Social media networks are flourishing in activity. Most attention is given to Facebook that reached one billion members in the summer of this year. The lively arena of Facebook, humming with human interaction, and its potential to provide easy access to millions of consumers, has soon attracted the interest of marketers. A particular area of interest is the opportunity to study consumer perceptions, attitudes, preferences and behaviour through research activity in online social media networks, primarily in Facebook.
We may distinguish two tracks of research:
- One track entails the collation and analysis of personal content created by network members with minimal or no intervention of companies. This track falls mainly within the domain of Big Data analytics that evolved dramatically in the past few years and keeps growing. Analytic processes may include text mining in search of keywords and key phrases in discussions, frequencies of “like”s, and movement between pages.
- The other track, that is the focus of this post-article, includes interaction between a company and consumers, usually within a community or forum set-up by the company in its corporate name or in the name of one of its brands (e.g., its “page” on Facebook). This activity may take the form of regular discussions initiated by the company (e.g., introducing an idea or a question on topic of enquiry to which members are invited to comment) but also invitations to participate in surveys and moderated focus-group discussions online.
Online marketing research is prevalent for at least ten years now and the methods associated with this field, including surveys, experiments and focus-group discussions, continue to improve. However, the belief taking hold among marketers that they can reliably and transparently shift their research studies to the environment of social media is illusive and misleading (see articles in The New-York Times, TheMarker [Israel]).
Advantages in speed and cost may be tempting marketers to replace established methods with new techniques accustomed to social media or attempt at launching the former from within social media networks. But social media has distinctive features, particularly in structure of information and the coverage of its audiences, that do not allow an easy and simple transition into the new environment, at least not so much as turning traditional marketing research methods redundant.
The problem starts with the “rules of game” typical in a social media network. The codes or norms of discourse between members in the network do not generally fit well with the requirements of rigorous tools of research for data collection. Questions in surveys usually have specially designed structures and format and are specific in defining what the respondent is asked about. They are formulated to achieve satisfactory levels of validity and reliability. The social network on the other hand gives utmost freedom of expression in writing entries or comments. It tries to avoid constraining members into particular modes of reply. Questions prompted to members are usually written in everyday friendly language, the less formal as possible. One may normally post one to three questions at most in such mode of discussion. It lacks any discipline that robust research usually demands. The mode of questioning normally feasible within the pages of the social media website may be acceptable for some forms of qualitative research but, reasonably, it takes more than a few questions to properly investigate any topic.
A marketer may get some idea of direction where consumers or customers are driving at in their thoughts and feelings by scrutinizing their answers subjectively and individually. But it would be presumptuous to derive quantitative estimates at any reasonable level of accuracy (e.g., purchase intentions and willingness-to-pay).
Critics of surveys argue that the reliability of responses is often compromised when respondents attempt to second-guess what the client of the survey wants to hear or they are subject to “social desirability”, that is, they are trying to give the answer believed to be approved by others. However, this problem is not any less susceptible to surface in comments in the setting of social media. When writing in their own words in the less formal setting of a social media community, members may feel more free to express their opinions, preferences, thoughts and feelings; yet they are still expressing what they are ready to share. Furthermore, the social media is a great venue for people to promote the way they wish to be perceived by others, that is, their “other-image”, so we should not assume that they are not “fixing” or “improving” on some of their answers about their preferences, attitudes, the brands they use, etc.
One may use a web application to upload a short survey questionnaire embedded in his or her own page or as a pop-up window. The functionality of such surveys is rather limited, with only a few questions, and is usually more of a gadget than a research tool. The appropriate alternative for launching a more substantive study is to invite and refer participants to a different specialised website where an online survey is conducted with a self-administered questionnaire or a remote focus-group session can be carried out. Here we should become concerned: Who answers the survey questions or takes part in a study? Who do the participants represent?
