Editor’s note: James A. Rohde is consultant and founder of James A. Rohde Consulting, a Pittsburgh research firm.
Most industries deal with trends and research is no different. In some extreme cases the word trend is unfitting when viewed through 20/20 hindsight. A little while back, online surveys were a trend and now they are pretty much the standard. Of course, not all trends are so lucky; lest we forget the ethnography hype between 2006 and 2009.
Now, just because new tools and trends get hyped up does not mean that they are not valuable. It’s simply that they become overused – and for the wrong types of information. Most end up looking for an excuse to use a methodology instead of honestly assessing it as the best way to understand the issue at hand. Usually this is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you know that that is what you’re doing.
It is without really knowing where our latest research trend is going that I would like to direct your attention to research in social media. There could easily be some disagreement here but I would call this the most hyped research at the moment (another top contender would be neuroscience but not many can afford that yet).
The temptation of social media research comes in two dimensions that I can notice: 1) access to all kinds of current and potential customers, and 2) insight into needs/wants without having to ask questions.
First, let’s start with the benefits. I will concede that if access is the goal, social media is cheaper than popular research methods – maybe, depending on what it takes for your brand to get moving and generating some buzz. Let’s say you already have 100,000+ followers. A quick assessment of your followers could lead you to discover unknown archetype or geographical segments. That is a pretty big win and it comes at a much cheaper price than a study designed to find such a thing. Maybe.
Then there are the benefits that come from gaining pure insight without skewing any results by setting respondents up with a question. Once you have your followers, who are ideally interacting with your brand in some way, you can see who they are and what they are saying about you! This type of monitoring can lead to all kinds of insight like a brand buzz index (different than brand equity index) or possibly an alternate use for your product.
So how can something so good be considered hype? Well, besides the fact that all of this requires constant monitoring of your social media accounts, the insights stem from the coding of what is equivalent to a giant open-end question … but worse. The whole purpose of asking a question goes beyond just getting the answer to a specific issue you want to explore; you are setting the context so that the answer can be properly interpreted.
Say you run a sock business. You can launch one new cotton pattern this season and you have three to choose from. Social media gets used as research so that customers can react to the patterns and give their opinions. Sounds harmless and honestly it’s remarkably quick, cheap and easy.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that while customer reaction may have allowed you to pick which pattern you are going to run with this season, there is no context. People really seemed to love pattern No. 2 but most of the people who loved that pattern are the same ones who buy your more expensive wool socks, which does not have that pattern since it’s new. Now, maybe next year you’ll run that pattern in wool but for this round you have moved sales to a less-profitable item.
Though let’s be optimistic and say that even considering the lost sales in wool socks, the demand for the new pattern more than makes up for it. In fact, it has become so popular that you can’t keep them in stock, mainly because there was no way to predict the popularity from the comments reviewed. I’m not sure there is a match to the frustration of gaining a sale that you can’t cash in.
In the end, remember that context is important! I don’t want people to walk away believing that social media for research is completely useless. Of course it has its place in the research industry. I simply believe it is a much smaller place than it is getting credit for.