Monthly Archives: September 2013

Going deeper not cheaper in research.

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Can social media really help us deeply understand the human landscape?

I’ve been ruminating lately on all kinds of subjects as diverse as twitter and suicide – thinking about the way people connect but don’t really connect even in an age of social media. Today in the daily newspaper was a coroner’s report on a boy who ended his life, and really all the warnings were there in his facebook messages. Nobody, it seems, tangibly connected with the depressed teenager: a tragedy.

But the story stands as a sad metaphor I feel for the work we do as market researchers who, despite being armed with the best technology, and despite the excitement of being able to conduct research in real-time via smartphone apps (etc etc etc) languish in the shallows of human understanding. Discussion papers about new methodologies tend mostly to take a channel-centric view of the new research media, rather than exploring the question of what kind of depth of understanding will we achieve? Can we use social media to get us something deeper – more immersive – than what we get in a typical CATI or online survey? I’m not seeing too many papers on the subject.

So I embarked on a personal experiment to see whether it is possible to gain a deeper, more experiential understanding of a different culture via standard social media including FB, twitter and the notorious but interesting Ask.fm.

I’m not going into details here, other than to make some points which I may explore in later posts.

  1. Social media demand that we develop a persona. They gives us around 20 words and room to post one photo and that – effectively – is our identity or mask.  Social media are thus quite limiting.
  2. Masks may be held tight – and some online personas are heavily protective or overly managed (or branded) so some subjects are thereby more responsive or open to engagement than others.
  3. A second dimension to online persona is the focus of the person. Online, if not physically, some people tweet and msg fundamentally to report on themselves rather than to engage with others. Here’s a pix of my lunch. A minority fundamentally enter social media to listen, to engage or ask questions of others.
  4. The third dimension is – for researchers the most potentially interesting. Most people engage or friend or follow people within their own circles of interest. This is heavily geographical (my workplace, my college, my neighbourhood) but also expressed in terms of my interests. Us market researchers use a hashtag on twitter to find each other. But a minority of users open themselves up to random and ‘foreign’ links. They do this because they are inquisitive, and because they are interested also in helping other people.

It strikes me that if I were to use social media as a channel via which I could conduct some kind of social anthropology I’d get a vastly different set of insights from those who are:

  • Type One: Heavily masked, ego-centric and confined to their circle. In fact on ask.fm I was lucky to get answers at all from these people, despite their invitation to “ask me anything.”  They showed a very low engagement level.versus:
  • Type Two: Open and upfront people, at least semi focused on others not just themselves, and open to joining “foreign circles.” These people are engaged, interesting and open to discussing questions.

The conversations one encounters via social media are conversations in the true sense: they happen over time. So for that reason I’m less trusting of the idea that we can necessarily achieve a true understanding of individuals or customers, if we rely (as we’ve always done) on snapshots.  When engaging with a set of strangers, in my personal journey, I was struck by their mood swings, perhaps amplified by the nature of written communications and the starkness of the pictures they chose for tumblr, and the shifting nature of their opinion.

Underneath this was the basis of any good conversation: the degree to which both parties know about each other – and whether they can they develop a shorthand, and use shared references and metaphors as foundations on which to build trust and then converse on deeper ideas.  In most cases, as I engaged with strangers, I could do this: but not all. In every case the process took time.

What are the implications of this? My first inclination is that we can and should use social media in the same way as a spider can use their web – they can feel an insect landing in the far reaches of their domain.  So what we need are agents or listeners at the far reaches of our own webs. For example if I were asked to use social media to explore a ‘foreign’ market (users of herbal remedies, say, or San Francisco football fans) I would seek a shortlist of people who are Type Two.  Then I would ask them all about their worlds. I could get far more insights via them than I could via hundreds of completed responses from the relatively unengaged Type Ones.

In saying so, I’m consciously moving away from scientific sampling and classic design, and moving toward something else.

I do think we should be looking for systematic ways for us to use the strengths and account for the weaknesses of social media. It isn’t enough to say, “Oh, we now do research via social media.” That may point to truly immersive conversations, or it may paper over the cracks of particularly shallow, noon-insightful feedback.  Comments?

This blog reflects the paper I presented to the MRSNZ 2013 Conference – which won the David O’Neill Award for Innovation.