Polls and other forms of traditional market research such as surveys and focus groups have one thing in common - they are all soliciting responses to specific questions asked by a brand. Framing questions in this way will always have the effect of limiting the likely possible responses and can leave brands, in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, with the issue of "unknown unknowns" - not knowing what they don't know.
There is no point, for example, in a brand trying to work out why sales of a particular model of car have not taken off as expected by asking customers if they would like a wider range of engine sizes, if what is really driving negativity and influencing purchasing decisions is the size of the boot.
Polls are an extreme example of this. To encourage participation, they need to be simple and quick to respond to. This could require rendering a complicated issue down to just three or four possible answers. The benefit is quick results and a 'number' which is easy to communicate to senior decision-makers who can then decide whether to pat themselves on the back or panic. Speed-to-insight is very valuable in a world where opinions and popularity can have a limited shelf-life, but poll results are often just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the insight they provide. They may give you a 'what' but they don't give you the 'why' - the real, richly textured story behind why people say that they love/hate/want /don't want something or someone.
Feedback from customers on social media, particularly conversations on forums, blogs, review sites and other places on the web outside of a brand's 'control', is unsolicited, unmediated and unvarnished. Customers decide what topics of conversation interest them the most. Those that hit a hot button with others will generate a lot of contributions and form a rich cluster of insight and those that customers don't feel passionate about enough to proffer a point of view, will not be present on the web.
Many brands retain questions in customer surveys that are no longer relevant or of int erest to their customers, but by continuing to solicit responses to these questions, they will fall down the rabbit hole of investigating them and thinking they are important purely because they hold data points on them.
More importantly, the web is a focus group (or in reality the world's largest un-focus group) that is visible to everyone. Forget one-way mirrors enabling executives to observe customers giving feedback in a controlled environment. These are discussions that everyone - customers, potential customers, investors and competitors - can view, participate in, and be influenced by. Three or four voices on TripAdvisor, moneysavingexpert.com or a brand’s Facebook page, that express a strong opinion, can have a huge impact on your business, even if offline those people have no real friends and live with their mother.
For example, Synthesio worked with a major pharmaceutical brand to try and better understand the patient journey for diabetes sufferers in Latin America. We found that the biggest topic of discussion was whether to use an insulin pen or a pump, with a lot of myths and misinformation being thrown into the mix. It was something the brand hadn't realised was complicated or confusing for patients. The insight led them to change their packaging inserts and the educational materials provided to doctors, to better inform patients and help doctors make the best decision for patients.
Another good example is our work with one of the world's largest beauty brands which had launched a new foundation product into the market. Listening to feedback on social media helped the company realise that the range of skin tones it had released didn't cater for the lightest and darkest ends of the skin-tone spectrum and, most importantly, that there was significant demand for those tones. The colour spectrum issue had been picked up as a weak signal in some focus groups, but dismissed as a min or opportunity for the brand. Online polls on the company's Facebook page had also focussed on whether people thought the product had improved the overall appearance of their skin - soliciting positive responses from those within the central skin colour spectrum, but effectively denying a voice to customers who weren’t catered for.
Social media monitoring can also help brands to better understand consumers in new markets, in a way that would not be possible via other forms of research. Synthesio listened to conversations around fast food, automotive, fashion and healthcare brands in the Middle East, North Africa and India, and revealed that consumers in these markets post images online a lot more than in other countries. The highly visual nature of the content they prefer to share, means that marketing and social media campaigns that incorporate multi-media platforms are likely to have a much bigger impact.
Social media monitoring and analysis when done well can match the 'near-to-real-time' insights offered by polling and is much more cost-effective than focus groups and surveys. More importantly, it can also provide a completely fresh and much deeper perspective on the health of a brand, product or category. It should never entirely replace other forms of research such as focus groups, surveys and polls, but brands who don't add it to their research mix are missing an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage through a much more holistic understanding of what's really going on out there.
By Catriona Oldershaw, Managing Director UK of Synthesio.
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