Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Part II: Why (and how) the Growth of Social Media has Created Opportunities for Market Research

In the last issue of our Triangle newsletter, we introduced the opportunity for market research professionals to embrace the explosive growth in social media site adoption and leverage this phenomenon to use blogspace as a new venue by which we can collect our most insightful data. In so doing, not only are there efficiencies that can be garnered by the use of online media for research purposes, but that some studies may be better achieved through this platform relative to traditional methodologies. Primarily, these enhancements can be realized in terms of more valid data, since data collection is done unobtrusively online and avoids the effects of the physical presence of the interviewer. Other benefits are that study results may be delivered faster, there is a far easier reach of disparate markets, and overall study costs are significantly lower. In this issue of Triangle News, we’ll take a closer look at these issues through an examination of “what is and has been” versus “what can be in the future.”

Market researchers have a set of methodologies for qualitative research that are both well-known in the industry and frequently used, such as focus groups, in-depth interviews (IDIs), and ethnographies. These techniques may serve a variety of purposes, e.g., to understand in greater detail the findings that emerge from quantitative research, to inform the content that will be tested in a subsequent phase of quantitative research that follows. Sometimes these qualitative studies are “standalone” initiatives that come neither before nor after a quantitative research phase. On these occasions, their design and scope are sufficient to achieve the study objectives. However, regardless of where qualitative research studies fit in the sequence of an integrated market research program, these qualitative techniques are distinguished from quantitative studies by what they yield: data that reflect the rich, perhaps symbolic world that underlies consumer needs, desires, and brand decision criteria, and not estimates or inferences of population parameters from sample statistics.

However, these tried-and-true qualitative methods, while effective for what they are designed to produce, do have their inherent flaws. They are artificial and contrived because they require the respondent to be removed from the actual consumer behavior during interviewing, i.e., data are collected in a de-contextualized setting. As such, this common byproduct of standard qualitative research designs attenuates the researcher’s ability to gather data in a natural setting. Also, moderators, interviewers and ethnographers are obtrusive because they are required to “get in the face” of respondents and, whether interviews are conducted in-person or via telephone, they pose their questions and hope to get honest answers with limited exposure to the data-biasing influences of their presence such as social desirability. They also rely heavily on the memory capacity of respondents since most studies require respondents to travel back in time, recall relevant experiences, and opine based on those memories.

Ethnography, in particular, is a highly useful method in focusing on consumer behavior that, while attempting to observe and collect data within consumers’ naturalistic setting (e.g., home, place of business, etc.). However, the very presence of the ethnographer fosters social desirability and other response sets, perhaps to the greatest extent relative to other qualitative study designs. What’s more is that they are highly time-consuming, logistically complex, limited in geography to key cities, and cost-prohibitive.

Several of these flaws and inherent biases outlined above can be reduced or eliminated while other aspects enhanced through the use of online, blog-based research. Surely, we’re in a state of technology-ready conditions by which we can provide to consumers downloading capability of photos, videos, and other types of stimuli for them to use as the basis for their attitudes and opinions. Likewise, consumers themselves are equipped to provide the same types of stimuli to us as they can upload their content onto other sites as they do in Facebook or YouTube for the viewing purposes of the qualitative researcher. Even more importantly, we’re in a state of “consumer-ready” conditions, too. People are simply comfortable and inclined to pulling out their cell phones to shoot photos and videos, sending them as attachments to blogsites, and then going to those sites and providing their opinions about the subject using their home PCs or through text-messaging with their smart phones.

As it is, consumers are becoming comfortable and adept at blogging their opinions more and more each day. With the advancement in digital technology and broadband connectivity, consumers are able to view research stimuli that are sent to them, and also upload images and video they send to us that are tied to the opinions and comments. In these exchanges, the qualitative researcher can obtain rich, symbolic data, create field notes, and collect the artifacts that would otherwise be provided in a traditional ethnography. More to the point, that researcher does so without the obtrusiveness of being on-site, eliminates the cost and logistical restrictions of traveling and scheduling, and yet is still able to immerse him or herself in the culture of the behavior under study. In essence, today’s technology-enhanced online qualitative studies enable researchers to have their cake and the opportunity to eat it, too, since these methods are amenable to data gathering that is both naturalistic and unobtrusive.

In the next (third of three) newsletters on this subject, our Triangle News will focus on some specific applications of leveraging blogspace for market research purposes. As usual, feel free to let us know what you think and offer any suggestions, ideas, and experiences of your own.