Meaning in Social Media Research: Do You Know What You Are Hearing?

In 2011, Tom Webster stated the obvious when he asserted that social media monitoring is not the same thing as social media research.  Let me add that the reason monitoring or “listening in” on the conversations that whirl within the Web is not research – at least not primary research – is because it lacks meaning.  The absence of meaning in social media monitoring stems from its failure to meet design standards or address many of the design issues discussed in Research Design Review:  transparency, controls, maximizing individual response, error and validity in qualitative research, the relationship between contexts and truths, qualitative analysis, gender differences, and selection biasThese and other principles in design exist to achieve the overarching objective of most (if not all) research with human beings which is to find meaning in how people think, by actually wading into their streams of consciousness while making the interconnections within individuals as well as across the research sample.

That is why there is no ‘there there’ in social media listening.  There is no meaning in customers’ comments on Facebook (or Twitter or review sites) beyond the idea that customers are really angry about one thing, happy about another thing, or just obsessive about something else.  That is why it is delusional to liken social media monitoring to an online version of focus group research (which some have done) and not useful to escalate monitoring within the organization simply because it gets the attention of top management (not unlike the NPS score).

What would be useful would be the implementation of real social media research that utilizes quality design guidelines.  That is, a research design built around known and defined parameters that achieve a transparent view of the variables and result in honest insights.  Real social media research pursues meaning by crafting a contextual understanding of online comments by not just knowing the demographic, psychographic, and lifestyle characteristics of the commenters but also the commenters’ relationships with each other and the impact one has over the other.  Who are these people?  How does their online presence reflect their real personality or attitudes?  How is that affected by others’ online presence?  Are there gender differences?  To what degree do their comments relate to other aspects of their lives?  In other words, what are the built-in biases of the medium that directly impact the usefulness of the input?

Real social media research turns social media monitoring on its head.   It is not good enough to listen unless we know what we are hearing; and to do that we need to know who our customers (volunteers, employees, stakeholders) are, how social media fits into their lives (the episodic variability of social media participation), the true nature of their comments on any given day, the key factors that spark some comments and not others, as well as their expectations in terms of a follow up response from the organization and how these expectations flavor future comments.

Real social media research design is difficult.  If it was simply about sitting back in isolation and listening to conversations we’d call it social media monitoring or crowdsourcing or anything else pertaining to “an undefined, large group of people.”  But research principles raise the bar and require the researcher to design an approach that reaps true meaning.  To do that – to identify social media users, their characteristics, their attitudes, their behavior, their needs, their relationship with what they say and do online – requires getting involved, asking questions, and making the connections.  Which, fortunately, are all the things that researchers do best.


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