Musings from ESOMAR 3D: The research industry’s alchemy

Following on from my previous post on smarter rather than just shorter mobile surveys, I want to pick up on my second thought from the recent ESOMAR 3D conference – is measuring social media the research industry’s alchemy?

The researcher is not alone in the gold rush to prove once and for all the ROI available from brand activity on social media and, given our heritage in doing the very same thing across more traditional channels, who can blame us?

However, I wonder if it is these very same traditions and experiences that are hampering our efforts and leaving us somewhat trailing in the wake of the ‘digital cowboys’ I heard so much about in Amsterdam last week.

Social media is not a traditional channel and can not be treated as such.  And I wonder if our attempts to measure this channel in such ways will be about as fruitful as our predecessors attempts to turn lead into gold – we’ll never achieve our goal and we’ll lose all credibility trying to do so.

There are a number of reasons why I say this:

1. Social media is dynamic and as such in constant state of flux, so how we can ‘track’ activity when it’s something else whilst we’re tracking it than we when we set out to track it, and another thing again once we’ve finished?

2. Social media is active which means what we choose to read, watch, share and comment on has an inherent visibility that drives us as individuals to behave in a socially acceptable way for that particular group – that’s just human nature

3. Social media is ubiquitous (in the online world) so there is relatively little opportunity cost in consuming it, which means consumers don’t have to make difficult choices in selecting their interactions

But I am not saying this means it is impossible to track and measure exposure to, interaction with, engagement with and even the ROI from social media.  It’s just damn difficult and needs a slightly different approach.

Rakesh Kumar from Firefly Millward Brown and Madhumita Chakraborty from Pepsi Co gave a wonderful paper on how they used social media to better understand the Asian youth.  They demonstrated the need to understand the clear difference between an individual’s online and offline persona.  While there were some great examples at the conference of linking survey data and social media information, we need to be very careful in making any direct link without understanding the context of the social media platform they are on, the social group they are interacting with and the topic they are posting, sharing, or commenting-on.

Another great point made was by Jos Vink from Blauw Research and Anke ten Velde from Netherlands Tourism who highlighted the fact that enthusiasm is temporary on social media.  Just because somebody shares or posts something about an experience, product or brand in the moment doesn’t necessarily mean that the same level of emotion will be sustained enough to impact real-world attitudes or behaviour.

So picking up on these points I believe that we just need to dip into our researcher’s toolkit and use our existing skills in new ways:

(a) contextualise consumers’ engagement with social media as not all interactions can be treated the same; i.e. who, where, when and with whom

(b) accept and understand the difference between on-line and off-line personas using our qualitative techniques to show why somebody might be engaging with social media and what this means for potential real-world behaviour

So do I think that measuring social media is the research world’s alchemy?  No.  But I do think we’re going to struggle to come up with gold without breaking a few of our traditional rules and being flexible enough to change our mindset when it comes to media measurement.

What do you think?

I’ll be back on Friday to finish of with a few thoughts on our love of self-regulation.

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Ian Ralph
01962 842211
Article date - 14/11/2012
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