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The Weakness of Social Media Based Market Research

Open Twitter’s advanced search page, and beneath the options  for words, people and places, you’ll find a section marked “other” that contains four checkboxes. Those checkboxes allow users to filter their search results to focus on retweets but also on posts that include question marks, “positive” smilies, or “negative” frowns. It’s the closest Twitter has come to fulfilling its promise as a market research tool for businesses looking to keep track of user conversations. And like much of that promise, it’s unreliable, inaccurate, and actually requires a very different set of strategies to produce real, usable market intelligence.

The biggest challenge with using social media for market research is apparent in those search options. Social media users have multiple ways of marking their like of a product or a company beyond a simple smiley; unhappy faces aren’t used to mark dislike as often as a clear expression of hate or a negative hashmark; not all questions on social media, especially on a character-limited site like Twitter, are grammatical enough to carry question marks; and not everyone who uses the product or company is on social media. Any business that relied on Twitter’s search page to track comments would only be picking up a fraction of a picture generated by the small number of people who happened to use those emoticons or are grammatical enough to always mark their questions. For a more accurate picture, the companies would need to look beyond Twitter’s quick suggestions and test their own search terms.

In other words, to discover the complaints of their customers who happened to be on social media, they’d first need to know what those complaints were.

We Love/Hate Your Customer Service

The same limitation is true for businesses that look beyond general statements to comments posted directly to their timelines. Open any verified timeline now, including those belonging to businesses, and you’ll find that you’re offered two kinds of content. The default is to show only those comments made by the business. Press “All,” though, and you’ll also see those posts directed to people who have written to the timeline.

So Virgin Atlantic’s Twitter timeline, for example, is filled with competition announcements and links to content. But its replies are customer service posts — and many of those posts are made in response to negative comments. From a random selection of ten replies posted over fifteen hours, half were made in response to complaints about pricing, customer treatment or loyalty points. The same is true of the company’s Facebook page where six out of the last ten postings were complaints ranging from air miles to broken entertainment system controllers. And yet, Virgin Atlantic has a customer satisfaction rating as high as 80 percent.

Even looking at the positive comments to see what the company is doing well can generate a confusing picture. While one customer on Facebook reported being put on hold by customer service for a long time, another raved about the person they spoke to.

If businesses can’t look to search to dig out a complete range of comments, both positive and negative, and they can’t rely on the queries they receive to measure or identify areas of satisfaction, what can they do to monitor their market on social media platforms?

One commonly recommended option is to track shares, likes and retweets. While those actions by fans will be a measure of the likeability of a particular post, they might also reveal the kinds of information that customers enjoy seeing and want their friends to see. On Virgin Atlantic’s page, for example, the most popular posts are aspirational. A picture of birds flying south for the winter won 600 likes and 35 shares. In comparison, an earlier announcement of new amenity kits picked up 317 likes. The difference could suggest that customers are more motivated by the thought of getting away than by the kind of toothbrush they’ll be using on the plane — information that might be useful for the company’s marketing team. But a post announcing that five eyeshades designed by Swarovski and worth £2,500 each picked up more than 900 likes and 225 shares, and even that figure is tiny compared to the 2,180 people who liked a picture of palm trees posted on the Facebook page of British Airways, a direct competitor which consistently ranks lower in customer satisfaction than Virgin Atlantic.

Again, looking solely at the stats reveals a mixed and perhaps misleading picture, which is why a better option is to pull away from the firehose of comments and ask your own questions. The timeline of drinks brand Ribena, for example, is filled with questions aimed at the page’s 625,000 followers. In mid-September, the company asked which flavor of Ribena customers were carrying in their bag.

In theory, that should have given the firm a snapshot of the relative popularity of the different flavors in which the drink is available. In practice though, retail sales figures would have provided an even more accurate figure and almost all of the questions on the page are intended not to deliver information but to generate “likes” that push the brand into their users’ timelines.

The Five Benefits of Social Media Market Research

In June this year, market research firm nmincite published a white paper noting five characteristics that made social media a valuable platform for market research. They included

an “infinite panel,” that “provides a lens into the beliefs, needs, desires and behaviors of millions of people across all consumer segments” and which is unlimited in size; “hidden insights” revealed by follower comments; complaints and praise made in customers’ own words; real time commentary; and low-cost monitoring.

In practice, though, when you use social media for market research, you usually get what you pay for: a small selection of comments with an emphasis on complaints drawn from a limited cross-section and which can be as contradictory as they are unhelpful. And on the rare occasion that you do pick up some useful data, you might well find that your own figures were fuller and more accurate anyway.

Social media can be a valuable way to spread the word of your business and your brand, to deal with customer complaints and to build up a general impression of  what customers think. But for the most part, your customer surveys and sales data will tell you a lot more.

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