As the digital revolution and the shift to mobile devices drives the take-up and use of sites such as Facebook and Twitter, so consumers are sharing more details of their lives with the social web. As a result, brands and market research professionals have a window into consumers' homes.
Broadly speaking, research in the social media space falls into 'buzz monitoring' and the building of dedicated online communities to encourage brand discussion. However, if the advocates of automated social media monitoring platforms are to be believed, social media is creating a research revolution.
They say that using social media channels is not only cheaper than conventional research, but also quicker and more encom-passing. The big claim is that social media provides an environment in which, without the filter of questionnaires or moderators, respondents offer more-valid opinions.
Nonetheless, critics point to statistics that show less than 10% of conversations about brands and products take place online, and those that do differ from those that take place offline. In addition, while there is no hard data, current estimates indicate that social media research accounts for less than 5% of market research activity.
'It is very easy to be dazzled by the speed, accessibility and fashionability of social media buzz monitoring,' says Tim Knight, chief commercial officer of research agency Nunwood, who warns that in one sense, social media research has simply created a complex, new mechanism of data collection. 'Even before social media, major brands were, at times, struggling with too much data and too little action,' he adds.
Moreover, it is questionable just how 'clean' this data is. Certainly, it can be hard to distinguish between blogs, splogs (spam blogs) and sponsored marketing campaigns. The argument is that it is far easier to research brands with unique names, such as the iPad, than, say, the retailer Next or mobile operator Orange.
Far more challenging, however, is assessing how authentic people are on social networks or whether they simply act as avatars.
'People do not respond in the same way in social media channels as they do face-to-face,' says Alistair Leathwood, managing director of FreshMinds Research.
Citing his own Twitter use as an example, he adds: 'People do tend to try to project a particular persona, whether that's in the role of wanting to amuse their mates, or positioning themselves as an expert or a figure of authority.'
That said, people are growing more comfortable with the notion of connecting their online and real-life selves. Meanwhile, the ongoing fragmentation of the internet means that the activities people participate in and the roles they play online are becoming more niche and specific.
'Someone can go to Second Life if they want to play out a particular character. They might then go to Flickr to express themselves and to Facebook to be themselves and communicate in the (virtual) real world,' says Damian Eade, director of Insight Research Group.
'This means that if you tap into the sites that are relevant to your topic, brand or conversation, you can be more confident that you are listening to the right sort of people.'
Harris Interactive is currently rolling out a Lifestreaming service in the UK, which tracks and analyses the social media activities of an opt-in group of the research firm's online panellists. This analysis is then linked to demographic data and the answers they give to more traditional surveys.
'This means that rather than just knowing what people are saying online, brands can begin to button down who these people are,' says the firm's sales and marketing director, Ed Chatham.
Nevertheless, in the absence of the sensory and social cues of the offline environment, (such as eye contact, tone of voice and social setting) members of online communities can be cautious in their conversations with one another.
Meanwhile, one of the simultaneous benefits and disadvantages of social media is that it encourages polarised opinion. 'Brands that use online methods as part of their marketing strategies will attract the opinions of lovers and haters of their product, and while these thoughts are of value, they may not always be entirely genuine or representative,' says Sarah Buckle, client services director at Leapfrog Research and Planning.
This can be further compromised by the incentives brands offer those whose opinion they seek in online social spaces. 'Are lovers or fans of brands really so loyal, or are they simply signing up for the offers and promotions brands offer?' asks Buckle.
Leathwood cites further concerns. 'It also raises questions about how public anything that people write on social networks is supposed to be and how we as researchers unpick those social cues to extrapolate information and opinion for clients,' he adds.
Adapting the rules
Indeed, the importance of maintaining the anonymity of opinion derived from social networks is currently underlined by the Market Research Society (MRS) code of conduct. However, as the number of social tools and platforms expands rapidly, it is becoming harder for the industry to develop rules that stay relevant and apply to the range of situations that arise.
Eade highlights one particular example. 'Current advice urges caution when operating in "walled gardens" - any social platform that requires a log-in or membership. But what happens when those who log in make their conversations and data publicly available?' he asks.
Others are concerned about the long-term ability of regulators to match decisions to emergent behaviour. 'I'm hoping for a future of granular control over personal data, where we will be wearing our choice of data like we wear clothes,' says Francesco D'Orazio, research director and head of social media at co-creation planning agency Face.
Equally, while brands such as Starbucks have successfully used the environment for crowd-sourcing ideas (mystarbucksidea.com), there are challenges around maintaining corporate privacy within the social web, making it a tricky setting for building or pre-testing products or campaign ideas.
Last year, for example, an electronic games manufacturer found that confidential development details of its forthcoming vampire-themed game had been plastered all over the internet, thanks to social media channels and an online focus group member who decided to 'share'.
Perhaps a greater barrier, however, is that fully embracing social media research also demands a certain degree of openness, loss of control and flexibility. 'Brands and complex organisations in general are still based on the industrial model, including long-term planning and functional separation,' says D'Orazio. 'This doesn't work in social media because this is not how human beings work.'
There may, however, still be big advantages to placing social media at the heart of a brand's research activity. 'These include new-found reach (geographically and demographically), accessibility, ability to observe and "listen in" to conversations (as opposed to having to ask questions), and a virtually constant stream of real-time data that is now at our fingertips,' says Eade.
