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Qualitative research and Social Media Marketing

Written by David Harry   
Friday, 28 March 2008 07:49

the Wisdom of the Masses …..

In my quest to find meaning in the warm and fuzzy world of social media marketing I touched on the fact that quite possibly valuations from other disciplines should be a consideration. That is to say part of the ultimate value in SMM are not being fully realized. For example it easily crosses over with areas such as;

SEO – there are some inherent link building advantages among others from a SMM campaign.
CRM – customer service and relations are obviously benefited by an integrated program.
R&D – the research and development teams can also be enhaced through your efforts.

These are very important considerations for those of you looking to quantify social media marketing in terms of (engagement) metrics and conversions. By optimally leveraging the cross-over disciplines you can offset some of the actual costs via budgetary diversity. What also avails itself is an entirely new view of not only measurment but application as well. If you are only looking at things from a quantitative view then you are missing the oportunities afforded by also integrating qualitative research into your efforts.


Quantitative V Qualitative.

Qualitative research is not about hard data nor large sets of metrics and measurements. It is more about delving deeper into human behavior; the reasons the people take a given action. It is about questioning the why and how of people’s actions, not so much the what, where, when.  

Some methods include;

  1. Participation in the environment
  2. Direct Observation
  3. In-depth interviews
  4. Documentation Analysis
  5. Micro-Analysis


Qualitative research explores concepts and categorizations often through comparitive analysis while quantitative seeks to present a conclusive theory based upon hard data. One often uses qualitative research in order to establish quantitative metrics to be studied. In thruth they can easily work hand-in-hand and when used in marketing, usually do. Qualitative research is generally applied to smaller data sets including one on one, pairing (2 interviewees), micro-groups (3-5) and focus groups (6-10 people) and thus cannot give data sets that are graph-able or show larger market trends. It is more about defining problems, creating potential hypothesis and unearthing nuances not generally found through quantitative means.

The Social Marketing Connection

Now, there is nothing new about the use of qualitative research in marketing and most of you would better know it as a ‘focus group’, ‘customer satisfaction interviews’ and so forth. Over the years marketers have used qualitative resarch for a variety of purposes including;

  1. Branding research
  2. Awareness and Image research
  3. Feasability studies
  4. Competitive intelligence
  5. Brand equity research
  6. Product testing and pricing
  7. Market Segmentation
  8. Purchasing dynamics
  9. Customer satisfaction research.


Qualitative marketing research plays an integral role in the branding process and measurement. Considering we have already established the role of branding in social media marketing, it stands to reason that applying these concepts should be a direction to look in. Looking at social media marketing from a pure quantitative standpoint seems almost counter intuitive and certainly misses many opportunities for lending further value to the over-all program that you are running.

There is a unique oportunity for marketers if you can harness the power of social communities to reach consumers that are not as easily accessed via offline methods. With a larger global demographic, that can vary in attitudes and intent across geographic locales, online qualitative research may be the best answer in some cases. We can also break the consumer model from one of isolation into more of a group dynamic. We can inquire, formulate hypothesis and observe through a variety of stimulous material or direct interaction.


Pros and Cons

Now there are those that, rightfully so, are resistant to the thought of using an online environment for qualitative research. The main problem being that it is often the in-person observations traditionally one found are not as readily available. Often it is not the mere words but the actual emotion displayed that can be telling from a qualitative standpoint. Equally aspects such as sarcasm and even the interaction of the interviewees themselves is not as readily gleened in an online implementation. There can even be technological hinderances which further take away from the true sprit of qual research. These are some serious considerations, but not debilitating as far as I am concerned. There is certainly still room to gain some useful insights through utilizing the new directions in human social traits in an online world.

Simply put I don’t think we should throw out the baby with the bath water. I fully understand the pureists of qualitative research (for marketing) that believe it is essential to be face-to-face and have that intrinsic connection. But I do also believe that in the true spirit of qual research (for sociology) calls me to look at the fact that there are differing personas involved with the internet and that the methodology used by marketers traditionally can evolve as well. The medium nearly dictates that a different response/emotion is to be had online; which persona am I researching?


