A Fly on Millions of Walls

While technology has made it cheaper and easier to conduct market research, it’s become harder to get reliable data. Traditional quantitative and qualitative methods rarely lead to true inspiration. Moreover, they suffer from shortcomings that limit real grounded discovery.

Strategic social listening solves these problems and unleashes a new breed of deep insight into the consumer’s perceptions and behavior.

Biases and challenges of traditional methods

It’s no secret that consumers are abandoning market research panels and participation is extremely low. To keep consumers’ attention, surveys must be short, which limits the breadth of possible discovery. Meanwhile qualitative methods, like focus groups and interviews, are limited in size and often depend on the quality of the moderator/interviewer. Both methods suffer from various sources of bias, from social pressures to behavioral recall, that limit people’s honesty, candor, and reporting accuracy. 

What is Strategic Social Listening

Social listening in its broadest sense is the use of social data—not just Twitter and Facebook, but blogs and forums and any site where people publicly have conversations—to understand what people are doing and thinking.

We differentiate strategic social listening from more tactical or operational social listening by what it is and what it isn’t. Strategic social listening is not real-time reactions to online comments. It is far more than just counting mentions or using keywords to identify influencers.

Strategic social listening involves reflecting on and interpreting of authentic consumer voices. It enables us to understand the emotional charges and rational contexts that motivate people to participate in social discourse. Through this grounded understanding, we can chart consumer journeys, define segments based on real needs, identify factors that stimulate product choice, and more. By understanding consumers—by listening—we can steer our businesses in ways that maximize our ability to meet their needs.

Social data is massive in scale

500 million tweets are sent every day, according to Twitter. On the WordPress blog platform alone, users will make 150 million blogposts and comments in a month. Whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, blogs or forums or comments to newspaper articles, people share billions of pieces of content every month. This could be words, images, videos, or a combination of all the above.

Compare this to the typical sample size for a survey, especially one where the topic being studied has a low incidence rate in the population. Because surveys are priced as a function of how easy (or hard) people are to reach, and with limited data available up front to directly target a respondent, surveys become geometrically more costly and impractical to field with sufficient sample. In the social web, there’s no sample size problem.

Social data are widely available

Many platforms that crawl the web offer access to public social data. There are a few we have used at Bakamo. Our primary one is Talkwalker. Features vary across these tools, but key elements are reach (how much of the public discourse on any subject and across platforms they capture), searchability (how easy it is to find data on the topic you’re looking for), and reporting.

There is more out there than meets the eye

Most research is concerned with speaking to certain types of people in certain proportions. Social listening enables us to listen to a wide variety of actors, basically whoever is talking. We hear full conversations, which is particularly useful for finding new audiences, new perceptions. It’s filterable as well, allowing us to tune out and zoom in on different audiences and subjects of interest.

The anonymous are radically candid

Behind anonymous social media handles, people have conversations online—unscripted, unbiased, and uncensored—on topics that range from brands to culture, lifestyle to current events. They share their experiences, hopes, and fears more openly and freely than they would typically do in front of strangers. While social listening can be used to study any topic being discussed by real consumers, it excels particularly in cases where those topics are deeply personal or subject to strong opinions. For this reason, social listening is a far better method for getting an honest and complete picture on important but sensitive topics than surveys or focus groups.

If you mess up, it’s not a problem

How many times have you found a mistake in a questionnaire, or become aware of a problem while a survey is in field? What happens in this instance? You often have to throw out data and start again, which under different circumstances could become costly and even a bit even. In social media, you can refine your inquiry easily.

Social listening does have its limits

Social listening has its own limits naturally. One can’t make a social dataset “nationally representative” or target demographics. But that’s not its real purpose, or what it is best at doing. Social listening—strategic social listening—is about being relevant and real.

Social listening is an essential tool

While market research has become faster and cheaper, it hasn’t made outcomes more reliable. By avoiding chronic problems such as low participation rates, small sample sizes and a lack of depth that plagues survey and focus group research, social listening is proving itself to be a powerful and valuable tool. It offers a new breed of insight that allows researchers and marketers to probe deep themes, reaching out even to obscure corners of the consumer world to provide genuine consumer perspective on even the most sensitive topics.  Strategic social listening is an essential tool for real discovery.