Researchers should not ignore social media

I believe that researchers should be listening to what people say in (certain parts of) Social Media. Despite the fact parts of the industry want to ban it.

Why listen?

1) It’s on people’s agenda. Companies should listen to what people want to say (not just what they want to hear).

2) It’s essential for understanding contemporary brand and communications strategy. How can we make social recommendations without understanding social media?

3) It’s an amazing source of natural insight. Social media is free from ‘research effects’ and in real-time. It overcomes many of the criticisms of traditional research.

4) It complements (not substitutes) other forms of research. It provides a layer of social context to help explain and add colour to other research.

5) People will accept their posts are in public and freely available. They know companies could listen to their tweets and blog posts. Most would rather their views are heard than ignored.

‘Mutuality’ requires listening…

Listening to what people say in order to predict the type of content and experiences that will have social currency and engage, is vital to building mutualistic relationships. When brands listen to what people say and value, they will be better placed to improve themselves.

Q: How will corporations ever find out about people’s resentment of their anti-social or irresponsible policies (considering they rarely ask questions about that in traditional research)?

A: Social media research

I’m not alone in advocating social media research…

– Nick Bonney (of Everything Everywhere) claims people are empowered and do not need protecting from dastardly SMR
– Ray Poynter puts forward a new ethical framework which moves beyond the old panel based world
– Annie Petitt draws on ethical approaches to naturalistic observation widespread in academia
– John Griffiths calls for a ‘superbricolage’ approach which – like journalism – does not require a detailed revelation of sources
– Leonard Murphy suggests we’ve already passed the point of no return…

Why not listen?

In my opinion, listening to what people say online is actually more empowering than violating. For example when someone’s tweet is listened to and reported to that brand, their opinion becomes more powerful.

I think that most tweeting and blogging is a knowingly public act (people only have to glance at a newspaper referring to tweets, or simply notice when they register and use the service)…

I believe that most people will implicitly acknowledge the trade-off between using social technologies like Twitter and losing an expectation of privacy. The price people pay for using this free platform is ‘data-openness’.

“Stop listening…!”

However, the market research governing bodies disagree. They claim it’s not only unethical, but at times illegal.

– Here’s a useful summary of the counter stances by ESOMAR, CASRO and MRS by Sheila Gidley.
– Brian Tarran reviews various blogs on the subject for Research Live.
– Here’s a critique of twitter’s decision to re-sell people’s tweets by Privacy International

The criticisms tend to be that listening to what people say online is:

1) a violation of people’s privacy because they haven’t given their consent to participate
2) illegal because the platforms (or even the people themselves) own the intellectual property of the conversations
3) against the fundamental rule of preserving ‘respondent anonymity‘ in research (because in theory, a client could track down someone from their quote and try to sell something to them)….

I do applaud the fact these institutions care about research ethics (which sadly not all the players in this space do)….but I think that such a conservative stance is based on an out-dated framework (which assumes that someone tweeting should be treated like a ‘respondent’ on a research panel). This threatens to disconnect the research industry from the way of the world.

The digital winds of change are forcing everyone to re-evaluate their roles and frameworks: from retail, music and publishing to politics and even the law itself. As Jeff Jarvis says: “change or die”. Ignoring change by sticking to out-dated frameworks is not a recipe for survival. Adaptation and re-invention are necessary.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating that researchers sneak into people’s personal networks like facebook, by befriending them (that’s just weird). Nor should they create false accounts in private communities in order to scrape their views. I’m talking about public online spaces like twitter and blogs where people know their comments could be heard and probably want them to be.

People want to be heard…

We need more studies into how people (aka tweeters, bloggers, ‘consumers’) feel about being listened to. This one from Maritz Research, suggests that most people (86%) complaining about brands on twitter, welcomed being approached by them.

If you are interested in shaping the debate on ethics, please take part in this survey.  This research is spearheaded by Stephen Rappaport (author of ‘Listen First’) with me and Howard R. Moskowitz. Our aim is to understand what concerns industry about social listening and which practices are considered ethical or not. Through this research we hope to contribute a scientific understanding of ethics that can help advance listening.