Earlier today, I was doing my daily routine of reading blogs in my Google Reader selection and I came found the following post titled “Social Media Listening is Not the Same as Research”, which appears to be a modified reprint of another article titled “Four Reasons Why Social Media Listening is not the same as Research”, written by Julie Schwartz who is Senior VP of Research and Thought Leadership at ITSMA.

The author’s point of view

In the later post, the author elaborates four points on why Social Media Listening cannot replace classic marketing research, based on customer panels and interviews.

Here are the four points, unedited and as present in the article:

1 – Doesn’t ask the questions you want to ask
2 – Doesn’t come up with a hypothesis and get the data to support (or refute!) your hypothesis
3 – Doesn’t comprise a representative sample
4 – Doesn’t tell you what might happen in the future; rather, it’s a window into the past

Later in the same article, the author agrees that Social Media Listening can still provide some benefits, and she mentions:

– Provide qualitative insights
– Reveal unmet needs
– Test ideas in real time
– Collect data

My point of view

While I tend to agree with most of the points listed as potential benefits, I don’t agree with the four points why social listening could not replace research. And here’s why.

1 – Doesn’t ask the questions you want to ask

This is wrong to think so.
Every day, hundreds of thousands of comments, conversations, and statuses are published on social networks, in online forums, in comments on websites, in product reviews. It’s up to you as a researcher to come up with the appropriate queries in the social listening tools in order to filter out noise and to only get the verbatim that are relevant for a given question, and to narrow down the result set to something that is at the same time not too big – so that each comment or status can be analyzed by a human, and not by some automatic sentiment analysis piece of software – and also not too small so that it still remains statistically correct.

2 – Doesn’t come up with a hypothesis and get the data to support (or refute!) your hypothesis

Wrong again, it’s exactly how we proceed: the process starts with some work sessions with the client where we scope the project, define the research areas and the questions to be answered. It’s also the moment where we get internal inputs, business and domain knowledge and specific terms and jargon, if needed. Then comes a phase of initial listening where the first hypothesis are either confirmed or refuted. If the later happens, we loop back and rescope the project, and go for another run.

3 – Doesn’t comprise a representative sample

Maybe. But maybe not. If you consider that the population of the internet users are a special part of the society, you may be right. But if you’re trying to figure out some effective online tactics, it’s likely that you’re not considering non-internet users in your research, and as a result, online conversations on social networks are a pretty representative sample, on the contrary :)

4 – Doesn’t tell you what might happen in the future; rather, it’s a window into the past

Honestly, I don’t buy into all this trends around “predictive analytics”. It’s too much of rocket science, and you never know what happens. What happens in the future depends on what WE do today, so yes I agree, you need to make your strategic decisions on something more scientific that your instinct and best guesses.

Benefits of Social Media Deep Listening

Now let me highlight some specific benefits of doing Social Media Listening for a business:

– Flexibility: you can ask as many questions as you like, come back after some initial findings, rescope and ask explore new directions. Ad lib. Databases and listening tools never get tired of answering.

– Short cycles: results can be obtained in days or weeks, not in months. These near real-time capabilities mean that you can detect early signals and take timely actions.

– You can expect the unexpected: because your queries will bring you a series of unfiltered verbatim, you can expect to find answers to questions which you would have never thought asking in the first place, even if you’re a very experimented researcher who has conducted hundred of panels and interviews.

– Authenticity: when consumers publish a status on a social network, they speak they voice, and they really say what they mean. They’re not influenced by the way the question is asked or they do not have to choose their answer from a made up list.

– Real language: also, as a consequence of the previous, consumers user their actual real language, which may differ from yours. If you study this carefully, this can give you interesting hints on some keywords that you could then use to create specific content, and also for SEO.

– No borders, no limits: You’re not bound to a given geography, and you can do the same listening for different regions or areas and observe the differences. You could then fine-tune your marketing to create location-based campaigns.

– Beyond just marketing: of course, the first departments who would benefit of social listening in a company would be marketing and sales, but not only: there are also findings that could be very valuable all along the conversion funnel: from sales, to customer support, product design & engineering, or innovation.

– Listen to the unreachable: also, this process of social listening are very convenient for those businesses who do not have a direct access to their end customers, either because they do not own their sales channel, or because there are B2B2C or because they are some kind of regulated industry. Being able to listen to unreachable customers is something of big value.

Final word

So, I’m sure you’re now convinced that Social Listening has definitely some unique business value. Some famous market research companies have also already got it, like for instance Ipsos who announced a similar offering one year ago, and I’m sure they would agree with me.

Social Media Listening is not the same as Research

On a final note, I would say that yes, I do agree with the title, but not for the same reasons :)

Curious to ear more? Convinced? Want to give it a try?

The good news is that “Social Media Listening” is something that we at Valtech do for our customers, and we have some pretty strong references and case studies in this domain. Contact us if you can to know more, and we’ll be happy to get in touch with you and to setup a meeting.

[Edit] : Corrected job title for blog most author mentioned.

6 replies on “Agreed: Social Media Listening is not the same as Research”

  1. Christophe,
    Thank you for your thoughtful post. I am glad I was able to inspire you! I think you and I are actually in agreement on social media and research. My comments are about social media LISTENING. When listening, there are no questions asked. Social media listening is monitoring the social media channels to see what people are saying. What you are talking about is using social media channels to actually DO RESEARCH (form hypotheses, ask questions, and analyze results). There are great examples of how companies can use social tools such as crowdsourcing and predictive market to do research. I believe that is what you are talking about here–using social media to do research.

  2. Hi Julie,

    Thanks for commenting here and for the conversation.

    Actually, what I’m talking about here is a method for using standard Social Media Listening tools – from vendors like Sysomos+Marketwire or Radian6 – to actually dig and filter the huge amount of online conversations in order to find those pieces of conversation that will be insightful and will help shape the answers to some questions, and to support or refute some hypothesis.

    I’m talking about using Listening to Do Research. I’m not talking about doing research over social networks by asking direct questions to people and collecting their answers.


  3. Christophe,

    Got it! Thanks for the clarification. But this raises another question.

    Don’t you think that filtering online conversations in search of answers to possible questions introduces the possibility of bias? People will likely find the pieces of converstaion that support their point of view and filter out those that don’t.


  4. I think research is predefined what you want however social media listening needs diligent analytics which is more powerfull than research. Social media is not only about listening , it is also about orm and social crm which takes you to business intelligence. I disagree with research not same as social media listening

  5. It’s unfortunate we can’t comment on the original post but you’re absolutely right.
    1) What is observational research if not research?
    2) You SHOULD go into SMR with a hypothesis to answer
    3) There is no such thing as a rep sample
    4) No research predicts the future. People predict the future.
    Sadly, any form of data collection that is conducted without regard for objectives or a scientific plan is not research. Social media listening RESEARCH is indeed research.

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