Paul M. Banas on Consumer Insights, Marketing Research, and the Digital Media Landscape
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Social Media Listening: What To Listen For In Social Media

In my previous post on the need to focus on insights versus observations when engaged in social media listening, I mentioned three areas in particular that researchers should be focusing their listening on: passion, tension, and the context of the conversation which surrounds them.

As a second part to my posts outlining the themes I covered at the Advertising Research Foundation event last week on “Putting Listening To Work”, I want to go into these three areas in more detail.

Several weeks ago, Annie Pettit, who writes the excellent market research blog LoveStats, had a brief post entitled “The Lost Art Of Qualitative Research”.  In it, she makes the link between the need for more academic focus on qualitative research and the imminent rise of social media research.

As someone who has spend more than his fair share of time behind the glass at focus groups or tromping through people’s home in ethnographic research, I can see directly how knowing what to listen for in traditional qualitative research can truly improve the quality of insights one gets from social media listening.

As most qualitative researchers or ethnographers know, there are key emotions and phrases we listen and watch for that help distill all those hours of people talking by pinpointing the beginnings of actionable insights.


One of the first things to listen for is tension in the conversation.  By using natural language processing and linguistic analysis, one can hone in the tension or pain points that people express, which are locaters for unmet needs:

“…Dinnertime is tough in our household because of all the picky eaters…”

“…making lunches for three kids in the morning is extremely difficult when…”

“…I wish there were more fast food menu choices that weren’t so high in sodium…”

By looking at verbatims filled with tension in social listening, one can focus on “white space” opportunities for new product development or innovative equity messaging.


Another rich source of insights is looking for where people’s passions lie within their online conversations.  When people express either positive or negative passions, they are providing locations for key points of emotional leverage, much like following tendrils of smoke can lead to where the fire is hottest.

“…I absolutely love the way my clothes smell after I take them out of the dryer…”

“…now that it’s the middle of winter, I am truly craving chocolate…”

“…everything tastes awesome with bacon it it…”

People don’t change behavior unless the have a strong motivation for doing so.  Passion, either negative or positive, can lead to points of emotional leverage.  Since all effective marketing is predicated on a change in behavior, focusing on a passion is the quickest way to more effective marketing communication.


Unlike the first two areas, Context is not a what, it’s more about the who or the where that occurs around conversations containing passion and tension.  It provides the linkages that help us in the chain of understanding that goes from what people say to what people do.

An example would be that all the online conversations about something like burgers are very different, depending on who is doing the talking: moms with a family to feed, guys talking about tailgating, or foodies talking about their favorite gourmet burger.

The flipside to this is that a single person may have multiple personas: they can be moms, business owners, someone with a health condition, etc.  The emotions and tension points they have as a mom will probably be different in a context where they are talking about their own personal health issues.

Better Listening Insights:

Social Media Listening is currently one of the hottest topics in consumer research today.  However, as a discipline, it’s still in its infancy.  If we are going to take it from providing a random assortment of facts or observations in the digital space, we need push past the buzz on the surface to get to the raw emotions and tension points in the conversation.  And by understanding the contextual who and where of these expressed emotions, we can then make the linkages to the actionable insights we are all trying to find.


1 NetBase Insights: Netnography of Dinnertime { 09.15.10 at 5:07 pm }

[...] netnography builds on a post about dinnertime by Paul Banas. In his post, he goes into a discussion of classifying sound bites about dinnertime. I thought I [...]

2 Michael Osofsky { 09.17.10 at 5:05 pm }

Great post Paul. It inspired me to look at what I could find out about the topic of “dinnertime”. I investigated the specific reasons people say they like and dislike dinner, rolling it all up into a couple of theme charts. Issues with children definitely came to the top of the list, particularly around fussy eaters.

Looking at your first example sentence again (below), I noticed that what’s also important beyond the tension is the reason for the tension.

“…Dinnertime is tough in our household because of all the picky eaters…”

Here’s an example of a sound bite I came across which also expresses a reason for the tension:

“…Stacy and I talked about this after dinner, and we’ve agreed that the primary reason that the boys aren’t eating enough at dinnertime is that they’re [boys] too full to eat….”

Do you see how the reason expressed is what gives us insight? Imagine if the sound bite just expressed tension. You might wonder what the problem was. By looking not only for tension but also reasons for the tension, you can learn a whole lot more.

If you’re interested in my analysis of dinnertime, it’s here:



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