In a word, YES! Wouldn’t it be great if this discussion could end right there? But, alas, there’s more to it. When we discuss social media as a research tool to support innovation, we must clearly frame the discussion.

First, understand that we are talking about consumer research, not brand monitoring. Of course, you can watch for brand mentions using social media and you should. But when we talk about research we mean capturing insights from the online conversation that will enhance your communication and particularly your innovation efforts.

Second, we must have clarity about our objective which then leads to taking the appropriate steps. Our objective in using the online conversation requires we think of it as a qualitative platform, not a quantitative one. When we hear about staggering numbers such as billions of people being on social media, we are tempted to want numerical data. But that’s not where the online activity shines. Think of it as history’s greatest ongoing focus group.

Getting the unfiltered truth – social media – When people think they are talking to friends or that there is a sense of anonymity, they will be brutally honest.

Third, let’s stop restricting our discussion to social media and instead talk about online conversations. While social media focuses on the conversation happening between two “friends” or connections, the online conversation extends beyond that point. The online conversation includes blogs, posts on Reddit, and especially relevant book and product reviews.

While using online conversations can be a great boon to insight initiatives, it isn’t without its challenges and limits.

Setting the Right Objective

I remember when the World Wide Web (yes, that’s what we called it) first broke onto the scene in the early 90s. The most common refrain heard then was, “This is going to change the way we ________.” You can fill in the blank with almost anything. Interestingly, many of those predictions came true. But, many did not. The internet has changed our world, but it is not the answer to every single question.

Researching the online conversation should be used as a starting point, not to replace other methods. It has a unique ability to help you understand the consumer’s context, emotional connections, and persistent concerns.

Shrinking Budgets

The danger is when you try to replace effective research techniques with desktop research as a way to tighten the budget or take a shortcut. It is better to think about the online conversation as a way to improve and direct further research.

Getting Good Analysis and Insights

This is where the tires hit the pavement. Like most types of research, It all comes down to how you analyze, extract insights, and present the learnings. Think about the process as looking for “Ripples of Relevancy.” Imagine you’ve thrown a handful of pebbles into a pond. Each pebble creates a series of ripples extending from its point of impact.

For example, If you were investigating the target consumers of laundry products, as we did previously for Procter & Gamble, you’d find a central issue is color. That’s no surprise. However, we found that color has a different context in each market. In the Asian market there’s an emphasis on the appropriateness of colors worn and what they communicate. This led to the opportunity to create a communication platform that states, “Color communicates, why mute your own voice.” Each additional area of insight leads to unique communication opportunities if you dig deeper into the Ripples of Relevancy.

Obsession with Tools

Often the first question we are asked is, “What tools do you use?” Pardon us for being blunt, but this is the wrong question. While tools like Synthesio have great promise for this kind of work, the most significant caveat would be to avoid getting distracted by tools focused on brand mentions. This approach is about understanding the consumer’s life-context, not brand awareness.

Getting Specifics

If you desire greater specifics, you can get them by reading product and/or book reviews. Especially search for bad reviews. They will give you more specific information about features that fall short, why products are “fired,” and what innovation opportunities exist. This leads to one more thing . . .

Insight Starters

We have often used online conversation as a way to create insight starters. By sharing with your team-specific examples posted by the target consumers – including videos of the consumer – you bring the consumer into the room and keep them there. Not a bad way to kick off brainstorming.