What we learnt about social media in 2012

With the end of the year fast approaching, we thought we’d look back at some of the ideas we’ve explored on our blog during the past year and demonstrate how our approach to understanding social media has developed in the process.

Why we think there’s an opportunity for social media research in the first place

As Duncan Watts states in his book ‘Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer)’ not only are we poor predictors of our own actions, we’re also poor at explaining our own situation.

A survey essentially captures our subsequent rationalisation of our past behaviour and, as studies have shown, we’re pretty poor at reflecting on the reasons behind the decisions we’ve made.

We believe that one of main advantages of using social media to research opinions is that we’re able to capture views expressed in the moment which, not being conveyed in a research environment, are less likely to suffer from any post-rationalisation.


People talk about lots of different things online and that’s why we believe that social media research offers the opportunity to discover so much more than just what people think and have to say about a specific company and its competitors.

It’s also the reason why we don’t limit our approach to tracking sentiment or share of voice.


What are some of the limitations of social media research?

One of the biggest dangers of measuring something simply because it’s easy to measure is that you mistake the answer you get for the answer to a different question.

It’s a trap we’ve discovered can be very easy to fall into when conducting research online.


Initial quantitative findings are rarely answers in themselves but they do allow us to create hypotheses which we can then explore through further (and more qualitative) social media research and, of course, more traditional research methodologies.


Market research has moved on from the point where results from surveys or focus groups are instantly met with scepticism and attacked for their drawbacks.

We hope that once uninformed evangelists stop claiming social media research will replace all forms of research, we’ll move to a point in which it’s also viewed as just another tool at the disposal of researchers, with its own distinct advantages and unique shortcomings.


Why we think social media research is only as good as the people doing it, not the tools we use

The increasing abundance of data and growing range of tools with which to access and analyse it means that, in theory, decisions should be more informed and based on more robust evidence.

However, we don’t believe that this will eliminate the role of the researcher.

Instead, we think that the knowledge, skills and influence of the researcher will become increasingly important in the quest to draw meaningful insights from “Big Data”.


Why you can’t undertake social media research without understanding social media

We believe it’s essential that as researchers using social media as a source of opinion we have to understand and think critically about how and why people use it to begin with.

Without being active on social media ourselves we don’t see how we’d have the context to enable us to extract anything insightful.

It’s also why much of our thinking is shaped by academic theorists like Nathan Jurgenson and danah boyd, rather than Mashable and the latest social media marketing guru.

It’s why we also like tor reflect on how we use social media ourselves (and we don’t mean in a ‘quantified self’ way).


We’ve seen evidence of how social media transmits the values and norms of the people who built (and continue to build) the sites we use and that’s why we think it’s critical to understand how this is reflected in, and how it shapes, the conversations taking place within these networks.


The filtering and editing of our online persona means that, as a source of data, the picture is not complete. But this has always been the case within opinion-based research – both on and offline. Personalities, behaviours and attitudes are inherently claimed. And when ‘claiming’, the subject is influenced by the medium, and always will be.

This is why we think it’s crucial to understand how the social web is used and by whom when listening to, capturing and analysing its content.

We aim to start any analysis by asking ourselves the question: to whom are they posting, and for what reason?


The potential to document our lives online means that a status update on Facebook, Tweet or Instagrammed photo doesn’t just become a record or reflection of our behaviour but a direct cause of it.

The more we use social media, the more it creeps into our consciousness and unwittingly impacts the decisions we make.

It’s why, from a research perspective, we think that it’s important to not only think of a post on social media merely in terms of how many people it has reached, and what evidence we can find as to how it has impacted others, but to see it as a direct record of an experience that has been influenced by the medium on which it has been shared on, prior to the event itself.


What have we discovered this year?

In much of the social media research we have done, we found that teenagers were increasingly reflective when discussing brands that they used to eat, drink or play with only a couple of years ago.

The digital age (and the resulting hyper-documentation of our lives) appears to have ushered in a new era of early-onset nostalgia – something we coined as “digistalgia” back in May.


Our research into mobile phones (using Crimson Hexagon) earlier this year discovered that a sense of exclusivity was core to the appeal of the iPhone amongst teenagers and, tied to strong tribal loyalty, saw its owners quickly refute any claims of functional inferiority and defend it from claims that it was too ubiquitous.


It’s the sharing of very routine, day-to-day experiences that make the fan feel like they have a special connection with the celebrity and encourages them to share their comments more widely with their own friends. Younger people increasingly perceive these celebrities to be someone just like them.

It’s how we discovered that a Tweet about Miley Cyrus dropping her phone tied into a wider meme and helped spread the idea that the iPhone was less physically robust than Android operated smartphones.


What does the future hold?

We already have lots of interesting data points in social media which, for example, allow us to compare what people who tweet through an iPhone have to say about a topic in comparison with those using an Android device. We think that 2013 will see even more creative ways to cluster people through social media and this has the potential to help brands find answers to less straight-forward business questions.


Google Glass world is one of the most exciting new technologies to catch our eye. We believe that it offers a myriad of opportunities for brands to tap into, interact with, and influence consumers.

It’s because of the technological gains that are being made in analytics that we think that the researcher will become increasingly important for their ability to discern insights from patterns within a multi-sourced world of data.