Pro/Con: The Role of Social Media in Qualitative Research

Earlier this week on Twitter, some folks following the #MRX conversation had some strong reactions to a BNET article, “Why Social Networking Isn’t Customer Research.” One comment read, “I pity the fool who thinks social media leads to customer insights.” Really?
Then why did Quirk’s Marketing Research Review dedicate an entire issue to the topic last month? In the August issue, you could read about sampling social media data, best practices for surveying niche social media members and more.

Geoffrey James, author of the BNET tirade, gives some good reasons why you can’t understand what’s going on in a customer base through social media. Here are two that stood out to me:

  • Commenters are self-selected: “Real research involves statistical sampling of a random group,” he says. “People who comment are pre-disposed to comment, making their inputs statistically worthless.”
  • Paid commenting is endemic: “PR firms frequently ‘stuff’ comments with fake endorsements,” he says. “Contrariwise, competitors stuff comments with fake criticism.”

But Andrew Wilson, author of “When your consumers are talking online, here are some tips on how to listen” (registration required) in the August issue of Quirk’s, makes some valid points as well. Wilson says user-generated content (like that posted on Twitter, blogs, review sites, etc.) “should be viewed as a series of unstructured conversations that, when used appropriately, can add depth to and expand your understanding of who your customers are and their experiences with your products and services.”

Wilson recognizes social media’s limitations but still sees its value in qualitative research. No, it can’t replace your research – you still need to do that bulletin board focus group to understand your customers – but it can, in some situations, enhance your research efforts.

Throughout the article he provides examples of how one wrongly can interpret user-generated content – and tips for maximizing the validity of your findings.

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