Anyone who tried to avoid hearing the Olympic results until the events aired hours later here in the United States knows how easily information flows across our social networks and into our consciousness. It didn’t matter if you preferred to wait to hear the results of the Men’s 400 meter relay. If it mattered to your social network, the results of the race were going to find a way to get to you.
The degree to which social media has become part of our every-day lives allow for greater opportunities for brands to understand and even empathize with consumers. Most brands have established listening posts, using either paid tools or at least a rudimentary Google alert-style monitoring program. These are designed to spot and quickly address detractors, and to uncover pockets of advocates and amplify those positive experiences.
But now, many brands are evolving those listening posts into new sources of empathy. New ways of understanding consumers and turning those insights into a competitive advantage. This effort requires the social data and conversation-mapping experience, as well as the active participation of the Planning department.
The New York Times recently covered the “social focus group” phenomena describing the ways many brands use social media for product development/testing. This is an especially important development for marketers, and actually brings us back to the time of Mad Men, when advertising agencies were so tied to product development that they had test kitchens in the office. All of this is designed to break down some of the bureaucratic fortresses built up over the last 25 years, and get brand managers in closer proximity to, you know, real people.
As brands and agencies work to close this empathy gap, we’ll begin to discover there are many roles social media can augment, or even lead, in traditional planning research. This is because great ideas are built on a cultural tension — some bigger issue that is, in some way, tangled up with the brand values*.
Social media, specifically real people engaging in continuous non-branded conversations, can help us chart this terrain. This is based on the simple premise that most people do not talk much about brands in their daily lives, about 10 brand references per day on average —almost all in passing.**
So, how do we move from elementary listening and responding to a more sophisticated source of insight for planning creative, effective programs? Here’s an imperfect list of sources of empathy, and how brands are using the insights to drive business results.
Five Sources of Empathy
1) Social Focus Groups
Start by analyzing the where affinity groups have clustered in close proximity to your brand’s social channels. Facebook brand pages, followers of a LinkedIn company page, Google+ brand pages. These platforms are useful sources of insight, not the least because of the proximity of individuals and the brand.
As the new community manager expands his or her skill set, one of the many new talents is real-time focus group moderator. This is the social focus group mode, one and a number of businesses have been built to help brands quickly assemble a representative sample and source feedback and even new ideas for products (e.g. Napkin Labs).
2) Social Personas
Too often, personas are far removed from real people, and are written in such a clinical way that it lacks any inspiration for creative thinking. Use real people instead. Build a carefully curated feed of real people that fit known audience segments. Google Bundles is an easy free way to share a curated collection of feeds with your team.
Visit these feeds often —especially in preparation for brainstorms, planning influencer programs, or if you ever need a quick reality check. Even if you’re not planning a persona representing your Brand Fanatics, be sure to include them in a Loyalists Feed. Fanatics derive extraordinary value in the brand, and it’s important to understand the how.
3) Search Intent
Understanding search behavior allows brand planners to climb inside the mind of someone right at the moment they’re trying to solve a need. Consumer Intent Modeling will yield the greatest return of new terms and meta-level trends though many search engines, notably Google free tools that allow planners to perform a basic audit of new search terms (breakout) and related search terms.
For example, an organization seeking to understand what’s on the minds of Tweens 11-13 may find that a search for “middle school sucks” turns up a very candid and interesting thread of content that paints an interesting picture of life at that age.
4) Cultural Trend Spotting
Evolve the existing Listening Post by tuning it to monitoring important cultural trends discussed in proximity to — but not about — your brand. This means we need to move away from branded search terms and into a more advanced model. This is best done with a combination of keyword-based search tools, plus some degree of semantic analysis.
Doing so captures a broader collection of data, and ensures that important trends are discovered before they collide with or drift away from the brand’s core positioning. The decision about a monitoring tool is nowhere near as important as getting a properly trained Planner skilled in recognizing glimpses of insight amid the data.
5) Reverse-Engineering Traditional Research
This is the magic of a tight integration between social media strategists and the planning department. The vast majority of trending topics on Twitter will not yield meaningful insight for a brand. In fact, for most demographics, those creating and sharing content online represent a fraction of the total audience. This is especially true for B2B brands, where searching and research top online behaviors, with actions that result in content (blogging, LinkedIn discussions) falling slightly lower down the list.
So how do we know what’s worth exploring? Use primary research (e.g., focus groups, interviews) as well as secondary or desk research (eMarketer, WARC, Futures Company, etc.) to develop a hypothesis about what we think we’re likely to find online, and then use the items #1 – #4 as way to confirm or disprove the hypothesis. Be sure to build in an informal peer-review panel to avoid confirmation bias in your own research.
For example, a recent survey just found that “nearly half of Americans believe..more people will learn to cook from videos online, rather than from parents.” This shift in the way people learn to cook has implications for a slew of FMCG brands. This is an example of a hypothesis (that instructional video content optimized for search is replacing recipes from Mom) sourced through regular desk research that could be analyzed in a number of ways in social:
– Is this at a high level consistent with that we see in social media?
– Are there individual examples (people, quotes) that help to tell this story?
– Is there evidence of a counter-trend in social media?
– Is this trend hidden in the long tail of a few (emerging), or broadly evident across affinity groups (established)?
There are limits to all these new sources of empathy. Research has shown that empathy has virtually no impact on behavior in children, and a very minor impact on behavior in adults. Empathy is far outweighed by environmental factors and a person’s values so much so that social scientists describe empathy as the fragile flower, easily crushed by any number of other inputs.
So too is the empathetic organization is a fragile one, easily crushed by any number of harsh realities in the marketplace. Though—as traditional Planning departments open up new sources of empathy and as social media strategists learn to hunt down cultural trends likely to impact the business — the value of a jointly developed planning model grows and leads to more effective and creative work. Work that finds you, through your social network, before you even know to look for it.