Social media: mainstream but not universal
Social media – and in particular Facebook and Twitter – have become mainstream, although not universally adopted, communications platforms. Particular to social media is the potential to share communications with large numbers of friends or “followers” or indeed with the public at large. Communications tend to be short (the twitter length limit is 140 characters) encouraging frequent and ephemeral communication. The large scale of social networks encourage communications to go “viral” – allowing large numbers of people to share and discover information very quickly. The social element also encourages dialogue and interaction – it is easy to have a conversation either with a stranger or with a group of friends about a topic using hashtags, groups, likes, favorites, retweets and so on.
All of these factors have potential applications for research which are beginning to be exploited, but which throw up methodological challenges (eg. the representativity of a given “sample”). There are examples of both “active” research on social media (soliciting answers to questions through social media) and “passive” (analyzing the large amounts of data which are available). Social media is also used alongside online research eg. to recruit and reward online panel members or to enrich the data available on online panel members, and expand the communication channels available.
Social media research is not to be confused with social media monitoring, which is a well established service, mainly supporting the PR and corporate reputation industry. Social media monitoring tools can slice and dice social media data to tell you numbers of mentions of brands over time, together with positive and negative sentiment. This is useful for understanding how often, by whom and in what context your brand is being mentioned, however it does not provide much depth of insight into consumers, and could even be misleading. These tools are used by social media researchers, but for a different purpose. We flag this up, only because many clients may feel that if they have social media monitoring in place they are already doing social media research, which in our view would be a category error.
The emerging consensus is that social media research is best viewed as “qualitative research on a quantitative scale” ie. the volume and reach of data is very large, but the ability to structure it for extendable quantitative analysis is small.
Another emerging consensus is that social media research is best used alongside other traditional methods rather than as an alternative or a substitute: it is rarely able to give a definitive answer to a whole question, unless of course the question relates to social media itself. This mirrors the role social media plays within the marketing mix overall, where it is increasingly viewed as an essential complement to (or amplifier for) traditional media such as TV.