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Social media is a research tool, not a crystal ball

A flawed social media trend

As social media monitoring tools like Radian6 and Crimson Hexagon have become more popular with companies and agencies alike, it seems everyone has started to assume they can use social media to predict the future be it the future of box office sales or
political races.

While in some cases there may in fact be a connection or correlation between social media conversations and offline results, we all have to be careful not to assume such a connection always exists and is always reliable.

“To date, I have never seen a repeatable correlation between social media mentions/ sentiment and the actual vote,” wrote Tom Webster at BrandSavant.com with his column’s overall point being that what people say on social media and what they actually do offline is often very different.

I can tweet all day long about loving Apple or wanting to purchase a new iPad, but if I never follow through and make that purchase, then what did my social media behavior predict? In the end, nothing of great value to the company.

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HP spends a great deal of time and resources monitoring social media, and I like their approach to the results. To them, social media is another means through which they can understand their consumers and learn a bit more about what makes them tick. Social media is simply another form of market research and intelligence, but it’s no more magical than customer surveys and other factors.

Legitimate insight available

Even though social media cannot always predict what will happen offline, there are still a great deal of insights you can find simply by listening to how consumers talk about you online:

  • Untapped market segments. Two years ago when I was helping to build a social media monitoring process for a CPG client, we made a few discoveries that no one really expected. While discussing results of a brand audit, I casually mentioned that college-aged students seemed to be the most vocal consumers talking about the brand on Twitter. This brand was never really marketed to that demographic and had not considered that they may be a target. Alternative and unknown product uses. While working with a food company, it was discovered that even though their product was not marketed or intended as a breakfast food, it was being consumed much of the time for breakfast or with other breakfast foods. The brand had not known about this use and wondered if they should start marketing their product as a breakfast food as well.
  • Marketing and advertisement crowdsourcing. One common use for social media across industries is crowdsourcing. Listening to consumers talk about the brand in everyday contexts and conversations often sparks brand managers to think about their own brand in a different way and can help breathe new life into tired marketing campaigns. You may discover new ways or phrases used to talk about your brand if you listen for a little
    while.
  • Rough feedback and reviews. Similarly, social media can often be used as a means to get feedback or reviews on new products, offerings or even marketing concepts. This type of feedback will not necessarily be representative of all of your consumers, but it’s a quick and easy way to get a reading on how consumers are reacting in a natural environment. Many brands have used the Facebook polls functionality to ask questions
    about potential marketing slogans or new product attributes (such as flavors or colors).
  • Hidden opportunities and threats. Social media conversations can show brands and marketers organic feelings and opinions from their consumers. And while many times this leads to new opportunities (such as new product uses or target markets), sometimes it can lead to threats you never suspected. You may not realize that a brand recall or issue from years ago is still widely discussed in social media. Or may be there is a growing trend that will negatively impact your brand’s image. Digging into social media can reveal this information and help you plan to use it to your advantage.

How else do you use social media to do research or discover new trends? In what ways have you found social media doesn’t always equate to reality?

Written By

Rebecca is a passionate UNC graduate, and a biochemist-turned-communications professional, she spends her days as a senior social media analyst at Digitas in Chicago, specialized social media monitoring and measurement best practices. She is continually excited to explore additional facets of digital measurement like traditional Web analytics, search metrics and integrated data models.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. 40deuce

    January 10, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Very well put, Rebecca. There's a huge difference between making predictions and doing actual research. I tweet all the time about how =badly I want an iPad, but I'm not gonna go fork over $1000 for it (for now anyways). You can get a good sense of the anticipation for iPads though by watching the tweets about it.
    There is also so much that can be learned about your customers and your product through listening to what they're saying too. We had a client, a well known spagetti sauce maker, that just through some very simple monitoring found out that people also use their sauce for burn relief and not just making pasta. This was something they had no idea about before. While this case didn't start a marketing campaign about using the sauce as a remedy, the company did gain some valuable insight about how people are using their product.
    I feel like I say it too much and it's becoming cliche, but there's so much you can learn just through listening.

    Cheers,
    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

    • Rebecca Denison

      January 10, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      I don't mind if it sounds cliche! It is absolutely true, and I think I'll say it one more time for good measure: there is so much you can learn just through listening.

      That's a great example you shared, and it's just one example of the insight you can find by listening for a little bit. It's amazing what people will share on social media that they would likely not say in a focus group or on a survey. It just feels more real and organic!

  2. Trish | @Dayngr

    January 10, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Great points, Rebecca! It's important to focus on the information that matters for your goals and strategies. You've given your readers here 4 great areas to explore.

    Thanks for the mention.

    All the best,
    Trish | Community Manager
    Radian6

    • Rebecca Denison

      January 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm

      Thanks, Trish! I'm sure you have a great deal to share about how to use Radian6 to find nuggets of information! What's your best example of a completely unexpected discovery? Have you found other common uses for social listening tools?

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