Social media analytics: What it’s good for, and what it’s not

Originally published on the Deloitte Digital blog, May 26, 2015.

Over the years we have seen some companies do amazing things thanks to social media research and analytics. We have also seen some companies that had no idea what social analytics could do for their business. Our Social Intelligence team decided to lay it all out.

“Big data” and all of its possibilities and pitfalls has gotten a lot of hype lately. Social media is one area that now provides massive amounts of information, ripe for analysis. It can be used to research consumer trends, determine perceptions of different brands, industries, and organizations, uncover brand influencers, and identify social audiences from customer service to the C-suite, with results similar to traditional market research. But social analytics and market research are not the same. It helps to understand the strengths of each, so your project can get the most out of them.

Both traditional and social analytics have the same goal: to organize consumer opinions into useful insights. Understanding these differences is key to using each source well. So, how exactly are these data sets and methods different, and how can they be used to their highest value?

Different data, similar process

Traditional market research methods are great for a deep-dive on a specific topic. Social media conversation research is better at understanding reactions to events, shifting trends, and buzzworthy topics—areas that drive online conversation. If people aren’t talking about it, there won’t be data.

Both ethnographic market research and social media analytics typically begin with a question from the client. A traditional market researcher might start by writing up a survey and then screening potential study participants by asking them a series of qualifying questions. Once the participants are selected, the analyst interviews the participants alone or in a group. The analyst asks participants a series of questions to uncover their purchase decision-making processes, consumption habits, lifestyle, and influences. The research analyst might even accompany them to a workout or to the grocery store, or present them with competitor products for feedback. These qualitative findings are then crafted into a quantitative survey to measure the results.

On the other hand, the social media analyst would start by dividing research questions into relevant keyword queries and inputs these as searches into social listening tools. These tools crawl millions of posts and bring back publicly available information from blogs, forums, and other social sites. The social media analyst then analyzes these posts, organizes the data, looks for patterns, and pulls out the key conversation themes, major audience groups, and other salient insights. While social media analysis is more quantitatively based, it still requires an analyst to look at qualitative conversational data and add meaning. We may not be able to follow the individuals in your target audience throughout their day, but we can follow their routines through posts on social media, as well as all their friends and how they engage with her online.

Different methods, different strengths

Another way to compare social media analysis to traditional market research is via focus groups. Unlike focus groups, which can be painstaking, time-consuming, and result in smaller sample sizes, social media analytics can collect millions of comments, posts, tweets, or likes about a particular product or brand, discussed over a few weeks or a few years in a relatively short time. Because of this breadth and speed, social media analysis is also effective at spotting trends that are happening in multiple small pockets around the world, trends that would take months to identify using traditional focus group methods.

One strength of traditional focus groups is that they allow for acute participant screening. Before the analyst steps into an interview they know quite a bit about the participant, including age, sex, marital status, income, profession, location, extracurricular activities, and any other relevant information. This allows the analyst to better understand how a product fits into the participant’s lifestyle or compare two different user groups.

Social media analytics isn’t able to reliably provide demographic details for every post or mention that traditional business or industry ethnographers may be used to. This kind of knowledge is typically available to us only if self-reported by the user. Demographic metrics such as gender, age, and location are often shared, but because people withhold their personal information, offer up misinformation, or fail to keep information current, there isn’t usually as much of this type of information and can be misleading. A blogger who is listed as a single, 25-year-old vegan chef could now be a 27-year-old stay-at-home-mom who forgot to update her bio information; a lifestyle change which undoubtedly would influence her opinions and product purchases. Yet, as people become more comfortable with sharing their lives online, they are sharing more and more personal and demographic information about themselves that can be collected and analyzed.

Another strength of social media data analysis is the ability to discover what people want to share with their friends and associate themselves with online. People “like” brands, share topics that are important to them, from technology to social issues to recipes, and ask for guidance from their virtual peers. This kind of data can also be used to identify influencers who persuade and influence others on their purchases.

The right fit

It is clear traditional market and social media research should not be thought of as either/or options, but instead viewed as complementary research methods. A wide variety of methods can be used in conjunction with one another. Deloitte Digital’s social analytics team has used focus groups and survey data in tandem with social data to look at a question in different ways. We have also informed user experience research with our social media analysis.

Like most tools, the specific project, goals, and research questions determine which method is a better fit. Focus groups and traditional market research are better for collecting answers to very specific questions for very specific demographics, as well as offering in-depth purchase decision-making criteria. In contrast, social media data analysis is better at understanding the cultural hive mind and how it shifts over time, uncovering general themes and perceptions, spotting trends, and locating category influencers.

Interested in tapping into the power of social media analysis, or have questions about what it might do for your brand? Ask us, we are happy to help!

Beth Kelley is a Research Manager for Deloitte Digital’s Social Intelligence team. She wrote this post with contributing views from Jennifer Buchanan, Specialist Leader, Social Intelligence, Deloitte Consulting LLP. 

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