glean ‘signals’ from consumer conversations. But you only need to scratch the surface of these social media conversations to realise they are not the whole picture.

With ‘free tools’, or at least ‘free data’, there are always downsides. Social media posts aren’t a full representation of what consumers think – only what they have chosen to say publicly. Views are more likely to be in the extreme and they won’t uncover the context or motivation that led to the post itself. Social media conversations won’t be a full answer to a primary business question and they’re unlikely to help you understand what you can do to change that consumer’s mind.


Does market research have an image problem?

Now I can see why marketing and communications agencies want to use social media listening as a replacement for market research. When time is short, working with a research agency seems like a drag – particularly in planning and pitch situations. I hear “we haven’t got any budget”, “we’re too busy”, “the client has loads of research” as the key reasons why research agencies aren’t brought in.

But just getting the intern to “look up some research on Google” isn’t exactly critical thinking and lets good agencies down. And while we can give thanks to Survey Monkey for enabling the quick office polls, all too often the views of our colleagues become “our research shows” in a pitch. Foundational insights for a campaign should not be ‘made up’ in an agency echo chamber.

So, we have a situation where the agency knows they need an original, foundational insight, but they’re not prepared to pay for it or wait for an expert. When non-researchers conduct their own research, this is the same as the market researcher writing a comms plan or working up the creative. They’ll give it their best shot, but it’s highly unlikely it’ll be that good!

Now I’m probably being defensive – I’m a career market researcher after all. But the deeper issue with adopting these simplistic approaches to research means that we’re overlooking critical thinking and real empathy towards consumers. Imagining ourselves ‘in their shoes’ is not a proxy for real interactions where we can ask the right questions. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen affluent urban professionals project their own values and decision-making processes onto an audience they’ve never actually met. They act surprised when their ‘great idea’ falls flat with clients (who know their consumers better) or it simply fails in execution. Great research uncovers great insights. Great insights underpin great campaigns.


Market research can be delivered at speed

So hopefully I’ve convinced you that just doing all of your research via social media listening isn’t so smart. You’re probably still thinking that you don’t have time to engage a research agency though. Getting a research agency involved can be faster than most clients realise. For example, here at Delineate we offer overnight message testing with real audiences. We can conduct high quality, insightful research in hours and days, not weeks and months. Ironically, our primary research can be faster than that ‘intern on Google’ or that Survey Monkey office poll! Before I sign off, let’s also dispel the myth that market research equates to standing in the street with a clipboard! [Although if you fancy a laugh, check out my favourite sketch from the late great Victoria Wood].

Market research has evolved into a wide range of methodologies that can now go at speed. Fast-turnaround primary research methods such as online focus groups and online surveys can be used to deliver quality insights quickly. Next time you find yourself tempted to take a shortcut to save time, please give us a call.

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