Paul M. Banas on Consumer Insights, Marketing Research, and the Digital Media Landscape
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Category — Social Media Listening

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.

January 27, 2010   2 Comments

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.

January 18, 2010   6 Comments