Hammers and Nails

hammer_and_nails.jpgHere at Edison, we use a lot of tools to generate the best consumer insights possible for our clients. When we started back in 1994, most of our work was telephone-based survey research and focus groups. Since then, we have incorporated Internet surveys, online qualitative research, consumer exit polling, social media monitoring and dozens of other methods into our repertoire. The Internet, in particular, has changed our business irrevocably, and made available a wide variety of options to reach consumers where they work and play online.

Yet, we still do a lot of telephone work here at Edison, and though our Exit Polling back-end systems would rival NASA’s for complexity, the heart of that particular effort is still thousands of local interviewers with clipboards. The key for us is to be able to deploy “boots on the ground,” even if the “ground” is online, to capture opinions whenever and wherever they occur.

I note this because there have been a lot of recent innovations in mining unstructured online data for market research purposes. As social media monitoring tools like Radian 6, Trackur and Social Mention continue to expand their coverage and capabilities, using those tools to discern what consumers are saying and doing online is becoming a more viable source for consumer insights, and one that no competent CMO or brand manager should ignore. We recommend social media research and use these tools on behalf of our clients whenever appropriate.

Social media research is attractive on many levels, not the least of which is that on some of those levels it’s free. Anyone can set up Google Alerts or use other freely-available tools to begin mining the social web, and even the paid tools available aren’t onerously expensive for the vast majority of companies. Because unstructured data online is “free,” and free is good, it’s easy to make the leap to thinking that social media research is a replacement for other methods and tools. Like any tool, however, social media research is great at some things, and lousy at others – just as telephone surveys are. The key is to focus on the best way to achieve your research goal – period – and not the best way you can use a given tool.

Historically, new technologies sometimes obviate the need for old ones, but just as often they cause the old ones to elevate their game and get better. Focus groups, for instance, will never be the same – they aren’t going away, but they have certainly changed for the better, and are now just as likely to take place in the field or online as they are behind a two-way mirror. The Internet has made our jobs as researchers different (not easier) and gives us the tools to provide richer insights for our clients, which makes us all better. We have to be careful, however, not to fall in love with any one of these tools.

I write this because lately we have gotten requests from some companies not to provide them with consumer insights, or decision support, but to give them an “online survey,” or some other specific tool. I actually got back from one prospective client that they didn’t choose our proposal because we didn’t employ a punch card system (!) they were accustomed to using. If an online survey is the best way to attack a given research problem, we recommend it. If it isn’t, we don’t. It’s a balance, of course, between the needs of the client, the client’s budget and the standards for quality research, but this balance is always best achieved when we start with the end goal in mind, and not with a specific tool.

Still, many companies are definitely doing it right. For instance, we are thrilled to have a partnership with SeeSaw Networks, a leading place-based media company, who just yesterday announced a solution to reach Moms wherever they go with messaging that is synchronized to their activities and the venues they are frequenting. Measuring place-based media and other out-of-home advertising is a tricky business, and in this particular case the best solution is a surprisingly “low-tech” one – we employ the same network of over 10,000 trained interviewers we use for the National Election Exit Polls to conduct methodologically sound, rigorously sampled place-based research. Again, it’s about capturing consumers where they are, and in this particular partnership, that’s at shops, grocery stores and fitness centers and anywhere else they shop, work and play.

One of my favorite cliches in the world is this: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Relying too heavily on mining unstructured data, self-selected Internet polls or even telephone surveys can very easily lead you down this path. Not everything is a nail.

3 replies
  1. Teresa Basich
    Teresa Basich says:

    Vignettes of our quick chat yesterday via Twitter about measuring motivation and using unstructured online data are floating through my mind after reading this one. 🙂
    A growing peeve of mine is the trend of leaning on one method/tool/format for doing…well, anything, really. Maybe it’s comfort level, maybe it’s fear of not being identify the “right” story with more data, or perhaps it’s a matter of time. Whatever the case is, that singular focus only hurts in the long run, both the department being narrowly focused and the method/tool/format being relied upon to deliver all the glorious information.
    We’re thrilled to be part of — and valued by — the consumer research space, but we will never advocate our tool or social media data as the be-all and end-all of research platforms of valuable consumer information, respectively.
    You said it best, Mr. Webster — use what’s necessary to achieve your research goal, don’t get stuck on using a particular tool.
    Teresa Basich
    Community Manager, Radian6

  2. Elise Lopez
    Elise Lopez says:

    Hi Tom,
    You got me thinking about how new technologies don’t necessarily obviate the need for older methods and technologies.
    I would add that old methods often have an effect on new ones, that they stand the test of time. They just manifest in the new technology and methods.
    For example- when social media marketing started, monitoring the entire web sounded amazing. However, now we see that monitoring communities and targeting influencers might be more fruitful than trying to reach everyone that’s out there. In other words, we’re returning to the more personal, targeted approach to marketing and networking.
    I think there are some basic human tendencies that dictate what works. Namely, people like that personal connection. So, whether it’s face-to-face, on the phone or in small virtual communities, people will always like person to person interaction.
    Do you get the same impression in your experience?

  3. Tom Webster
    Tom Webster says:

    Well, yes and no. I think that’s true on a case-by-case basis, but Apple sure doesn’t reach out to anyone. Nike, BMW and a host of other brands that move the passion needle actually fare better, in some ways, because the brand transcends the personal touch, and instead becomes and idealized co-creation that might actually suffer (maybe) from being “humanized.” What we are seeing though, and this is completely in line with what you are saying, is that social media is perhaps not so different from mass media as some of its evangelists might have us believe. It’s still about stars, big personalities, playing the hits and repetition of message. In that sense, the biggest “influencers” in social media are just mass-market broadcasters, like any TV or radio station. The most skilled give us the feeling of human connection – on a one-to-many scale.


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