How To Use Social Media For Customer Research

Using Social Media For Consumer ResearchWhile social media platforms are great for connecting, I’d argue they’re even more powerful and valuable as consumer marketing research tools. In fact, a few years ago, we actually uncovered a potential client’s #3 hurdle to purchase with a simple Twitter survey.

Oh, and until we showed them our informal Twitter survey, they had NEVER considered this product attribute as a purchase hurdle. Yet, when they did a formal research study, BAM it came in at the #3 slot.

How Do You Find Out What Customers Will Want Tomorrow

Just as in hockey you don’t skate to where the puck is, you skate to where the puck will be, market leaders see where the customer is going and get there first.

But how do you see something your customer can’t even see yet?

While our Twitter example was a straight forward survey, social platforms really lend themselves to a bit of ethnographic styled research. Unlike traditional survey or focus group research, ethnography is observation based. The theory is that by observing customers in their natural habitat an observant (and usually well trained) person can spot patterns. These patterns lead to insights — often unknown or realized by the customer.

And yes, it’s usually pretty expensive but with today’s digital social media tools you can do a bit of ethnographic research on your own.

Let’s talk about two that we’ve been using recently.

Using Pinterest For Market Research

Right now, we’re testing to see if we can use Pinterest for ethnographic market research. We’re taking a 10-year old approach we developed in 2002 and seeing if we can replicate it via Pinterest, which means we’ll save a ton of time and money for our clients.

We’re still early in the study but if you’re interested in hearing the results, be sure to subscribe to this blog so you won’t miss the post.

We’re trying to figure out if you can use Pinterest to understand how consumers decode visuals BEFORE we set a creative or content team loose to create things. This way, when it comes time to show our clients the final recommended work, we don’t have to get into subjective discussions of which visual is right or wrong. Or God forbid, convene an expensive set of focus groups to ask folks what they think is the right visual.

Another way you might use Pinterest is to get a picture of your customer’s life. Invite them to subscribe to your private board and then encourage them to take a picture of whatever is happening right in front of them every 30 minutes of every day for a few weeks. Imagine seeing these “day in the life” mosaics scaled over a hundred or so customers. What might you learn?

Or maybe you’re a CPG brand… why not ask your customers or better, a random sample, to do the same but this time, take a picture of everything they eat for a month. And if they’re cooking dinners, ask them to snap a quick pick of the ingredients. Again, what might you learn about preferences?

Are you a hospital or health brand? Why not ask your customers to do the same and then use those insights to drive your healthy eating posts? Or maybe if you favor posting healthier versions of recipes on your site, what better way to figure out which recipes might be the most popular?

These are just a few examples. Can you think of any insights you might get from Pinterest?

Using Google Hangouts For Market Research

Have you ever been on a hangout with a bunch of customers or prospects?

It’s illuminating and in ways that you’d never achieve in focus groups. I say this because we do a lot of these for clients and I’m completely blown away by the level of insight that is constantly surfaced.

Yes, I rag on focus groups all of the time. Mainly because I think you just can’t get “representative” folks to attend them in this day and age. Folks are just too busy. And if you’re targeting certain types, like dual income parents, well good luck getting them to find the time to pop over to your focus group from 6-8pm for a measly $50 or $100.

But with Google Hangouts, those same folks can easily pop in over lunch, during a planned afternoon break, while their sitting at their desk at 5pm waiting for rush hour traffic to die down a bit, or early evenings after the kids have gone to bed.

But that’s not the real reason I love using Hangouts for customer insights. I love them because there’s something about being on the other side of the glass.

There is something about those customers being able to see you face-to-face that leads to a greater level of intimacy and forthrightness. And yes, we’ve tested this. And each and every time we have even a single “client” on a Hangout that ISN’T on video feed, we get the same reaction — a bit more guarded and in the post survey participants ALWAYS mention how they didn’t like that there was someone that wasn’t on video. They didn’t like the two way mirror.

I’d also add that to get the most out of these Hangouts, just as with focus groups, it’s ALL ABOUT THE MODERATOR. So even though you can conduct them for free, if you’re not a great moderator, get someone who is to do it for you. You’ll get a lot more out of the effort.

How Do You Get Started Using Social Media For Consumer  Research?

There are lots of folks that can probably help you, but you’re already here so if you’re interested, just contact the folks that brought you this post.

Oh and bonus points for anyone that can tell us why we used a picture of Gorillas in this post. Go!

photo by libertygrace0

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About Tom Martin

Tom is 25+ year veteran of the sales & marketing industry with a penchant for stiff drinks, good debates and showing companies how to Sell Greatly, and turn conversations into customers. He is the founder of Converse Digital , author of The Invisible Sale and a contributing writer for Advertising Age. Tom guides clients through the digital sales & marketing maze and helps companies teach their sales force how to Painlessly Prospect their way to more sales. Follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.


  1. Tom

    There’s so much good stuff here. Part of what I appreciate it about is that it’s teaching us to see people as human beings. It’s easy to forget that there are people on the other end of that screen. What’s neat about what you’re talking about is that you’re looking at somebody’s “natural” behavior. Once you say the word survey, it inevitably alters their response.

    On Google+ hangouts, what happens in a spontaneous real time interaction is invaluable. We do these teleseminars once a month. 95% of communication is non-verbal and it’s amazing what that reveals.

    The takeaway for me from all this is, that we should learn to use our intuition to understand our customers.

    • Thanks… agree, with Google+ Hangouts, you see more than you hear… but then, that’s how real-world communications work, so no surprise there.

  2. Ahmed Abubakar says

    how do you see Tumblr playing a role in reaching out to the customer? i read an article earlier, http://www.forbes.com/sites/ciocentral/2013/01/24/why-2013-is-the-year-you-need-to-get-serious-about-tumblr/, do you believe that the use of Tumblr will actually increase in businesses as social media outlets usage increases? what your take?

    • Tumblr is seeing it’s second act. So many forget this platform has been around for many years. I think it is a niche player, those that love it love and everyone else just forgets about it. As all digital content is ultimately found (most often) through Google or Social Networks, think which platform a company choose (tumblr, Posterous, typepad, wordpress, etc) becomes less and less important. Key is to find what works for your content and your organization… then crank lots of GREAT content.

  3. Ahmed Abubakar says

    gorilla reference – rise of the planet of the apes??? – social media users are increasing and its becoming an easier method for companies to reach to the consumer

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