We’re not reinventing the wheel

Now, while this coversation may seem new to many of my readers, I assure you it is not. A good example is a recent undertaking from the folks at DelMonte Foods to use social group settings to help create products, test marketing campaigns and stir up intial buzz. They created an online community called; ‘I Love My Dog’. They hand picked 400 members for the private network and when looking for a new breakfast treat for dogs asked the community for input. The consensus was something with a ‘bacon and egg taste’ thus Snausages Breakfast Bites was born.

The practice began in the video game industry and now companies such as Coca-Cola, Disney and ABC run private networks that among other things creates a more direct connection with the consumer base and shortens the product development life cycles. They are going beyond simple focus group analysis and creating relationships with the consumer base. What hasn’t been successfully conquered is utilizing the larger public networks to glean insight.

This is where those that are more intimately familiar with the social spaces should be able to add to the process.

So, for me there is much to be considered here. There is more to social media marketing than mere engagement data and conversions. There is more to this than mere quantitative satisfaction. I am hoping that by addressing this topic that some of those more intimately involved in the SMM world will step up to the plate and start to work with those in other disciplines such as qual research to add to the over-all value of social media marketing.

What say you? The qualitative research community is not so sure how to get the larger social networks understood. Is there a SMM eficianado among us that wants to play? Let me know….

Until next time… stay tuned. I intend to follow this trail further.

 Further Reading;

Qualitative Research Methods
Qualitative Marketing Research
Basics of Qualitative marketing research
Qualitative and Quantitative research; where the twain meet
Using Twitter for ethnography
Does inexpensive research have to be quick and dirty
Problems with using online qualitative research
Private network market research
 Qualitative V quantitative research
A new era for qualitative research?
Online research; to do or not to do
Are Australian researchers ready to embrace Web 2.0?
Comparison of Face-to-face focus groups to Online Focus groups




+1 # James Duthie 2008-03-28 21:20
Very interesting article Dave. In a way I think digital marketers have become addicted to quantitative metrics. We are so used to the complete accountability of online marketing that we may fail to respect qualitative research.

But I have long thought that social media holds immense qualitative powers. An organization that has access to a responsive online community can effectively replace market research such as focus groups and consumer panels. Furthermore, they are speaking directly to customers rather than simply members of their core demographic. Most marketers would drool over such direct access to the minds of their customers.
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0 # Arpan Jhaveri 2008-03-29 10:56
Thanks for this in-depth post and links to further reading. That's quite the list!

I fundamentally agree with your assessment of SMM - valuable qualitative information can indeed be obtained through its practice. The shortening of a product's life cycles is one thing I have personally experienced with my company's efforts.

For those quantitatively inclined, one way to think about SMM, as Geoff Livingston suggested in a recent "The Buzz Bin" blog post, is in terms of lead generation. SMM should in practice, be a much cheaper means of generating qualified leads for a business, something that is especially valuable for small businesses that rely on referrals. The average cost per lead should be lower in SMM than in traditional forms of marketing. And given closer proximity to the potential customer, the lead is probably more likely to convert.

Just my 2 cents!
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0 # Dave 2008-03-29 11:13
@ James – as I was researching it was evident that quantitative means were the early darlings and that the qual (marketing) research is only now being considered more and more. The main thing is that while they are gleaning goodiness from the private community approach, a methodology for mining the open communities is still a challenge. I am going to follow this path a little further as I have made contact with a few folks in the discipline and see what they think. I believe that SMMs and QMRs good play well together. One has the access and methods, while the other has the research ability to truly mine said group. See how it goes…

