Master Class: Are traditional ways of doing research still valuable in the age of social media?

The stunning growth of social media has made traditional research tools more valuable.

Annette Arno
Research director, Cision Global Analysts

Johna Burke
SVP of marketing, BurrellesLuce

Heidi D'Agostino
EVP of insights and research, Ogilvy PR

Usher Lieberman
Director of corporate comms, TheFind

Frank Ovaitt
President and CEO, Institute for Public Relations and Of Counsel at Makovsky & Company

Annette Arno, research director, Cision Global Analysts: This isn't an either/or situation. Both traditional media research and social media conversation analysis are valuable for what they contribute to PR research efforts. Analyzing social media content is definitely newer than traditional methodologies such as surveys and focus groups, but there is a reason why the former has spread like wildfire: the results provide immediate and visceral insights into the public's reaction to issues as they arise, and can even contribute to the development of events.

Having a handle on this kind of immediacy is invaluable. Issues are constantly arising, and thus, social media content should be tracked on an ongoing basis. From the research perspective, social media input can answer a lot of the questions that would otherwise take up time and money, as it can be used to inform the design of traditional research. After all, knowing what issues to flesh out gets you into the meat of a survey faster.

This allows you to capitalize on the strengths of survey research: getting specific answers to specific questions - questions that probably aren't part of trending online conversations, but are the next logical questions that organizations want answers to. Traditional research methodologies also allow you to target specific audiences not clearly identifiable through self-reported social media demographics.

The basic research rules to follow are the same for new and old methodologies: what are your goals and do they match those of your organization? Who is your audience? What media combination best captures their attention?

Selecting the best-fitting research path to your answers is key. Social media input and tracking can allow traditional research methodologies to shine as if they were new.

Johna Burke, SVP of marketing, BurrellesLuce: Far from reducing the importance of focus groups and surveys, the stunning growth of social media has, in fact, made traditional research tools even more valuable and necessary than ever before.

More valuable because the rising chorus of social media voices and the expanding boundaries of social media conversation provide increasing opportunities and incentives for communications professionals to obtain the kind of data that sets the course toward a winning campaign.

More necessary, because much of social media discussion produces loud background noise that can drown out the sounds that help give strategic meaning to all the overlapping conversations.

Focus groups and surveys can filter out the clamor of social media and help make sense of the unrelenting chatter that, for better or worse, constitutes the essence of social media. Traditional research techniques can translate social media comments into usable commentary, and turn random information into coherent intelligence.

For instance, the nature of social media does not allow for a control group, but a survey can easily accommodate one. It is in such a way that PR pros can gain the clearest insight into - and exert the greatest influence on - the tone and tenor of the social media discussion that surrounds their company or client.

Just as communications pros have begun to realize there is room in their toolkits for both social and traditional media, they should recognize that social media and traditional research methods are complementary components in an effective, holistic approach to successful media relations.

Heidi D'Agostino, EVP of insights and research, Ogilvy PR: We're at another important transition in research, much like the move from paper surveys to telephone, and then online. That progression was necessitated by the desire to reach constituents and deliver on client needs within a valuable and actionable budget and time frame.

Technological advances have elevated the implementation of research to meet people where they are, showcase creative in various forms, and be more efficient.

I'm a huge advocate of using new research methods, particularly online focus groups, iPad online surveys, and digital usability testing, but research-tool selection should always be driven by the learnings and outcomes desired, as well as the audiences being studied.

Real world, "old school" methods can still provide an avenue to intelligence that cannot be garnered through online or social media research. Online methods might provide abundant commentary, but people speak in a broader language than they would ever type.

Recently, we were asked to consider technology usability research among an aging professional population who would be the key drivers of adoption. Initial thinking was technology equals online testing. However, after careful consideration of the research objectives and audiences, we realized that in-person, in-depth interviews where we could see keystrokes, facial expressions, and probe on confusion would provide the most valuable insights for informing development.

Online and social media methods, while extremely valuable, do not always provide the same depth of understanding. Too often, we come to our method choices, be it traditional or social media, because of tool novelty rather than the desired outcome. Much like communication in everyday life, face-to-face and phone methods still have enormous value.

Usher Lieberman, director of corporate communications, TheFind : Although social media certainly has provided us with new avenues for communicating and sharing, all things have their place when speaking of both social media and appropriate research methods. Social media is a valuable and inexpensive way of doing research, but it isn't necessarily always a great way to draw upon a representative sample, which is key to yielding accurate and relevant results.

We have effectively used social media to draw out the needs and wants of some of our most engaged customers. Through doing so, we garnered some really compelling insights. Social media can bring forth subjective and new information that might never before have been part of the consideration set of the research.

But my experience also suggests social media can easily cause distraction due to the massive echo chamber it creates. In addition, it could potentially overcorrect for the desires of the loudest voices.

When we rebuilt TheFind's merchant center last year, we largely leaned on more traditional research methods. To help ascertain which tools our merchants were most interested in, we conducted several rounds of focus groups, which were preceded by email surveys. This proved to be more effective than social media, as we know how to target specific sizes of merchants via email. Additionally, it allowed us to keep our social media channels primarily dedicated to consumer-facing communications. 

That being said, when we need insight to help us connect the right products with the right people while they are in shopping mode, we do mine the consumer-driven data we obtain via social media channels.

Ultimately, it's about finding the balance, trusting your instincts, and matching the research tools you employ with the questions you are trying to answer.

Frank Ovaitt, president and CEO, Institute for Public Relations and Of Counsel at Makovsky & Company: For several years, I was the professional coach for PRSSA Bateman Competition teams at the University of Florida. One year, the team came up with perhaps the best low-tech research strategy I've ever seen.

The campaign topic that year was "increasing seat-belt usage by 'tweens'" - essentially the middle-school crowd. The team needed planning data on middle-schoolers' seat-belt usage in their own community and a way to measure the results of their campaign. They debated and rejected many options. For example, a formal survey - online or otherwise - would require layers of approval from school administration. And how reliable would self-reported answers be?

Finally, the team hit upon the ultimate low-end research concept, which involved standing in the place where cars arrive at the school and observing actual behavior. The team knew some kids might unbuckle their seat belts as the car traveled the last few feet, so the researchers decided they would do the count half a block away from the drop-off point. This still required the principal's approval, but that was obtained in a matter of minutes.

Good researchers debate tools. Great researchers debate questions.

What's that golden research question that can drive your program planning as well as your results measurement? Only when you know the question should you decide on the research tool.

Social media research techniques are perfect for some questions, as long as you recognize their limitations. But focus groups and surveys - also with limitations - should not disappear from your repertoire. Be sure to stay abreast of new research tools, but always focus your thoughts on asking the right questions.

The Takeaway

  • Social media capabilities allow you to capitalize on the greatest strengths of traditional research methodologies
  • Online and social media methods do not always provide the same depth of audience understanding as traditional research tactics
  • Social media can bring forth new information that might never before have been considered in research generation

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