By Heidi Dietzsch

Social media has created masses of data about consumer opinions. Some market researchers say this is a bonanza that might render a lot of traditional research redundant. But social media research and analysis is still in its infancy – its research techniques are evolving quickly and are not at all well-established.

Also, a big concern for the proponents of social media research is the issue of privacy. With traditional research respondents need to give explicit permission to be interrogated in any kind of survey, and they can, of course, decide whether they want to participate or not. With social media research this is a lot vaguer. In essence, the consent of subjects is ethically required for research to be done. The question therefore arises – is it ethical to use opinions expressed in social media for research purposes? Especially if subjects didn’t give researchers consent to do so.

Conventionally, when businesses wanted to learn more about their current and potential clients, they’ve turned to market research. But the growth of social media – and particularly social media websites such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn – offers a different and direct way of communicating with clients. There is no doubt that social media channels can give businesses direct insight into their client base.

Large numbers of people are gathering online to converse about a vast variety of topics, ranging from social activities and politics to product debates, sport and philosophy. It is so vast, in fact, that it is very difficult to get a handle on. And this is exactly where traditional market research trumps social media research.</span>

Traditional research is structured and applies scientific rigour. It also focuses on very specific demographics. A questionnaire delves into very precise consumer behaviour and characteristics and questions that flow easily from one to the other drill down to the nitty gritty of what researchers are looking for. This can’t be done with social media, even with the most sophisticated analysis tools. While social media is beset with opinions, there is no systematic way to discover how well such opinions reflect the views in the market place, rather than the view of particular individuals with a penchant for expressing themselves on social media. Also, analysis tools cannot recognise irony, sarcasm and tone. Even seasoned analysts might find it difficult to establish whether a person is praising a brand or ripping it off, or whether someone’s sentiment is positive or negative.

Another pitfall of social media research is that it does not measure awareness. To gauge awareness of a particular product or service you need to use samples of your targeted consumers. Social media is a great resource for capturing in-the-moment data, but it cannot capture demographic data. Through social media research, you are limited to the data that users are willing to disclose, whereas, traditional methods enable you to recruit the desired demographic breakdown.

Some traditionalists believe that social media listening is at best secondary research, and at worse, not research at all.

Of course, social media can enhance and complement traditional market research. The allure of social media research is that opinions and sentiments come directly from the horse’s mouth. Social media websites present substantial opportunities for businesses to communicate with numerous people in ways never before imagined. Also, businesses are able to know what their competitors are up to and what clients think of their competitors’ products.

It is also better to use social media research to supplement qualitative rather than quantitative research. Social media research with a qualitative focus can provide brilliant directional information. Qualitative researchers can use social media to answer questions and uncover issues that haven’t been considered.

Social media can also help market researchers in other, more obvious ways. For instance, social platforms offer a unique opportunity for one to connect with market research professionals around the world, that otherwise never would’ve been possible. Researchers can also continuously be aware of updates and new trends in the industry. In an industry where timeliness is key, the ability to stay nearly instantaneously up-to-date is a viable advantage of social media.

Technology is continuously changing the face of market research and social media has proven itself as an excellent channel to augment traditional research. There is no doubt that social media is powerful, but no matter how powerful, it cannot and should not completely replace traditional research.