Thursday, July 30, 2009

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

In the first two articles of our series on the subject of social media research (Click here for Part I and Part II), we identified the opportunity for market research professionals to leverage the growth in social media site adoption, and then listed specific advantages of doing so, namely to: (1) enhance the quality of data collected relative to traditional qualitative research studies; (2) reduce the amount of time required to collect data; and (3) drastically drive down study costs in the process.


To summarize, key benefits of using “blogspace” versus in-person methods of qualitative research are shown in the table below:

Market researchers have long known that in achieving certain objectives of any given study, certain trade-off decisions are needed to be made in setting an appropriate course of action to proceed. These trade-offs are typically a matter of balancing quality, speed, and cost. Rarely does it occur when market researchers can turn to their internal clients (e.g., marketing, advertising, P&L executives) and say, “if we do it this way, we’ll get better data, reduce costs, and deliver results faster.” Yet, these are exactly the benefits that can be enjoyed by using blogspace as the data collection medium for qualitative research as opposed to in-person, in-home, or other forms of on-site research methods.


Perhaps the above is still not compelling enough for researchers to consider using blogspace to conduct focus groups or IDIs or ethnographies. It may be that this particular innovation is perceived as risky due to its novelty and lack of tradition. However, embracing new technologies to improve market research practices has a long history in our industry. From a review of the history of market research over the past few decades, it is immediately apparent that advances in technology have created a number of improved study conditions in efficiency, cost and control.

When market research began, the sole method for data collection was in-person. Eventually, the advent of computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) gave rise to enhancements in key study dimensions. This new technology provided greater control of data collection and systematic treatment of respondents, more precise measurement, improved sample usage and quota structure management, flawless execution of skip patterns embedded in surveys, and faster data delivery. Of course, CATI was considerably less expensive than in-person, too, all things being equal. Then, online research became a revolution for the market industry, bringing with it even better improvements along these lines and, again, drastically drove down study costs.

So, the idea of leveraging technology to improve conditions for market research to be performed is about as old as the industry itself. As such, one might argue that it behooves the professional market researcher to be vigilant in seeking opportunities to leverage technology to improve quality, reduce time spent and associated costs. However, while history shows that technology improvements have provided distinct benefits for quantitative research, perhaps the time is upon us for qualitative research to reap similar benefits. Surely, online focus groups have been around for quite some time, typically done as a substitute for standard, facility-based ones when the target population is geographically dispersed. But the confluence of conditions that have turned millions of people into “professional bloggers” and the current status of Internet connectivity and digital technology has made the notion of conducting online ethnographies, IDIs, and bulletin board studies very plausible, if not compelling.


As stated previously, a key distinction between traditional focus groups or IDIs and blogspace is that we can collect the data of interest in real-time, i.e., as the respondent experiences the phenomenon under study. Shopping events, as an example, is one in which so many different types of research programs set as its main study objective. Shopping experiences are studied for the purposes of customer acquisition, product development, advertising/communication development, competitive benchmarking, just to name a few familiar ones. Studying the shopping phenomenon provides a view of what individuals use as key criteria in selecting one brand over another, the sources of information that are sought and used, the number of steps and time involved, and indeed, the purchase process itself. Simply put, blogspace lends itself to collecting these data, even for the most complex type of qualitative research, namely the ethnography. Respondents can be recruited, incented, and given a set of assignments over the course of shopping experience, blog their experiences according to a blog-nographer’s questions and probes, snap and upload photos/videos that symbolize their experiences. So, if blogspace is so amenable to the immersion of the researcher into the world of the observed, just think about the possibilities for other types of studies.


Blogspace can be made to be flexible and intuitive enough to be used as a multi-purpose research vehicle. The online interface combined with the flexibility of presenting or receiving photos, videos, and other files enables it to serve a number of potential qualitative objectives. Some of the possibilities include:

  • New product ideation
  • Early stage concept and ad development
  • Interactive exploratory discussions on customer experiences to determine potential satisfaction and loyalty drivers
  • In-home product testing
  • Online usability testing for websites and software
  • Diagnostic evaluations of ads, promotions, events
  • Competitive intelligence gathering

The bottom-line is that we as members of the market research profession have a duty to clients that we support and to our industry in general to consider the potentially vast opportunities that are clearly evident in using blogspace for qualitative research. In contrast, a “wait and see what others do” posture may be a more risky stance to take than experimenting with new technologies, since that policy may result in an “also-ran” status.

From a practical standpoint, if study costs can be reduced, research budgets can be shifted so that certain studies that could not be funded can be by using the cost savings provided by no travel, no facility, no transcriptions necessary. At the same time, with improved data quality, supplier-side and corporate-side researchers and the business executives they serve may all be able to “have their cake and eat it, too.”