Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How Social Media Saved Online Market Research

There was a period of time roughly between 2004 and 2010 that I describe as the dark ages for online market research, or more specifically, for anything related to online surveys in general. This was a period of time where the rise of behavioral analytics and a good few years of rapid growth and questionable practices within the industry that put a dark shadow on online surveys.

The market research industry really needed to be held accountable for the mess. Online surveys had become rampant, online panels were growing at an accelerated rate, new panels emerging over night, ridiculous panel acquisitions were taking place, some going public, and the overall practice was questionable on so many fronts. Panels were built by offering people survey points, free iPods, and by downloading spyware through screensaver downloads. The amount of overlap between panels was huge (40%-60% in many cases) and the number of surveys per respondent was increasing.

This ecosystem gave rise to what was known as the professional survey taker. During this period, it seemed that every market research conference was focusing on panel integrity and understanding the professional survey taker. Every talk had the same result. There was inconsistency in results across panels, and within panels.

The core problem with these so-called professional survey takers is that 90%+ of surveys were being taken by less than 1% of the audience. Secondly, due to their behaviors, it was difficult to account for these survey takers to be representative of anyone. The typical survey taker was low income, middle America females, they spent unhealthy amounts of time online, collected coupons, and clicked on everything. Effectively, it was almost impossible to find a nationally representative cross section of people online for research purposes. It was clearly understood and excepted that the online world was not representative of the real world.

Then something changed . . . and what changed was social media arrived.

Once social media arrived, which included Facebook, Twitter and others, the notion of sharing, clicking, providing feedback, comments and other types of user directed contribution, fundamentally changed the profile of the online individual. Facebook quickly grew out of being an early adopter nice group of college students, and quickly there were as many 55+ as there were high school students on the social network. Oprah helped propel twitter into the mainstream and soon it became the exception for someone not to be engaged online.

More than ever people become willing to provide feedback, share their thoughts, post pictures, and more importantly felt they had a voice and that their voice counted. While social media quickly became noisy, online market research surged with the ability to generate consumer feedback in a structured and quantified manner.

It has become very common for media channels to publish survey research results as they quickly found that the data was easy to collect, and readership finds this format easy to digest and very interesting. It is very simple and effective to tweet that 17% of people have sent a tweet while in the bathroom.

Where survey based research was once considered antiquated, not representative and boring, more and more companies began adopting it, or simply showcasing it, as a viable and valuable data source. Of most interest was Google's entry into market research. Yes, the company that stood proud on it's algorithm heavy approach entered the survey market in 2012 with it's Google Consumer Surveys product. In 2012 statistician Nate Silver ranked Google Consumer Surveys second in accuracy over many long time standards such as Gallup, Ipsos, Angus Reid, and CNN during the 2012 Presidential election.

Net result is that the online market research is alive and well and has established itself as a viable data methodology. Thank you social media!

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