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Since we live in a world that seems to have been taken over by social media, it follows that online research methodologies have followed the trajectory of our tendency to conduct a lot of our interactions through popular social media sites.

Social media listening has become one of the most effective ways for researchers to understand how people perceive brands and trends. It’s an online research methodology that has catapulted in recent years – and for good reason; social media listening delivers a wealth of insights. Here at InterQ, we have our own social media listening team, headed by Kate Minkner. Joanna Jones, our Director of Research, recently sat down with Kate and asked her to enlighten us on exactly how this social media listening online research process works. Here is our conversation:

Joanna:  Hi Kate. At InterQ, you are in charge of all things online-research oriented. With so much of communication today being done online, understanding how people interact with websites, on social media, and on online forums is an essential component to our understanding of customer behavior and patterns. Can you give us a high-level explanation about your social media listening process?

Kate: Yes, the major shifts in online behavior have made social listening essential. As consumers we write blogs, post photos of our dogs, find deals, score a date, review restaurants, book hotels, buy coffee makers, read the news, join causes and generally just get inspired all day long – online. And usually on our smartphones! Because we are such digitally connected beings, the social space is a goldmine of consumer data.

Social monitoring tools allow us to quickly and easily mine thousands of these conversations at any given moment in time. There are paid tools used by companies like InterQ – some examples include Sysomos, Radian6, Crimson Hexagon – but there are some great free options like Topsy and Social Mention, too.

We start by carefully crafting a query that weeds out unrelated mentions, and understanding the conversation on a macro level. Our goal is fully observe the conversation volume over time, noting the peaks and valleys, the sentiment, who’s doing the talking and in what context. Once we understand how our topic or brand fits into the larger the picture, we can start an in-depth analysis, where we uncover nuances and real insights.

Social listening can tell us so much – key conversations and themes that surround a product/service/brand, gaps in the market, what customers think (unfiltered feedback), an untapped target demo, competitive threats, potential influencers and brand advocates, places to source content… the list goes on.

Joanna: How has online research changed in the past five years?

Kate: The “always on” aspect of our lives created something interesting – a digital democracy. Now, people talk to brands – it’s a two-way conversation. Individuals tweet Zappos about a shoe return, tell Red Lobster about their anniversary dinner on Facebook, comment on National Geographic’s Instagram photos. It’s become important for brands to be human, to be relevant, to tell stories.

This increased comfort level with talking and sharing has changed how we conduct consumer research. As researchers, we’re now given access to unprompted and unfiltered opinions. The sample sizes are huge. And all online conversation is searchable – so we can adapt based on what we’re learning along the way. Some have made the argument that social listening could replace more traditional consumer research like focus groups and surveys for these reasons, but it’s really optimal when they augment one another. At InterQ, we’ve found the most valuable insights are uncovered when social listening and traditional research are contradictory!

Joanna: How can online research change how companies perceive and market to their customers?

The biggest advantage to online research is that it’s dynamic. Conversation data is alive – undistorted, real-time, and continuous. We now have the capability to listen 24/7, not just one point in time. Marketers can learn more about their customer than ever before, and develop strategies that put a relevant message (content) in the right place (context). In a time when a person sees over 5,000 ads per day, there is a chance to create a connection, a moment that matters to them. The real-time nature means marketers can be more nimble with their messaging and more responsive to consumer feedback.

Joanna: Can you give some examples of insights you’ve learned through online research?

Kate: We worked with a national restaurant chain that was popular, but had significantly less online buzz than their competitors. In our conversation analysis, we noticed that the majority of the conversation – and great content – they did have was coming from the high school and college-age employees. These young employees lived online, and their part-time job at this restaurant was part of it. They were smiling (in uniform) in selfies, tweeting great pics of the (free) food, and even creating napkin art in their downtime! Our insight was to empower this potential army of digital advocates by tapping into their existing behavior. The client created an employee ambassador program that didn’t aim to control the content, but channel it. They rewarded the behavior and easily tripled their social mentions and online conversation buzz in only a week.

Our #1 insight is to know your audience, and social listening is essential in that process. Through social research, we’ve helped a major soft drink company identify new flavors, and find key influencers and celebrities for strategic partnerships. We’ve analyzed social conversation in the midst of a PR crisis to determine the appropriate response. We’ve tracked competitors to find gaps and areas of opportunity.

Joanna: What are some trends you’re seeing in online research?

Kate: Refining Respondents & Tech Approach | There’s a larger pool of respondents online, and recruiting will be more targeted and optimized (not to mention faster and cheaper!). Social platforms have made consumers intuitive in how they share – researchers can tap into the behavior and leverage these interactions in smart ways (comment on X, upload a video/image of X and ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ X). Technology – especially video – will play a larger role in the research mix as consumers document their experiences and thoughts.

More Mobile | Mobile will allow researchers to talk to responders at any point of their day, which is really immersive and can be especially valuable in the retail environment.

Insights in Real-Time (Always On) | As social continues to influence purchase decisions (and with social commerce on the rise), more and more brands are building “command centers” where they can monitor the space and craft relevant messaging in real-time based on consumer response.

Joanna: Wow, thank you, Kate. This has been a great conversation. Thanks for educating us, and we’re so fortunate to have you on our research team!

What could online research with social media listening uncover about your customers? Let’s discuss your project >