Working Hand in Hand: Qualitative MR and Social Media Research

Mary Aviles and Sandra Bauman
Marketing Insights e-newsletter
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Key Takeaways
  • Social media research can be a helpful tool for researching when incorporating a qualitative focus.
  • Analyzing social media data can provide insights into brand positioning, reputation, engagement, responsiveness, influence, marketing and communication strategies.
  • “We also agree with Poynter that—like PR, marketing and sales—qualitative research consultants sometimes have a different focus than quantitative market researchers.”

In his recent post on the marketing research blog GreenBook​, Ray Poynter—someone we consider one of the rock stars of market research—discussed the current limitations of social media monitoring and listening for market research applications. From a quantitative focus, we agree with the challenges he cites and appreciate that he has raised these issues. In fact, in working with the Qualitative Research Consultants Association social media research special interest group, we’ve struggled with many of the same issues that Poynter raises, including poor quality sentiment analysis, the inability to export social media comment streams, the challenge of analyzing items such as retweets, shares, and the contents of those links. Such challenges can be extremely difficult if we're talking about quantitative research, but as a supplement to qualitative research, we’ve had success using social media research and see increasing future potential uses.

Social media research with a qualitative focus can provide excellent directional information. We don’t need to be overly worried about Big Data and sentiment analysis at the qualitative stage of a project. Qualitative research consultants can use social media to answer questions and uncover questions and issues we hadn’t considered. Social media is ideal for many of the foundational activities that we perform, such as identifying lexicon and developing relevant “buckets,” or project-oriented categories.

While we realize that Poynter's focus was not qualitative, he suggests that social media research cannot be used to “map or understand the space” and that “brands can’t use it to test new products and services, or almost any future plan.” However, we have had success using social media to help establish a foundation for our client work that we then use to inform our qualitative research process. We have found that we can absolutely depend on social media to round out secondary competitive analysis, which we use to develop market landscapes and trend analysis. We find that analysis of social media can provide valuable insights on positioning, reputation, engagement, responsiveness, influence, marketing and communication strategies, industry lexicon and significant content to key target communities. Social media commentary offers unique visibility into relevance, appeal and consideration. In this way, social media research contributes to our projects in a unique way. It doesn't duplicate other findings and it provides added value to our overall qualitative research—-allowing us to ask better questions, use better vocabulary or recruit better respondents. It's also an extremely efficient way to become familiar with a particular space or industry.

For example, during recent work for a B-to-B company in the identity theft space, social media research led us to review the ample online media coverage of the Target data breach. In doing so, we familiarized ourselves with several key data breach and identity theft influencers. We were able to analyze aspects of their Twitter streams as well as commentary on mainstream media outlets such as 60 Minutes and USA Today and more topical industry sources like the computer security blog Krebs On Security. The analysis was largely manual, including cutting, pasting and hand cleansing the verbatims, it had to be shared anonymously, and it could not be attributed to specific demographics. It is also highly biased due to the nature of the topic and the propensity for security “enthusiasts” to follow and comment on these topics. However, this analysis provided very valuable directional information to our client, both about attitudes and associations with its competitors. Importantly, it provided guidance on a specific service and the companies that provide it, which was one of the client’s questions that our larger research engagement sought to answer. In addition to presenting the client with our initial findings, we have incorporated this analysis into crafting our qualitative research instrument for our next phase, which includes both focus groups and in-depth interviews.

We also agree with Poynter that—like PR, marketing and sales—qualitative research consultants sometimes have a different focus than quantitative market researchers. As such, we find social media research a highly effective supplement (and perhaps eventually an alternative option) to some of our more established marketing research methodologies. We look forward to a project where we might attempt to, for example, put a client question (or message or creative concept) out before the appropriate social media audience and build on those results.


This was originally published in the June 2014 issue ofMarketing Insights e-newsletter​.

Author Bio:

Mary Aviles and Sandra Bauman
Mary Aviles is a member of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA), founder of Connect 4 Marketing and a member of the Bauman Research & Consulting Strategic Network. Sandra Bauman is a member of the QRCA and the founder and principal of Bauman Research & Consulting.
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