Turning Social Media Monitoring into Research: Don’t Be Afraid to Engage

The idea of conducting qualitative “research” by way of simply listening in on conversations posted on various social media venues is, from a research design perspective, curious. It is curious Conversationbecause the business of understanding how people think (i.e., the business of marketing and social research) has never been about just hearing them talk, reading their words, and/or observing their behavior. While capturing this information may prove interesting and in some circumstances useful (e.g., counting the number of mentions of a competitive brand or variations in reactions to a new product introduction), it is not good enough when the intent is to learn about underlying perceptions and motivations.

This issue is discussed throughout Research Design Review but most notably in a September 2011 post where the distinction is made between social media monitoring and social media research. Specifically, this article states 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,” adding that

 “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…It is not good enough to listen unless we know what we are hearing [using] research principles [that] raise the bar and require the researcher to design an approach that reaps true meaning.”

It has been nearly three years since that 2011 post and little has changed. In fact, the increased use of mobile devices in the research community has actually deepened researchers’ enthusiasm for social media monitoring. An article in the MRA’s most recent issue of Alert! magazine (which, as of today’s date, is not yet available online) is just one reminder of researchers’ continued excitement over “social media listening” and the “ability to observe spontaneous conversations in a natural environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves.”  And several of the qualitative researchers interviewed for that article emphasized that it is solely listening without the intrusion of questions “where the greatest and deepest insights come.” Indeed, only two of the nine researchers interviewed stated that they actually interact with the people they monitor online.

Although pure listening and observation has what some think of as the positive effect of not disturbing “the fishbowl” of the social media venue, it can be crippling in terms of gaining an honest understanding of what is really going on. It is only when researchers are willing to give up the undisturbed environment and do what researchers do – ask questions – that meaning is allowed to blossom.

As Reg Baker said in a June 24, 2014 post pertaining to the Insight Innovation Exchange conference recently held in Atlanta, “clients will always listen to [suppliers who talk about] faster and cheaper [research designs].” But until researchers show their clients that, in addition to using the latest technology and gadgets, they have also utilized honest research design techniques that deliver quality, credible outcomes – that truly account for the contextual space in which people think – the justification for absolute unobtrusive measures such as those from social media monitoring is debatable.

Only when researchers develop social media research designs that incorporate follow-up conversations with their “participants” will they begin to bring substantive context – meaning – to their online observations.

Use your researcher skills. Engage. Ask questions. It may seem intrusive, time-consuming, expensive, and intellectually challenging, but just do it.


Image captured from: http://www.howtoee.com/good-conversation-is-a-two-way-deal/


  1. You have a great post on “Turning Social Media Monitoring into Research: Don’t Be Afraid to Engage”.I really appreciate the article you have mentioned above we do provide primary research on topics relevant to client research objectives. Typically, we use it as a foundational step to inform our more “traditional” primary instruments. However, recently, we’ve begun to use social media sources to answer specific client questions like, “What do people think about credit monitoring and the companies that provide it?” I would suggest you to visit SMstudy com web page where you can find relevant information


  2. Mary –
    Thank you for your comments. It is good to know that researchers such as yourself are thinking about — and acting on — these issues. So, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could actually follow up on some real basis (e.g., face-to-face conversations) with your “authors.” Difficult, I know. Your idea of posting follow-up questions on the site(s) is an interesting one. I would be most interested to know how that turns out.


  3. Margaret:
    This topic is very near and dear to my heart! We have only just begun to truly engage with social media commentary for our clients in a semi-primary fashion. We are accustomed to providing secondary research on topics relevant to client research objectives. Typically, we use it as a foundational step to inform our more “traditional” primary instruments. However, recently, we’ve begun to use social media sources to answer specific client questions like, “What do people think about credit monitoring and the companies that provide it?” And, we’ve been lucky enough to find a quantity of detailed verbatims available on media sites and blogs that we could analyze. While we couldn’t circle back and ask those comments’ authors (many were anonymous or profile information was not available) for more information, we did use the analysis to further frame our online focus group and IDI instruments. And, we plan to use both sets of findings when we get to quant. In this case, while we couldn’t engage with the commentors, we also didn’t feel we needed to b/c the verbatims were rich enough to fully answer the question. The context was clear. Though, there’s no doubt that the nature of the sites/topics the comments came from was highly biased. However, I would love to take it to the next step and frame up follow up questions to post out to those sites’ readers and capture additional input (a possible to do for next phases of our research for this client)!
    Love your blog!


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