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No need for a lab coat when using social media for research

December 8, 2011

I recently had an interesting exchange with an acquaintance of mine who is in charge of multiple customer research initiatives that are based on traditional research methodologies including surveys and focus groups. He openly expressed his disapproval of using social media for any type of statistically valid research due to his inability to control where his social data is coming from. While he continued to list all important points that make traditional customer research far superior from what I can gather through social media monitoring service I could not help, but notice a bigger point that he was missing entirely:  ubiquitous access to social data that anyone (with or without a research lab coat) can begin to manipulate and analyze for relevant insights.  This creates opportunities for anyone (and marketers in particular) who are willing to learn a few tricks of the trade to use social media data not to replace but to supplement their formal market research initiatives.

Jason Falls and Erik Deckers in their recent article “How to Use Social Media for Research and Development” take a similar stand on empowering everyone marketers, product managers and small business owners to take advantage of data from social media conversations. How? They lists two major ways:

1)      REACTIVELY by using free or paid social data monitoring and mining tools to access, analyze and gather insights from existing conversations

2)      PROACTIVELY by seeking customer answers to direct questions posted in social channels.

Let’s analyze both from two different perspectives:  a small business owner’s point of view who often needs to rely on himself to perform all relevant research activities as well as a marketer in an enterprise setting who has an ongoing need for relevant customer insights that limited corporate market research resources cannot satisfy.


For access to social media data Jason & Erik give two examples of relevant tools:, a free social media data aggregator and a low cost social media engagement tool. Both of them allow you to type in a keyword or a keyword string  to pull out relevant conversations from a water hose of social data.

How successful you become with this data mining approach depends on your ability to refine your keywords to get relevant results and to look for patterns that might translate into future product improvements or a new product ideas. What are you looking for? Customer pain points & problems incl. existing product complaints, unmet needs and desires, behavioral patterns and solution inquiries. This data could be used to help understand customer behaviors that help you design a better product, develop a more relevant marketing campaign and proactively answer most common product questions that result in costly customer service inquiries.

In addition to the two services and approaches that Jason and Eric mentioned in the article I would also recommend services that allow you to set up alerts and receive notifications of relevant conversations on a regular basis so that you can continue to keep tabs and build on the original insights that you’ve gathered on day one. You can set up alerts in as well as in google through google alerts.

If there is a particular social channels where your customers are more active in e.g. twitter vs. blogs or facebook vs. linkedIn there are specific channel-focused monitoring tools incl.

Just keep in mind that social media data mining is not a short process. Defining and refining your keywords to get to relevant data takes time so don’t be discouraged when your early search results include lots of irrelevant content. If you are not familiar with how to use Boolean search operators to tighten your search queries here is a helpful Boolean operator tutorial (PDF) and another one that is a bit more advanced.

If you are a marketer in a large organization that has implemented a social media monitoring program you are already ahead of the game. How to gain access to the tool? I would start by inviting your social media monitoring program administrators for coffee and discuss your specific needs. Keep in mind that you are not looking for a branded company or product mentions that are customarily monitored as part of a brand reputation management program. You are looking for a different set of data which in many cases will require setting up new search queries and working to refine them to make sure data is relevant to your needs.


Seeking customer feedback in social media is not as easy as sending a question out and expecting multiple responses in return. In order to have your customers or prospects willing to provide feedback you must have a pre- established relationship with them that is based on mutual trust established as part of a long term social media engagement strategy. Those of you who are already out there conversing with relevant audiences about their needs and pain points should adjust their social media tactics to make feedback giving a natural part of the engagement process. Think about questions you want to ask your customers ahead of time and include them in social polls, blog posts or tweets. Keep at it until you get the right amount of feedback to recognize patterns that can be further validated during a formal customer research.

If you are lucky and work for a company that actively crowd-sources their customers for feedback on product ideation you might have a public or private online forum with formal tools to make it easier to solicit customer feedback. These tools help users comment on ideas  and  help  “promote” or “demote” with a simple click of a button. Here are a few examples of such communities you should visit to understand who is talking and what the major data patters are.

Regardless of what company you work for and research resources you have at your disposal keep in mind that social media is the world’s largest focus group and it is to your advantage to learn the basics of social media listening and social data mining. As Jason & Eric smartly point out you must start with the basics:

  1. Have  clearly defined research goals  (what are you trying to find out),
  2. Think of a strategy for getting you there (incl. questions you need to be asking to elicit the right type of feedback)
  3. Determine free or paid tools you’ll need to gather and analyze data and that will allow you to receive that data on a regular basis.

Good luck!

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