Using Social Media to Enable Qualitative Research

There are a million and one ways to use social media to better your qualitative research. In rare occasions, social media research can be conducted as a stand-alone, but more often than not, it helps the qualitative researcher to robustly meet in-person qualitative research objectives. Here are a few of my favorite ways.

There are a million and one ways to use social media to better your qualitative practice – yes, that many.  The key here is that social media can be used to enable better qualitative, not serve as a substitute.  In rare occasions, social media research can be conducted as a stand-alone, but more often than not, it helps the qualitative researcher to robustly meet in-person qualitative research objectives.  Here are a few of my favorite ways:
Consulting.  Most client-side researchers are generally aware of what is going on with their brand or service in social media.  It’s crucial that you know, too, so that you can approach the table equally informed.  A variety of volatile situations have erupted in social media in the past couple of years… Knowing the latest on the brand helps the researcher to anticipate and manage heated discussions in the back or front room.  Staying in-the-know on the brand, category or service, and engaging in social media through the consumer lens may yield new ideas or new implications.  For example, if you’re working on a baby care topic and start to notice that bloggers are talking more and more about glass containers, as opposed to plastic ones, encouraging your team to investigate the implications of packaging options may be a good idea.
Recruiting Criteria Optimization.  Go where the target is hanging out online and spend time observing the conversation and accompanying digital artifacts; then use this insight to refine recruiting criteria, especially if the target is unknown. An example of this comes from a beauty brand looking to understand an emerging fringe target.  By looking at the profiles and comments of beauty bloggers and Pinners on Pinterest discussing the particular trend, recruiting criteria was established that ensured the team would see the correct inspirational fringe target respondents.
Discussion Guide Language.  Check out how consumers talk about the category and get up to speed on writing appropriate and informed discussion guide questions. For example, if you’re looking into “health,” what sorts of things are on your target’s Pinterest boards with “health”-related titles?  How do they even title their boards?  What are the other keywords they use to talk about “health?”  Make sure you’re using the right language so that you’re talking about the same things they are when conversing in future research.
Discussion Guide Writing Stimuli.  Researchers tasked with understanding a new trend or topic can put together a private Pinterest board with images and quotes from Pinners.  Discussion guide questions can be driven by things the team wants to know after seeing the visual stimuli board, like “wow! It seems many women are pinning about being Paleo…What about the Paleo diet is important to her?”  I’ve had clients continue to pin to the boards after projects because they’ve been that valuable.
Discussion Guide Narrowing.  Cut down on the number of in-person questions to be asked by providing preliminary hypotheses based on social media reading.  For example, if the research objective is to understand needs related to diabetes, searching for comments that mention “I wish,” “I want,” or “I need” and “diabetes” can provide some great orientation that saves time for uncovering additional insights.
Each of the above scenarios I have outlined was born out of a need.  The idea for recruiting criteria optimization?  That came from a client seeking to understand which hypothesized target to go after for a new segmentation study.  The idea for using social media commentary to build discussion guide language?  That came from not knowing how people talked about a medical issue.  Embrace your research need and look to social media to see if it might provide a solution. 
There are cautions that should be mentioned here, too; but using a little common sense can help mitigate them.  For example, let’s not expect seniors to be talking about a sensitive incontinence issue and think that what’s being said is representative.  It’s not.  Are the sentiment charts you see in common analytics tools straight-up correct without working on getting the garbage out (disambiguation)?  Never.  Many, many other things like that come to mind.  But instead of driving fear, I’d love for you to take the plunge and test it out if you haven’t already.  I’m curious about what you need to understand and haven’t yet been able to through social media research, and the ideas that you have for bettering your qualitative practice via social media.
Renee Murphy is a Social Media Research Consultant at Hello There Research. An industry leader in netnographic social media research, Renee guides brands, companies and services to tap into already existing customer conversations for insights and connect the dots back to product innovation, brand positioning and other qualitative objectives, going beyond sentiment analysis. You can connect with Renee on Twitter at @reneemmurphy. She is also a member of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA). QRCA is celebrating 30 years of leadership in Qualitative Research, 1983-2013. 
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