Snake Oil and Popcorn: Market Research Meets Social Media

Today I read a blog that stated, “… the utility of market research is often minimal.  Many times the data is worthless even before the survey hits the field due to quickly changing business conditions, and consumers are over surveyed and fatigued by the constant bombardment of surveys online or elsewhere.” The blog is from The Armory, and is authored by Brendan Miller. I like Brendan’s posts—he has strong opinions and clearly enjoys innovative thinking. But given how many blogs and articles I have seen lately that express a similar point of view, I just have to respond.

Look, traditional market research is flawed. We all know that. It has its issues—sample quality being a biggie these days. And Brendan sums up another one nicely,  “Traditional research only captures a moment in time.” True, true, and market researchers are well aware of this (and advise clients accordingly).

But let’s not pretend social media is the elixir…the magic potion to cure all market research ills. Yes, social media as a research tool has real benefits and the innovation is exciting for suppliers and clients alike (tip of the hat on a nice piece to Fresh Networks). I am particularly interested in techniques for monitoring online conversations (nice intro by Beth Harte here, plus do include Crimson Hexagon).  But if we set unrealistic expectations about how fantastic social media is as a market research tool, we will ultimately disappoint clients, or worse (deliver misleading or egregiously flawed research).

Yes, it sounds great to make sweeping statements about social media-based research  “…like creating online customer forums can help marketers take an active and continuous listening approach.  Their insights will be timelier and therefore more relevant.” Timely? Perhaps if people happen to be talking about something you care about when you care about it. But alas, these methods also have inherent limitations and biases.

Heresy, you say?! Yes, social media-based market research has real limitations. Two of the major issues:

1.    The Popcorn effect (well, that’s what I call it anyway). When someone is particularly frustrated or particularly thrilled they “pop” onto a blog or user forum or review site and share a comment online. Many online forums suffer from these extremes, so we have to be careful. (In contrast, surveys capture a fuller spectrum of response including neutrals—which are a legitimate response and critical context in many cases).
2.    Online personas. How people talk, behave and portray themselves online is very different than how they do these things in-person. Ask anyone who has been on an online dating site and then met the individual in-person; the gap between online and in-person can be shocking.  And usually not in a good way. As just one example, in some markets, monitoring online communities would suggest an extremely rational set of buying behaviors backed up by shared reviews and deep, objective product evaluations. But in (gasp!) a focus group, a little discussion leads to people confessing to each other that the tie-breaker between brand A and brand B was based on an entirely irrational input (“I wanted my new HDTV to be sleeker than my brother’s”, the knowing nods of the other group members allowing the moderator to use the group dynamic to probe further and peel the onion on customer behaviors).


The market researcher who clings to conventional surveys and focus groups like a life raft on a turbulent sea is going to drown. Those who judiciously add various social media and ethnographic-based methods along with some of the other fabulous new qualitative research tools out there will be able to navigate through the storm—and best help clients choose the methods (or mix) for their unique needs. But let’s not pretend that social media-based research is a magic cure-all; too many snake oil salesmen will only ultimately turn off clients and lead to a backlash.  And that’s not going to do anyone and good.

  1. Brendan Miller
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    • Kathryn Korostoff Kathryn
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  4. Christian @research2
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