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Warning: there really is no such thing as a free lunch

Surveys and social-media intelligence both have strengths, but combining them yields the best data.

We are all tempted by the lure of a virtually limitless and relatively inexpensive source of unfettered customer feedback, but should we be suspicious of what looks very much like a free lunch? There are clear advantages to using social-media intelligence (SMI) to gain insights, but we also need to be aware of the compromises that this brings.

Comparing survey research with social-media intelligence

To look at this issue, Maritz conducted a parallel study comparing questions asked on a review website with exactly the same questions asked in a representative sample survey in the same industry. Although there were some expected similarities, there were also significant differences. The conclusions that we would reach from the two sources of information are not the same.

The study also uncovered representation issues. Of the 1500 people who had been surveyed about their experiences, only 13% had posted anything about the experiences online during the past year.

Clearly there are many advantages of survey data over SMI. We have shown that web content can come from only a very small part of our target market. Surveys allow us to gather information relating to the specific issues we need to address. We can control the spread and robustness of customer feedback, enabling us to give scores to units (such as bank branches or automotive dealerships) and incentivise them accordingly. Finally, survey data is independent, whereas social-media content can be biased by what has been posted beforehand.

There are, however, some significant advantages of social media over surveys. SMI provides the ability to identify emerging trends - the 'unknown unknowns' that can give us an early warning of what is to come. It enables a deep dive to almost any level, explaining the underlying root causes of issues that emerge; it is rich in emotional expression, providing an understanding of the depth of feeling associated with content; and it provides a competitive perspective - is it just my brand or an industry issue?

At Maritz, we use two approaches to integrating survey results with SMI: thoughtful synthesis and analytical integration. The latter is a robust way to combine many different data sources such as survey results, SMI, complaints data and mystery shops or audits. It entails selecting the right level of analysis, developing common categories and mapping structures, reconciling and scoring disparate data sources, evaluating both convergence and divergence, and communicating findings.

It is very effective, but also quite time-consuming, as well as resource-intensive.

On a less rigorous level, thoughtful synthesis gives a name and structure to what most people have been doing for some time. It's about looking at two sources of information side-by-side and drawing some sensible conclusions. However, even this is easier said than done - different sources are often addressing different issues in different ways.

Some of our clients have started to mould their information sources around the concept of thoughtful synthesis. They are designing their surveys, their mystery shops, the way they categorise complaints and the way they review SMI so they will be easier to compare.

Although the plethora of nearly free data unleashed by social media is very seductive, no single data source is better than others for all purposes. They each hold great insights and benefits and provide a different and complementary perspective.

Rather than relying on traditional surveys or social media, we need to leverage data from both sources and assess the appropriateness of each for addressing specific business questions.

Roger Sant is vice-president of Maritz Research Europe. Twitter: @maritzeurope Web:


From Marketing's greater insight supplement, July 2012


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