Social Media

Insights vs. Metrics: Finding Meaning in Online Qualitative Research

The use of projective techniques in qualitative marketing research has become an accepted as well as expected practice in the industry.   Focus group discussions and in-depth interviews (whether face-to-face or online) are particularly suitable for activities that go beyond the question-response format.  There are any number of reasons for using projective techniques but they essentially boil down to something similar to the statement from AQR: “What these techniques have in common is that they enable participants to say more about the research subject than they can say spontaneously, accessing thoughts, feelings or meanings which are not immediately available.”  Or, something along the lines of tearing down walls as from Applied Marketing Research: “Projective techniques are important in breaking through the wall of rationalizations consumers use on a daily basis to justify the purchase or likes/dislikes of products or brands.”

Projective techniques come in a variety of flavors.  In addition to those listed on the AQR site – collage, personification, bubble drawing, role playing, etc. – there is also guided imagery, picture sorts, sentence completion, tarot cards, and more.  The types of projective techniques used by researchers has grown over the years (and continues to grow), primarily because many researchers believe (although, I am not one of them) that there is no limit to what is acceptable as a projective technique, and online resources such as Pinterest have broadened the projective possibilities.

Researchers have promoted and defended their use of projective techniques based on the ability to tap into the less-public portion of people’s minds and thereby gain a ‘truer’ picture Read Full Text

Accounting for Social Desirability Bias in Online Research

An article posted back in 2011 in Research Design Review“13 Factors Impacting the Quality of Qualitative Research” — delineated three broad areas and 13 specific components of qualitative research design that can influence the quality of research outcomes.  One factor, under the broad category of “The Environment,” is the “presence of observers/interviewers as well as other participants.”  In other words, how does the inclusion of other people — whether it be client observers, interviewers, fellow participants, videographers, or note takers — affect the attitudes, behaviors, and responses we gain from our research efforts?  Does research, almost by definition, create an artificial social context where participants/respondents seek others’ approval leading to a false understanding of their realities?

Social desirability bias is not a new concern in research design and its influence on the ultimate usefulness of our qualitative and quantitative research has been the focus of attention for quite some time.  Tourangeau, Rips, and Rasinski (2000) discuss social desirability in the context of sensitive questions:

“[The] notion of sensitive questions presupposes that respondents believe there are norms defining desirable attitudes and behaviors, and that they are concerned enough about these norms to distort their answers to avoid presenting themselves in an unfavorable light.”

Nancarrow and Brace — in their article “Saying the ‘right thing’: Coping with social desirability in marketing research” (2000) — address the under- and over-reporting associated with social desirability bias and outline numerous techniques that have been used to deal with the problem — e.g., emphasizing the need for honesty, promises of confidentiality, and question manipulation by softening the suggestion that the respondent should know the answer to a particular question or behave in certain way.

Online technology and the ever-growing online research designs that are emerging — within social media, mobile, bulletin boards, communities, and survey research — have allayed social-desirability concerns.  The belief among some researchers is that one of the beauties of the virtual world is that inhabitants basically live in solitude, stating that a key advantage to online qualitative research, for instance, is the obliteration of social desirability bias and hence the heightened validity of online vs. offline designs*.

The idea that researchers who design online studies can ignore potential bias due to social desirability seems misguided.  In fact, Read Full Text

Social Media Research & Exploring Self-Presentation in the Online Social Context

A discussion of social media research design would be a bit shallow if devoid of the role technology plays in altering any one person’s true reality.  Computer-mediated communication, online impression management, and self-presentation tactics are just a few of the concepts often discussed in conjunction with how someone communicates (voluntarily or otherwise) via the electronic medium.  Computer-mediated communication is not new but an idea that quickly sprouted when virtual reality began to receive lots of attention in the 1990’s.  In 1996 I wrote an article for the American Marketing Association –“Virtual research exists, but how real is it?” – touching on this very issue.

Back in 1996 I stated that online research “provides the researcher with a solution that is sensitive to both budget and time constraints,” a key justification for online research designs today.  Because our understanding of how people think and communicate in the online world was cloudy at best, I go on in this article to offer “fast, economical” alternatives to online designs –

  • Developing an annual corporate research program (while minimizing costly ad-hoc research)
  • Reducing sample size in survey as well as qualitative research (e.g., greater use of mini groups)
  • Cutting out research services that are underutilized, e.g., written transcripts or full reports that are rarely read
  • Asking for “volume-discount pricing” from research providers
  • Moving the research function up the corporate ladder to create efficiencies and focus on less-costly design solutions

While these alternative approaches are as appropriate today as they were 15 years ago, the appreciable advancement of online technology has greatly increased the viability of online research designs.  And, although the near silence in the marketing research community concerning computer-mediated communication is a bit deafening, it is encouraging to see MarketTools TrueSample and other initiatives designed to address online respondent fraud.

But what about social media research where validation is difficult?  Moving forward, it would be useful for social media researchers (corporate side and consultants) to entertain the ideas espoused by those in communication studies, psychology, computer science, and other disciplines that examine online behavior and attitude formation. For example, Jenny Rosenberg and Nichole Egbert discuss in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication their study of the “self-presentation tactics” Facebook users employ to maintain a particular impression on their intended audience.  And Stephanie Rosenbloom in her New York Times article, “Putting Your Best Cyberface Forward,” references a variety of sources including Mark Leary, a psychologist at Duke, who studies impression management and explores the images people choose to create of themselves in the online sphere.

In the relatively controlled environment of online survey and community-style research designs, we may be learning to identify whether there is a dog at the other end of the computer or mobile phone screen; but social media researchers are strapped with the more daunting task of understanding how people think and who they choose to become in the virtually social context.  This – and its ramifications for research design – are worthy of more dialog.