Paul M. Banas on Consumer Insights, Marketing Research, and the Digital Media Landscape
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Social Listening: Focusing On Insights

January 2010 is shaping up to be a very busy month for me: in addition to kicking off the strategic planning season in my brand research role at Kraft Foods, I have a couple of opportunities to speak publicly over the next couple of weeks about social media, social listening, as well as other ways to lever the digital space for consumer insights.

At the end of the month, I’m honored to be presenting at the Advertising Research Foundation’s Industry Leader Forum  on “Putting Listening To Work” in San Francisco.  I’ll be speaking on ways to ask more from social listening as a research methodology, by focusing on insights, rather than settling for simple observations.

In the run up to these talks, I’m going to try to outline some of the thoughts and themes I’m thinking about sharing on this exciting new phase for marketing research.

Insights Versus Observations:

The first theme is the concept of focusing on insights versus observations when analyzing data coming in from social listening efforts.

Said simply, an observation is a fact without wings.  Something like “the brand mentions for Brand X were 45% positive during the last 12 months” or “the level of buzz around Category Y has increased 28% versus the prior year”.  While both true, these observations don’t take me anywhere and they don’t lead to any implications that I can build a business idea on.

Unfortunately, many researchers are settling for summary reports from social listening efforts that are full of these type of simple findings.

Just because you observe something in the digital space versus traditional research, doesn’t make it any more interesting or valid.  And just as in traditional research, meaningful insights need to be the goal of any impactful  social listening effort.

Impactful insights are findings that are unexpected and can readily lead you to new ideas and new opportunities.  Many times they provocatively challenge the status quo, mostly by looking at the broader context of the findings, whether by highlighting new voices (people) or new angles on old problems.  They generally are built on hardcore emotions, those that are brimming with passions and tensions.

Finally, impactful insights are generally found after sifting through several levels of “Why?”. If you’re still scratching your head on why consumers are saying what they are saying in the social space, you need to dig even deeper.

The great opportunity that social listening provides is that digging deeper is infinitely possible, with millions upon millions of conversations occurring over time that we can continuously mine for insights.  This means moving from simply tracking brand mentions, to understanding the underlying insights in a broader conversation.

One of the smartest people I’ve had a chance to work with in the social listening space, someone who truly understands the concept of insights versus observations, is Dan Neely of Networked Insights. In this blog post, Dan challenges researchers do go beyond mere brand mentions, and to focus on the broader context of the conversation through advanced text analytics in order to identify impactful insights.

His post also references this very relevant quote by Malcolm Bastien, who states that:

“Just like the enemy of web analytics is measurement of page views and visitors, the enemy of social media listening is listening only for brand mentions.”

In my next post I’ll show how by focusing social listening efforts on conversations that highlight passions, tension, and and the context around them, researchers can move their social listening efforts beyond simple observations to true, business building consumer insights.


1 huayin wang { 01.18.10 at 10:10 am }

Paul, this is an excellent point.

Have you have a chance to look at ? They seem to share a similar view as yours.

2 Dan Levin { 01.18.10 at 2:10 pm }

Your comments about the new opportunities to ask “why” are quite astute. Have we seen social networkers themselves taking advantage of those capabilities? Following decades of TV-borne passivity, has the online social space re-awakened our curiosity? Are we starting again to probe each other’s assertions, challenge prejudices and create our own new insights about what is motivating the behaviors of ourselves, our friends and our political leaders? Are we seeing a transition to a new culture of inquisitive engagement?

3 Paul M. Banas { 01.18.10 at 9:42 pm }

Thanks. I did check out GeeYee based on your reco, and from their site it seems like we’re all in violent agreement. It also seems like their text analysis technology is focused on getting deeper into insights. I need to check them out more thoroughly. Thanks for the tip. Hope things are well.

4 Paul M. Banas { 01.18.10 at 9:53 pm }

While I agree that versus the passive mediums of the past (TV), the web has opened up new ways for people to express their creative sides and become more curious, time will tell if it’s truly about individual expression, or merely digital “Dittoes!” and Retweets. Not sure if everyone participating in the digital space is truly standing on their own two feet on the Web, but at least they are standing. Good to hear from you.

5 Matt Foley { 01.25.10 at 2:29 pm }

Paul – Great points here about simple observations vs. insights, and how understanding the broader context can lead to these insights. I guess that’s where I struggle with the value of pure listening efforts and social media mining. Some of it seems so “surface level” to me. I’m looking forward to the next post on focusing social listening efforts…

(Also thanks for the comment on our blog – I agree… it’s about far more than just brand mentions, which my post didn’t really explain that well).

6 Can you hear me now? : BatesHook { 04.14.10 at 12:51 pm }

[...] time to switch that model around.And, yes, many  companies are talking about listening or Social Listening. Am I the only one that feels this is just another excuse for brands to talk [...]

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