This concern is a more critical issue in the case of surveys for quantitative research than in forms of qualitative research. Firms are normally allowed and able to address members of their own pages or communities who are “brand advocates” or “brand supporters”. The members-followers are most likely to be customers, but in addition to buying customers they may also include consumers who are just favourable towards the brand (e.g., for luxury brands). If the target population of the research that the marketer wishes to study matches this audience then it is acceptable to use the social media network as a source, and at least for a qualitative study it can be sufficient and satisfactory. However, for a quantitative study it is vital to meet additional requirements upon the process of selection or sampling of participants in order to allow valid inferences. Unfortunately, the match is in many cases inadequate or very poor (e.g., the pool of accessible members covers only a faction of the customer-base with particular demographic and lifestyle characteristics). For quantitative research the problem is likely to be more severe because the ability to draw probabilistic samples is limited or non-existent, and recruitment relies mostly on self-selection by the volunteering members.
The field of online research is still in development where issues of sampling from panels for example are still debatable. There are also misconceptions about the speed of online surveys because in practice one may need to wait even for a week for late respondents in order to obtain a better representative sample. Yet advocates of marketing research through social media networks like Facebook try, quite immaturely, to pave the way into this special territory facing even more difficult methodological challenges.
There are certainly advantages to focusing research initiatives on the company’s customers, particularly in matters of new product development. Customers, and possibly even more broadly “brand supporters”, are likely to be more ready and motivated to help their favourite company, contributing their opinions and sharing information about their preferences. They are also likely to have closer familiarity with the company or brand and obtain better knowledge of its products and services than consumers in general. Hearing first what its own customers think of an early idea or a product concept in development makes much sense to help putting the company on the right track. However, as the configuration of a product concept becomes more advanced and specific, more specialised research techniques are required to adequately measure preferences or purchase intentions. Wider consumer segments also need to be studied. Even at an early stage of an idea there is a risk of missing on real opportunities (or vice versa) if an inappropriate audience is consulted or insufficient and superficial measurement techniques are used. Using the responses from “brand supporters” in a social media network can be productive for an exploratory examination to “test the water” before plunging in with greater financial investment. But such evidence should be evaluated with care; relying on the evidence from social media for making final decisions can be reckless and damaging.
Nevertheless, marketers should distinguish between interactions and collaboration between a company and its customers and research activity. Not every input should be quickly regarded as data for research and analysis. First of all, the mutual communication between customers or advocates and a company/brand is essential to maintaining and enhancing the relationship between them, and the company therefore should encourage customers to interact and furthermore contribute to its function and performance. Hence, when product users offer their own genuine ideas for new products or product improvements (e.g., hobbyists and enthusiasts who develop and build new Lego models) their contributions are welcome, and the better ones are implemented. And when a company (Strauss food company, Israel) gives feedback on ideas by its followers on its Facebook page as to which ideas are inapplicable, to be applied “maybe another time”, as well as in initial review, this activity is commended. But these interactions belong in the domain of collaboration, not research. Survey-like initiatives in Facebook may aid in enforcing a feeling of partnership between a company and its customers (commented to TheMarker by Osem food company). A debate extended on this issue of “partnership” questions whether the reward to originators of successful ideas is only a sense of achievement and contribution or should they receive also material rewards from the benefiting companies.
Social media networks seem foremost appropriate as a source for qualitative research. If those who advocate performing marketing research in Facebook refer primarily to qualitative types of research, then it seems reasonable and more often may be admissible. It is also generally appropriate for exploratory and preliminary examinations of marketing initiatives but when done with caution in view of the limitations of the social media forums. It is much less appropriate as a venue and source for quantitative studies.
While interesting and valid studies can be conducted on how consumers behave in social media websites (e.g., on what subjects they talk, with whom, and the narrative of discourse they use), using a social media network as a source of research on other topics is a different matter. When done for marketing purposes, there are ethical issues regarding analytics of personal content in social media that could not be discussed in the current post. Primarily at stake is the concern whether companies are entitled to analysing content of conversations between consumers-members, suggesting that they are spying on and eavesdropping to network members. Even in discussions on the company’s page the utilization of analytic techniques may not be appropriate or effective. Access to background information on members who activate web apps on the company’s page (with their permission) is another contentious issue. For most users, this is the kind of privacy they have to give up for participating in a network free of charge, but to what extent will consumers agree to go on like this?
The use of social media networks for marketing research, as well as analytics, is therefore more complex and less straightforward than many marketers appear to perceive those activities. Foremost, explorations in social media should not be viewed head-on as a substitute for the more traditional methods of marketing research.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)