@ Arpan – he he..not only a product life cycle, but services as well one would imagine. I came along this trail through studying Qual research on a sociological basis, it was later that I started looking at qualitative market research. I find there is a difference in the depth of analysis, thus for me, I see more power here than many Qual Market Researchers seemed to. See where it leads…

SMMs can learn a trick or two from QMRs and then we start adding in SEO and CRM benefits, a clearer value of social media marketing begins to emerge for me. It is simply natural to move away from a hard quantitative measurement of the benefits a business can reap from it all.
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0 # Scott Brinker 2008-03-31 06:31
Great post. Useful framework for leveraging social media for what it is (a qualitative research goldmine), without the need to artificially quantify it for the same of quantification. The idea of using this as a hypothesis generation engine for more quantitative marketing tests resonates with me.
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0 # Adam Henderson 2009-11-12 04:45
I think this is a fantastic article and I am enthused by all the posts. Great work. I think that qual analysis frameworks have so much to offer SMM and their clients/practitioners. I'm starting up a SM Qual bizz and I'm 99% sure that there is a lucrative market out there for it - there is just far to much fantastic insight out there to ignore - or to simply measure and count (# of posts, tweets, views, mentions etc). We need the insight / depth / emotive piece also! Feel free to reach out to me if you want to discuss this more. :music:
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0 # wordpress consulting 2008-03-31 16:43
Hey there, i wanted to invite you to join this panel I'm putting together to discuss Universal Search and its implications on SEO.

If you wanna be part of it, just sign-up in the comments on this page: and I'll get a hold of you in a week or two when we start the email panel.

Thanks, Brad
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+1 # Arpan Jhaveri 2008-03-31 17:10
Yes, I suppose it does apply to services as well. I\'m not sure if you ever came across a book called Rivers of Revenue, but its fantastic book on sales and marketing.

One of the chapters is on conducting customer interviews to find and sustain revenue sources. I put up a blog post on it and its relation to SMM. Would love to get your thoughts. -Arpan
One of the chapters is on conducting customer interviews to find and sustain revenue sources. I put up a blog post on it and its relation to SMM. Would love to get your thoughts. -Arpan
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0 # amelia 2008-04-16 23:00
well, its a good way to discuss it here the Qualitative research and Social Media Marketing.
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0 # Anne Zieger 2008-09-10 16:53
Hi there -- Love your analysis and agree, qualitative research techniques are critical in analysis of social media.

I've written up my own "back of the envelope" style overview of how to look at social media campaigns' impact here:

Would love feedback.

Thanks for a thoughtful piece of work!
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0 # Columbus Website Willy 2008-10-14 11:04
SEO work is the most important aspect of getting your business website going. Understanding the marketing game is just as important. glad there's interest in informing the public on how it works. good stuff
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+1 # yellowsubmarinequal 2009-01-26 08:37
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0 # dominique 2009-03-16 22:55
Excellent post. Thanks

Two comments...
1- agreed that the social media may not bring the same level of depth and rich interaction as the real life.
2- In the example you gave, brand inquired for the feedback and created communities. In some occasions, the feedback may already be there, waiting to be discovered in an existing community.
One of our client "mined" the cosmetic blogs for insights and for some questions/ research topic it was quite powerful.
3- in the latter, the comments/feedback is unbiaised and such comments are therefore higher value.

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0 # dominique 2009-03-16 22:56
OOps three comments.
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0 # Ben Smithee 2009-07-25 23:02
First off, great post!

This is a topic that I am commonly presenting about to organizations and clients.

The SM realm is definitely a player in the qualitative research field. Those who turn their backs to it are equally as "wrong" as those who proclaim SM to be the replacement for the FG or IDI. It is neither a be-all end-all nor a 'fad' that should be ignored.

Luckily as our clients have begun to dig deeper into the SM realm, researchers are being forced to learn more and understand the value SM can bring to Qual Research. We are focused on the Youth and young adult markets so SM is a definite interest and fit for our projects.

Again, great post! Well-written and thorough!

Ben Smithee
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