Social Media Research: Tunnel Vision on Steroids

Social media research is one more “fad” that’s sweeping the world. (I even read in Media Post recently that someone at Intel loves it. More on that in a minute.)

Sadly, these fads come so rapid these days that marketers, designers, and engineers everywhere dash from ill-considered fad to ill-considered fad – never learning the fundamental weaknesses undermining their work.

Consider Social Media Research. Here’s the quote from an Intel employee in the Media Post article.

“This two-way dialog between our engineers and the consumers or IT professionals that are our customers allow us to test ideas very quickly, versus focus groups or other market research which could take years.” (Link here)

This is really quite a scary quote “…test ideas very quickly…”. Does this mean it’s more valuable to test quickly than to learn the truth? In a few cases it might be. But in general this is the road to lost profits.

And what kind of research bureaucracy must Intel engineers fight? “…other market research which could take years…”. If something’s critical, there are ways to learn about it quickly – ways that are far more valid than social media research.

Listening to Reality TV Stars. No matter what area of interest you consider, social media activity inherently comes from a skewed group. Why? Those who are regularly involved in social media must meet several criteria:

They are willing to dash to quick, strong opinions.

They communicate them quickly using written word (a big struggle for most people).

They meet some kind of “social butterfly” tendency to become involved in conversations.

If you stop and consider, these are very similar requirements for a reality TV star (except for being able to write). And, of course, those shows don’t reflect reality.

Even given that, it isn’t a problem if you’re selling something targeted at the highly active social media users. But social media research isn’t usually being used in this way.

Anywhere else these realities isolate your conversations to a small corner of users. Because the vast majority of people don’t fit these criteria – even for a high tech product.

Consider: Many engineers are mechanical/visual people. That means they struggle to articulate clearly and rapidly in writing. So even with an engineering social media audience, you’ll only learn from an unusual and small portion of your market.

Even worse, many of the most brilliant people in a field aren’t highly active in social media. Some feel they have better things to do – like work. Others are brilliant because they ponder deeply – not shallowly and quickly. By contrast, I’ve found that many active social site denizens are enthusiastic amateurs using their activity to climb the ladder. That mean’s they are great people, but not people on which to base your strategy.

But Doesn’t Social Put You In Direct Contact with “Real People”? Sure. So is my talking with the check out clerk at 7-11, my next door neighbor, or the parents at the soccer game.

But, the best real people to talk to are found in well executed market research. Not only are they real people, but you know the cross-section they reflect & you can project forward to drive profit. (Note: I emphasize “well executed” market research. There’s a lot of poorly executed traditional research that’s bad to trust as well.)

Walk Carefully, If At All, with Social Media Based Research. Relying on social media research tends to narrow your vision – creating tunnel vision. So consider social media conversations as nothing more than what you might get chatting at the grocery store.

There is value those conversations – they often reveal things that help inform or enlighten what’s heard in true research. But they cannot be presumed to be a good way to get feedback on ideas. At random times, acting on what you learn might accidentally turn out okay. But more often, good ideas will be rejected when they should be kept or bad ideas will be accepted when they should be jettisoned.

Research can be a tremendous power in driving future profits. I wonder what fad will get in the way of this truth next?

Copyright 2012 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

2 Responses to Social Media Research: Tunnel Vision on Steroids

  1. Paul Leadbitter says:

    Great article. The point about social research only accessing people who are comfortable in the written word is certainly food for thought

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Thanks, Paul. What’s struck me in conversations that have popped up since writing this is the way people doing social media based research quickly confuse “lots of responses” with “valid learning from research”. It’s a classic research error…but sad to see given that we should know better here in 2012. Guess each new generation has to learn about research discipline.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: