DigitalJack Wilson

10 Rules For Social Media Research

Social media interactions can be a rich sea of research for brands as long as they follow some rules for engagement, write's 2CV's Jack Wilson.

10 Rules For Social Media Research

Social media research is a fast and efficient way to build a picture of the digital landscape which brands are operating in. The adoption of new tools such as buzz monitoring platforms and new methodologies involving engagement with respondents via social networks are providing researchers and brands with a fresh layer of insight to better understand their consumers.

There is a palpable excitement about the growing role of social media in research, and the medium has quickly risen to the pinnacle of many marketing plans. However, research via social platforms is in the midst of an 'awkward adolescence'. The research community is still in a period of transition - formulating best practice strategies and working on ways to conduct non-intrusive research via social media that draws insight from online social interaction without compromising the privacy of individuals.

When considering how to use social media for research, brands need to beware of expecting a short-cut to insight - it is essential to have a developed understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses. Ensuring the right strategy is in place is vital for successful social media research, we have identified these 8 key principles that we hope will help you to craft your own effective social media research strategies.

1. Growth of Frictionless Sharing

Consumers are increasingly empowered and encouraged to share all aspects of their lives from what they are reading and listening to, to the minutiae of everyday life. The recent growth of dedicated content sharing networks such as Tumblr and Pinterest are growing both the range of channels and the rate of 'share'. Websites are progressively recognising the variety of different ways that consumers are looking to self-track and socially share the content they discover online.

As the range and usage of niche-social networks increases, the opportunity to track social sharing and accurately profile niche-social site users increases. The growth of frictionless sharing is creating an ever-increasing array of trackable data points for social media research, which will inevitably provide a greater opportunity for brands to identify particularly powerful online content.

2.  Understanding the Social Ecosystem

Understanding the eco-system of social networks can hone research conducted and allow analysis to get straight to the real insight. 2CV recently conducted a multi-market study consisting of over 35,000 interviews, in which we unveiled three distinct but intrinsically linked groups on social networks; the content creators who drive the story, a middle group who observe and interact with content created by others, and a third group of silent observers.

Understanding how the social ecosystem works and ensuring the voice of every group is represented in the research is crucial to developing an effective social media research strategy. Well thought out social media research should take account of the social ecosystem so that questioning and research-interaction can be honed and directed to each of these groups.

3. Managing the data deluge

The sheer volume of data available via social media platforms presents a bewildering and sometimes overwhelming challenge to marketing and insight departments. There simply aren't enough hours in the day to sift through the volume of data that is being created every second across a myriad of different touch points.

'Filtering has become an ever more important research skill in the social media space.  Agencies can become unstuck if trying to interpret every click-through, every 'mention' and every 'hit'. Don't drown in the data, pull your head above the water and remember to apply the fundamental practice of data analysis; it is a researcher's job to identify an appropriate sample size and to filter out the noise as much as possible in order to identify and focus on the real insight.

4. Holistic Audience Understanding

The larger an audience a brand is reaching via their social media channels, the more effective and representative the social media research will be. In order to build a significant following on social media, brands have to gain a clear understanding of what their audience is interested in at a broad level (beyond their products).  While social media research presents a myriad of new opportunities for brands, marketers must tread carefully. Brands need to earn their place in the social media ecosystem - you have to be relevant and give consumers a real reason to engage and understand it's a two-way street.

Gaining an understanding of what your brand audience is interested in at a broader level can be done in a number of different ways - here are three potential methods:

  • Monitoring engagement with content posted, looking for spikes of interest in particular types of content and then delivering similar content
  • Direct and open questioning on the channels themselves (asking questions about the type of content your fans want to see/conducting polls etc.)
  • Conducting research with a representative sample of brand advocate respondents - investigating their broader interests beyond your brand & asking what sort of content they would want to see from your brands social media channels.

5. Limitations Of Social Media Research

Researchers (and brand owners) need to avoid relying on buzz tracking in isolation - there is a significant risk that the bigger picture will be missed and become too self-selecting during data analysis. Although Buzz tracking will amplify the voice of the vocal minority, it may not necessarily reflect the views of the audience majority. Brands need to be careful when studying buzz analytics, particularly when it comes to sentiment analysis - the complexity of self expression is such that the straight classifications of positive, negative and neutral for each mention are sometimes very difficult to assess.

Researchers need to understand the wider picture of buzz analytics, beyond the impact on the social web. Relying on buzz tracking alone is much like watching the waves crash on the beach and only focusing on the froth and noise the waves create rather than the underlying changes and forces of the tides. 

6. Multiple source data analysis

In a world of 'big data' we are provided with the opportunity to look at things from a variety of angles. But researchers need to jump a step from analysing different data sets in isolation and then drawing assumptive parallels to literally stitching the data together. By doing this, it offers us the capacity to carry out comprehensive data mining to identify true and unfettered relationships between all these strands of data. This requires a shift in mind-set and to an extent, operational practices but the value gained is with the pain

7. Ultra-transparency

A significant amount of social media interaction with brands increasingly involves consumers handing over access to a certain amount of personal information. This can be dangerous ground, as consumers are increasingly concerned by the amount of their personal information that organisations may have access to. There is a misconception that people don't have an understanding of what marketers want from them. If consumers know why they are being asked to share information, exactly how much information they're sharing and what the researcher's end goal is, they will feel much more comfortable with participating in brand interaction. It is important for researchers to ensure they don't alienate potential respondents by making them feel that their personal information is being scrutinised or compromised.

8.  Social Recruitment

The cross over between traditional research and social media platforms can provide a rich seam for research respondent recruitment. Recruitment of respondents from social media platforms can ensure that researchers reach out to the right people at the right time, and in the right context.

Recruitment via social platforms is something that needs to be done with the highest level of care - as sites like Facebook are often very personal spaces, being contacted for research risks being perceived as an unwelcome invitation by some people. The type of approach on these platforms (e.g. on Facebook - group invitation/event invitation/private message) needs to be carefully considered according to the research topic and the level of interaction expected from each participating respondent.

9.  Natural vs Constructed Social Communities

As the usage of social media has increased over the years, more and more online community research tools have emerged - all with the aim of simulating the social media group conversation experience. These community tools can be very powerful in several respects (allowing for client access, greater content security, respondent anonymity, easier content/question delivery and downloadable response outputs). These platforms allow researchers to talk to respondents in a way that replicates, at least somewhat, how they converse on social media platforms.

However, conducting research via constructed social communities also has drawbacks - most obviously the fact that respondents are not able to interact with these communities via the normal social platforms that they use on a regular basis. At 2CV we have found that using familiar social network platforms for community research projects can be very beneficial to unlocking genuinely social respondent interaction - leading to a much higher level of response and engagement rate.

10. Live Social Engagement

The ability to process and respond to live social engagement is an incredibly valuable benefit of social media research. The growth of smartphone ownership has meant that both live audiences and home-viewers with second screens can immediately share their opinions when witnessing live events. The capacity for buzz tracking to provide immediate social reaction processing has meant that brands are able to see in real time the reaction to any promotional activity they sponsor.

Going beyond overseeing reactions, researchers are also well placed to use buzz monitoring for live response engagement. Having teams dedicated to social media response and engagement for live events can mean the difference between a viral social success and a minor promotional exercise. Equally if the event is getting a negative reaction, having researchers in place to flag comments and complaints in real time can be the difference between a minor blip in public favour and a PR disaster with serious brand perception implications.


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