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.

The Key to Successful Executive Interviewing: Up Close & Personal

The researcher’s key to the executive suite is hanging in the spot where it has always been.  Our entry into the consumer and other B2B worlds may have strayed towards mobile and online methods – bulletin boards, surveys, communities, and social-media lurking – but successful research with the corporate executive still lies in the warm, personal connections we make in the face-to-face mode. We can try to defend other approaches as more efficient (in time and cost), innovative, and sexy, but the reality is that nothing reaps the richness of a person (the professional interviewer) sitting with another person (the executive interviewee) for the sole purpose of exploring topic-specific attitudes and behavior.

If success is measured by the depth of input and insight then there are at least six necessary components to the face-to-face executive interviewing design model: Read Full Text

The Value of the Research Function: Seeing the Forest, Not Just the Trees

Back in the summer of 2010 a group of researchers engaged in a lively online debate concerning the client-side marketing research function.  Specifically, the discussion focused on whether client organizations are better served by a centralized marketing research group or by decentralizing the research function into splintered factions throughout the company.  Dan Womack in his Womack Insight blog, Kathryn Korostoff in her Research Rockstar blog, Jeffrey Henning in Voice of Vovici, Cathy Harrison in the Voices of CMB blog, and others made a variety of arguments ranging from the idea that a centralized approach is “the best chance of finding the truth” to the notion that decentralization is an inevitable “irreversible long-term trend” fueled by DIY software solutions, not unlike what word processors did to the typewriter or PowerPoint did to tedious, black-and-white presentations.

While there are legitimate opinions on both sides of the issue, these discussions miss a larger point.  Regardless of whether an organization’s research is centrally controlled or conducted ad hoc across functionary silos, our sights are better focused on elevating the perceived value of research and the role it plays in the corporate world.  Much of that can be achieved by top management because undoubtedly the fate of research is driven by the appreciation of its strategic role among executive decision makers.  Likewise, the value placed on research is made obvious by where it sits in the organizational structure.  Even in a decentralized environment research managers hopefully sit at the same table with the strategic thinkers and operate on the same playing field with the executive-level top dogs.

But to play at this level you have to know what you’re doing.  You have to be a researcher, not an adept survey software user, fast learner in questionnaire design, or someone who just finds human behavior/attitudes so very fascinating.  These are important attributes but they do not make a researcher.  The reason has something to do with seeing the forest for the trees, but I digress.

In the absence of top management that embraces research and/or an organizational structure that situates research alongside executive strategic decision makers, there are other avenues that directors of internal research departments can take to increase its perceived value.  Here are just a few:

  • Provide opportunities for researchers to work for a variety of internal clients so that he/she can gain a broad yet deep understanding of the company or business unit.
  • Develop a matrix team approach, allowing various research specialists to assist in the design and analysis of any one study.
  • Hire highly-capable, experienced research people who can offer prestige and know-how to the research group.
  • Extend research managers’ responsibilities beyond project management, getting Read Full Text