How social thinking can evolve brands’ approach to research

Thought Leadership

Research has changed since social media has taken off. It’s now far more agile, dynamic and can speed up the decision-making process by closing the loop of optimization. In this post, the first in a series examining socially-led research, our Global Chief Strategy Officer Mobbie Nazir and Head of Research & Insight, Paul Greenwood, look at how research methodologies and techniques have developed with the influence of social media.

In 2008, the likes of Facebook and YouTube were gaining traction, but the conversations generated on these platforms were largely untapped. Marketers focused almost exclusively on traditional research techniques, like focus groups or large surveys – valuable tools, but with a number of restrictions. Not least that it would often take a significant amount of time to get the answer you needed – and there was a good chance that by the time you had it, it would be out of date. 

Understanding fast and slow culture 

Over the last 12 years, social media has opened up this kind of barrier to information. There’s a vast amount of data now available in real time; what people think of brands, their opinions, their interests. Artificial intelligence-focused tools help marketers get information quickly and make decisions faster.

This is important in understanding fast culture, an area where brands have struggled. Traditional research methodologies can work when examining slow culture – long term studies, focus groups, take a month or more. This is fine if you’re tracking something as broad as shifts in attitudes towards health and wellness. But in a fast-paced and ever-changing society, understanding micro shifts, like the latest fitness class crazes, needs a more time-sensitive approach. 

Sometimes, timeliness can be important from a commercial perspective too. We recently worked with an entertainment brand promoting a new release. In the past, the brand would track the feedback from audiences, but with a two-week lag. By using social data, we were able to track responses in real-time and suggest content that would increase footfall to the film. 

The marriage of old and new 

However, that’s not to say that traditional research is dead. Far from it. Research is most effective when combining old and new methodologies. 

There are a number of ways to do this and which approach depends on what you’re looking to solve. One method is to use focus groups or expert interviews to discover insights, then looking to social media data to see how these are playing out on a macro level, proving (or disproving) scale and relevance. Conversely, researchers can identify trends or conversations happening on social media, and then look to focus groups or interviews to dig deeper into people’s personal motivations and feelings around a certain subject. Knowing the right questions to ask, guided by the social data. 

Our 2019 Gen Z research used mixed methodologies. Firstly, it was an ethnographic study, where we spent a day with multiple Gen Zers throughout the country. We then looked to social listening to see how the insights we’d uncovered played out online, and finally our teams put the findings into the context of wider behavioural and cultural shifts. This research is over a year old, but many of the findings in it are only now being talked about in mainstream media. 

Drowning in data 

One of the benefits of social data is also its biggest potential downfall – its huge scale. Discovering relevant information comes down to asking the right question(s) that will have the biggest impact on your client’s business. AI can help to find patterns, but analysis and insight comes from humans. 

The most effective way to do this is with an experienced and strategic team that will have an intuitive sense of what’s valuable. In the same way that an art director and copywriter work together to make the most of their complementary skills, we’ve found that bringing strategy and research teams closer together helps the process become more collaborative and iterative. 

Having a research team that is skilled in the language of the internet is also important. People don’t realise how much can be gleaned from images for example, and the rise of Instagram and meme sharing has made visual semiotics an important skillset. As is the ability to layer authority onto research – on social media, it’s not just about numbers, it’s about the level of influence too. 

A wider understanding 

Today, mainstream trends are starting out on social media. It’s shaping culture and the pace of change is incredible. By understanding what’s happening on social media, as a marketer, you can anticipate and prepare for significant cultural shifts. 

This is benefited by the fact that social media is a far bigger ecosystem than it used to be. The breadth of audiences has changed; when We Are Social first launched, social media use was usually for younger generations. It was unusual for your mum to be on Facebook, let alone your gran. Now, there’s a platform for just about everyone. And people are often more honest on a public social media forum than they are in person to an interviewer. 

So how can brands make sure they’re using social media in the most effective way possible when it comes to research? Over the next few months, our teams from all over the world will be looking at a number of different ways that social media research benefits marketers, from understanding audiences, to how data can help create the perfect piece of content.

Stay tuned to our blog to follow the conversation. 


If you’d like to find out more about how We Are Social’s research team can work with your brand, contact us on [email protected]