This means brands can be far more reactive when things aren't working well - making adjustments as necessary. Or, as General Mills manager of consumer networks Ned Winsborough, says: 'We listen, we build, we listen, we tweak. This can be done quickly, with a lot of flexibility to the method.'
Equally, social media monitoring is often a far more effective tool for picking up on potential issues than conventional research techniques, as Gap found last October, when it was forced to drop its new logo following a Facebook and Twitter backlash from customers.
'The real revolution comes when social media can be properly integrated into rounded analytics and commercial action planning.' says Nunwood's Knight. He points out that, according to IBM, 85% of business feedback is unstructured. 'Social media is a big part of this, alongside complaints, comments, reviews and so on. Turning this unstructured data into action, as opposed to just collecting it, has the potential to redefine the way we understand the branded customer experience.'
The big question is how. Only last month, Keith Weed, chief marketing officer at Unilever, stated in Marketing (2 February) that measuring ROI in the social media space was 'a big issue' for his organisation. He went on to admit: 'We have different ways of measurement, some of which are more experimental than others.'
Meanwhile, there is an appetite for brands to understand how consumers' social media habits are evolving. ICM Research, for example, is conducting location-based studies into how people use their mobile devices to access social media in their everyday lives and how this feeds into their brand experiences when out and about.
'We want to get a deeper understanding of social media in its broader context as part of all our lives,' says the market research firm's director, James Turner.
However, while the race is on to find the best ways of turning the high volumes of new data that social media has made readily available into insight, it also means market research professionals need to protect their turf. 'If we aren't seen to be really adding value, we will potentially lose our claim to this field, becoming the administrators rather than the insight miners,' warns Eade.
O2 Social media monitoring
O2 is putting real-time social media monitoring and insights at the heart of its business and brand strategy, following the successful testing of a platform developed by Face, an agency that aims to co-create brand strategies with consumer help.
The platform enables O2 to monitor and analyse, in real-time, all social media activity around the brand in the UK, and provide ongoing insights. This supports O2's social media activity, which includes a dedicated real-time response team.
Already implemented across several key business areas, the platform is now being developed further to provide greater functionality, with the aim of achieving more targeted insights. 'We believe it is important to listen closely to customers' wishes, hopes and fears to be able to truly think of them when communicating, servicing and planning products,' says O2 UK marketing director Sally Cowdry.
Aviva You are the Big Picture
Last October, Aviva launched a global campaign, 'You are the Big Picture', designed to make its customers the centre of bringing to life its brand promise of 'No one recognises you like Aviva'.
This initiative encouraged members of the public to upload an image of themselves through a dedicated Facebook or campaign hub page for a chance to have their image projected onto a landmark building in London, Paris, Warsaw, Singapore, Delhi or Mumbai. Those selected for projection were then given a date and time to view their picture, either on the building in person or via live streaming on YouTube.
ICM Research was briefed to conduct conventional preand post-testing among influencer and consumer audiences in each participating city as well as social media monitoring during the campaign.
'To really understand how consumers interact in social spaces helps us to understand how different campaigns work and their impact,' explains Aviva Group head of brand Luke Mugliston. 'We used social media monitoring alongside traditional brand tracking to not only understand the digital impact of the campaign but also to track how it was performing on a weekly basis.'
Royal Shakespeare Company Such Tweet Sorrow
Last April, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) teamed up with cross-platform production company Mudlark to launch the world's first Twitter-based production, Such Tweet Sorrow.
This real-time version of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, was played out by six contemporary characters over five weeks and performed using improvised tweets, allowing the actors to react and respond to each other and their audience.
As well as following a live feed on the Such Tweet Sorrow website, the audience could also choose which of the six characters to follow on Twitter. This resulted in followers tweeting Juliet begging her not to die, while others set up a 'Save Mercutio' group.
The unfolding action was also linked to several virtual and real events, including an online 'masked' party on Shakespeare's birthday, 23 April. 'Our aim was to experiment with looking at Shakespeare through a different lens and engage with audiences in a different way,' says Geraldine Collinge, the RSC's director of events and exhibitions.
'However, at the end of the project we wanted to determine people's reactions to the production, their motivation for following and what they thought of the RSC as a result.'
As the brand already occupied the social media space, the optimal choice was pushing out an invitation on Twitter, linking to an online survey. This was themed in the play's microblog livery and designed by Leapfrog Research and Planning.
The unique nature of the production makes comparisons with more traditional research methods redundant. However, Collinge says: 'Using Twitter as a communication channel allowed us to engage people who had followed the production to act as advocates for the research project and encourage others to take part.'
Top five tips using social media for research
1 - Don't just listen, engage. Use social media sites to build audience panels.
Social media research gives instant access to unprompted insight, from hard-to-reach audiences, across specific areas. You need to know when it is better to use traditional research to understand your customers.
2 - Think about using fan pages to better evaluate comments and their potential impact on your brand. Access basic demographic information from users on your fan sites to support trending activity. This will also enable you to understand the context and relevance of the comments. Then, react appropriately.
3 - Integrate social media into your community panels, serve your customers a traditional survey and then complement that understanding with their social media comments.
4 - Look at other facets of their online behaviour, and the next time they visit your high-street store, serve a satisfaction survey via GPS mobile technology as they leave.
5 - It's important to listen to the voice of your customer, but remember, not every tweet or online rant is from a customer, or even a potential customer.