Four Reasons Why Social Media is Not Research

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By Julie Schwartz, ITSMA and Laura Patterson, VEM

We recently completed a three-city road show to deliver the results from the 2012 ITSMA/VEM marketing Performance Management Study: The Path to Better Marketing Results. A question that came up during the discussion in all three cities was this, “Do I need to do customer research when I have access to so much social media and web data?”

We hate to break it to you, but YES! Social media listening is not research. That’s because:

  1. It doesn’t ask the questions you want to ask
  2. It doesn’t come up with a hypothesis and get the data to support (or refute!) your hypothesis.
  3. It doesn’t comprise a representative sample
  4. It doesn’t tell you what might happen in the future; rather, it’ a window into the past

Sentiment analysis, content analysis, and Twitter search are not the same as doing research. Don’t get us wrong; listening is definitely good and you can learn a lot from hearing what your critics and supporters say about you. However, social media listening is not the same as identifying the questions you want to ask and getting the answers. Relying on the voice of the customer as it is expressed online is a reactive, rather than proactive, approach. Further, social media does not necessarily offer a representative sample. Therefore, how valid and reliable are the results?

While Social media listening cannot replace the rigor of the traditional scientific method, it can still play a role in customer research. Social media can help:

  • Provide qualitative insights. Many companies have successfully used crowdsourcing and targeted online communities to garner insights into customer wants and needs.
  • Reveal unmet needs. Further, the qualitative nature of social media enables listeners to uncover potential unmet needs and learn things they never thought to ask about.
  • Test ideas in real time. Once choices have been narrowed down, floating trial balloons on a social media network or community can offer immediate feedback.
  • Collect data. And there is nothing to stop market researchers from using a social media-based data collection tool within the rigors of a well-designed study.

ITSMA’s How Buyers Consume research shows that the market for complex B2B solutions has bifurcated into B2B social buyers and traditional buyers. We now have a business generation gap. Younger, B2B social buyers are online participating in blog and community conversations, yet there remains a still-large contingent of more traditional buyers. Companies have to be relevant to both audiences, and research—the proactive, objective, scientific kind—is an excellent way to gain meaningful, relevant insights into different market and customer segments.

The bottom line is this:  Social media listening, although an important tool, is not going to give you the insights into customer behavior that you need to innovate and gain competitive advantage. With social media listening, you’ll know exactly what your competitors know. Nothing more.

Today’s marketers need to remember that one of their primary jobs is to provide the rest of the company with a window into the customer. This takes research.  Marketers need to reexamine their priorities and determine how they can best allocate their resources to retain and grow their business with existing customers and provide deeper insights into buyer behavior.  Social media listening is but one view of the customer and will not provide this insight. Social Media listening does not replace research.




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