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6 ways the social web is revolutionizing market research

6 ways the social web is revolutionizing market research Sarah Hofstetter

For decades, traditional research practices have informed marketing strategy for major brands. While this has proven indispensable in crafting marketing communications, this type of research lacks the dimension required to paint the full picture of a consumer's mindset, especially in a new era of discovery where a marked shift in consumer behavior has exponentially accelerated change in the world around us.

People today are equipped with the tools and means that allow them to function as real-time sharers, creators, and curators of content. This democratization of media makes it ever-important for brands to understand what people are saying, who is doing the talking, and how and where the conversations are taking place.

Online listening, also known as "buzz monitoring" or "social media monitoring" can do all of this and it can do so in near-real time. Through mining public conversations across a range of digital platforms, marketers can analyze this information to glean actionable insights about their brand, their category, their audience and the greater cultural context of their business.

Here are six powerful things that online listening can do for brands.

Discover how people perceive and engage with your brand in an organic context

The nature of traditional focus groups places a narrow lens on the types of insights that can be derived. Participants are generally aware of their role in the process, placed in an unnatural setting, and asked to answer a restricted field of questions. Online listening functions without such limitations, as brands can learn what people are saying in candid conversations occurring in natural environments. This means you can uncover sentiments and trends that may have gone unnoticed through traditional research.

It's not about waiting for answers; it's about learning in real time

Traditional research often operates on a multi-month delay given the time and resources needed to plan, conduct, and collect data, and consequently, brands conduct this type of research less frequently.

Marketers who rely solely on traditional research risk acting on stale insights. So much can change within your audience's mindset, your category, and the broader culture in the blink of an eye. Online listening can keep pace with the fast and furious nature of today's marketing landscape thanks to sophisticated tools that leave more time for human-powered analysis.

Listening can monitor within a larger context

Individual brands exist within larger ecosystems of competing products and companies clamoring for attention. Online listening can paint a picture of the broader environment and determine how specific brands fit within it.
The average person encounters more than 5,000 brand messages a day. Beyond competing with rivals in your category, you also compete with a broader range of brands vying for attention in a crowded space. A packaged goods company, for example, may today consider consumer electronics companies, automotive manufacturers, etc. as viable competitors -- beyond similar CPG companies in their category. Listening can also introduce you to new opportunities for strategic partnerships with brands you might not have previously considered.

Envision your audience as people, not just consumers

Marketers can take a closer look at public conversations to develop personas or identify tribes. Who is your audience apart from being "consumers?" How do they describe themselves? What are their hobbies, interests and passions?

By gathering publically available information from sources such as Facebook and Twitter bio pages, as well as connecting blogs, Tumblr feeds, etc. of individual authors, marketers can paint a fuller picture of an individual's daily life. By cross-referencing this data, you can build profiles to be grouped into behavioral or psychographic "tribes." For instance, if a focus group finds that a brand particularly resonates with a certain demographic (e.g. 18 to 34 year-old women), online listening might also reveal that the brand is specifically popular among music fans and foodies. This kind of analysis helps tap deeper into consumer psyche and generates ideas for how best to engage the relevant tribe.

Spot emerging trends in consumer behavior

Social media sits at the crossroads of culture and people. It's never been easier to understand shifts in consumer behavior (think cultural trends or emerging media platforms, for example) at scale and in near-real time.

The most direct way to spot shifts in behavior is to listen to what topics of conversation a particular segment is talking about, and where they are having those conversations across the web. While bottom-up trendspotting is good for forecasting cultural insight early on, understanding how those with online authority are leading culture is another way to track trends that already appeal to wider audiences.

Works alongside more traditional research methodologies to further hone in on the why and how once new trends are uncovered

Given the popularity of short-form status updates (e.g. Twitter), it can be challenging for marketers to determine why people feel a certain way about a product, or why they chose to purchase a specific brand. For example, an individual might say "I love brand X", but unfortunately they don't often provide more detail as to why.

There are several ways to supplement online listening and gain deeper insights on emotional connection and a consumer's path to purchase. One is to simply ask them, either through an opt-in survey or a more in-depth qualitative interview. Another is through ethnographic research, or any type of investigation in which you observe first-hand how people engage with your brand in their everyday lives.

New technology has empowered marketers to more easily collect public conversations -- but, as the volume of information available to brands increases, an approach based on human-powered analysis becomes critical to piece together the deeper meanings behind the outpour of real-time data.

Online listening has emerged as a critical tool for brands to gather insights about people and culture in unprecedented ways. These insights -- deeper and more holistic than traditional findings -- can shape marketing strategies in ways that allow you to provide better experiences to people, within your advertising and beyond.

Sarah Hofstetter is president of 360i.

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Feature art sourced from ex_magician and cheetah100.

Sarah Hofstetter is President of 360i. During her seven years at the agency, 360i has developed industry leading practices that have helped cement its reputation as "A-List" agency and one of the "Best Places to Work" in Media & Marketing, per...

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