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Social Media Can Tell Us A Lot About Brands. Too Bad So Much Of It Isn’t True.

To mistake what consumers want us to think for what consumers actually think can prove a dangerous research course indeed.

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By David Forbes, Ph.D.

In many ways, the ever-expanding world of social media has been a market researcher’s dream—there are now hundreds of millions of willing subjects spending billions of hours telling us what they like and don’t like, and why. They share these thoughts—for free, no less!—in ways that marketers can quickly measure and quantify, whether through Facebook likes, Tweets, retweets, Instagram sharing or video reposting. Dozens of buzz meters can even analyze the content and track the tone of their comments.

No wonder social media has become such an irresistible barometer of brand sentiment.

But market researchers should not rush too quickly to believe everything they find in this goldmine, at least until they understand two flaws inherent in data: One is about the human ego, and the other all about sheep.

The Self-Presentation Bias

Recently, I was lucky enough to hear Valeria Brandini, a Brazilian anthropologist, give a lecture on just how unreliable social media can be.  Whether it’s as simple as liking a brand page or as involved as inventing a Facebook identity for the family Labradoodle, Brandini emphasizes that people are pretty consistently mindful of the fact that everything they do in social media says something about who they are. As Brandini expressed, “people say what they want you to think they think, what you think they feel.

Because people are social creatures, they want people to think well of them. So posts aren’t just about self-expression, but are also about self presentation — meant to influence an audience to see the poster in a very specific way. While some of this content may be genuine, it is very difficult to tell the difference between an authentic brand sentiment and what part of a poster’s social window-dressing is.

The baah-baah bias

The second flaw in social media data has to do with what’s known as the herd effect, especially as documented by the intriguing research of network scientist Sinan Aral at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His work, involved seeding comment sections on news stories with remarks that are either cynical and pejorative, or accepting and appreciative. His results show that when their remarks are visible to others, people pile on strongly and articulately express sentiment like agreeable sheep. Because of this, the online universe might seem disproportionately in favor of a brand that is boosted by vocal activist enthusiasts – or overwhelmingly negative about a brand that suffers from similarly vocal and articulate detractors.

For marketers, that should mean taking all those “buzz measures” with a giant block of salt.

So how can brands best take the measure of social media, given those inherent distortions?

Given the inherent distortions we’ve outlined above, it’s probably most prudent to cross validate social media with other, more direct measures of brand attitude and brand affect.  We have developed one approach to social media cross validation that mimics the “rapid fire” pace of the web experience, while gathering data from the consumers emotional brain in a way that is not susceptible to distortions from self-presentation or “herd like” crowd conformity.  I encourage other marketers and market researchers to explore their own options for cross validating social media content.  To mistake what consumers want us to think for what consumers actually think can prove a dangerous research course indeed.

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3 Responses to “Social Media Can Tell Us A Lot About Brands. Too Bad So Much Of It Isn’t True.”

  1. Chris Robinson says:

    December 16th, 2013 at 8:18 am

    So hang on here!!. Is this the Greenbox saying all that wonderful social media information may be misleading and the few nutters who have been arguing this for years (yes yours truly) might just be right? Well hallelujah. Now Lenny what does this say for all those articles claiming the death of traditional market research? Well this author above actually says you need traditional research to validate social media. The more important question is why bother? If it is so obviously biased why are marketers taking it so seriously? As one marketer said “its like being at a football game when everyone around you stands up and you feel you have to do the same”. Thanks Dr. Forbes for a fantastic summation of the biggest con game foisted on marketing and market research in years. How anyone can take this stuff seriously beggars belief. Look at all the paid bloggers and blog farms that are littering social media with biased communications and now we are told we cannot even trust well meaning social media users. Dust off those old personal surveys market researchers, seems “the times they aren’t a changin!”

  2. Leonard Murphy says:

    December 18th, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    Don’t get too excited Chris! My job is to provide a clearing house for many views if I think they are well argued, even if I don’t always agree with them. This is a case where I am solidly in the middle. I think David brings up very valid concerns, but I do not think his concerns supersede the distinct value that social media can provide under specific use cases. I have always argued for an augmentation model that combines technologies and approaches to deliver maximum value of many different data types using a “common informational framework” model. Some applications of social media analysis deliver far, far more than traditional research can, and some types of traditional research deliver far, far more value than social media analysis. It’s in the merging of the best from both camps that we can really deliver on meeting client needs. And always, it’s about efficacy and fit for purpose; that seems to be what folks forget regardless of where they sit on the “innovation” spectrum.
    Anyway, good points as always my friend!

  3. LRW Blog | 2014 Prediction: Mystic Nerds to Rock Convergent Data Streams says:

    December 23rd, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    […] Those who solely rely on social-media analytics instead of market research will regret it, predicted Dr. David Forbes this past week. Forbes explained that in social media environments, people construct images of […]

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