Before attempting any social media research analysis, it’s important to understand how the target population you are researching is using social media. This is an important first step to ensure you are considering the right medium, and also helps you focus your efforts to uncover the most informative and actionable insights. I have also found that this design-stage review can prove to be a useful exercise for contextualizing the information that you come across – or, in some cases, the absence of information.
Earlier this year, a marketing manager with a Canadian mutual company asked us to help them develop a better understanding of the perspectives and opinions held by both investors and professional investment advisors towards socially-responsible investments (SRIs). We had already been planning to do some qualitative research with these audiences, but the client was especially interested in the social media context, as they had been gearing up for an aggressive social media marketing campaign that was to begin in a few weeks’ time. The client was hopeful that there would be some conversations happening in social media that could give them a quick read on the views of advisors that could in turn serve as a bit of a temperature check as their campaign got underway. However, it didn’t take long for our team to realize that investment advisors were greatly under-represented in conversations regarding SRIs. Much of the content and opinions were being discussed by professional bloggers and journalists – who were certainly demonstrating a firm grasp on the topic, but were clearly not coming from a position where they were providing investment advice to clients. While some of the bloggers touted credentials and affiliations with financial organizations, the nature of their conversations was very different from the type of discussions the client had been hoping to find. Specifically, those blogging about this category of mutual funds were considerably more concerned with the values and ethics of existing and prospective investment vehicles than they were about the advisor-investor relationship and discussions about how SRIs could fit into existing client portfolios. While the former was interesting for the client, the absence of the latter really diminished the usefulness of social media data in terms of satisfying the client’s objectives as they related to the advisor population. Further, as we were trying to refine our social media search queries to broaden our data set and (hopefully) include more relevant conversations involving advisors, our team was sinking a number of extra hours into the data collection and cleaning phases of our methodology.
Never satisfied with the uncertainty of missing data – we ran a short poll of financial advisors in order to better understand their absence in social media. A quick poll using the Environics’ Advisor Research Panel confirmed for us that many investment advisors were not using social media in a professional context – neither to communicate with clients nor to stay informed about new products or trends in the industry. In fact, almost a quarter of advisors went so far as to say that social media was a compliance headache that was best avoided outright.
Thankfully, these results gave us some context for understanding how this target population was engaging (or, in this case, was not engaging) in social media and helped explained why they were greatly under-represented in our dataset. Without this supplementary understanding, we might have felt like our research was incomplete or left our client with some unanswered questions. This experience also reinforced to us that, while the use of social media has grown exponentially in recent years, it’s not yet an integral part of how every target group communicates.
This project also emphasized to us the importance of understanding what social media platforms were most suitable to monitor our target populations. When embarking on this work, we were fairly certain that Facebook was unlikely to yield much insight on investing and financial services topics. Similarly, Twitter and other microblogging mediums didn’t seem like sufficient platforms for something as complex as mutual fund investing (still, we do think Twitter has relevancy in financial services research as a whole). Ultimately, we ended up focusing on blog content almost exclusively, as the medium had the greatest potential for listening to category exports discuss in great detail the pros and cons of various financial products. This experience prompted us to think more critically about what mediums we would consider as part of future research. As was the case with this project, we now recommend to clients that they focus on blog or Twitter data when looking to understand the views of opinion leaders or stakeholders, and reserve Facebook when looking at issues of more relevance to mass-market consumers/general population (in addition to Twitter). Similarly, when looking to understand users of specific consumer products or ‘brand fans,’ we turn to Facebook and Twitter in addition to review sites like TripAdvisor or Amazon when trying to mine conversations centred on a particular product or service.
Social media can provide new and unique perspectives on business problems in many different sectors, but the unstructured and organic nature of social media conversations can make it challenging and time-consuming to find the most relevant conversations unless you possess a thorough understanding of how your target population is using social media. Thus, often the best place to start with social media research is to begin by researching how your target population is engaging in social media itself.
In our next post, we’ll talk about some of the challenges of analyzing social media data, including the pros and cons of sentiment analysis.