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Social media listening pulls direct opinion, focus groups get personal

Social media listening can capture unfiltered consumer thought, but focus groups still provide relevant insight, marketers and industry observers say.

Thanks to social media, organizations can gather volumes of information about consumers. Social media listening has, by many measures, replaced focus groups and phone surveys. But those old-school approaches still have a role to play, according to marketers and industry observers.

Both social media and person-to-person information-gathering have value, but social media listening is quickly becoming the primary customer intelligence tool. There are several ways to use social media to get consumer insight: online customer support forums, monitoring tools to gather comments from social outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, and crowdsourcing software that enables customers to suggest new product features and vote on their favorites.

"What's amazing about social media is its ability to answer questions you didn't think to ask," said Dominick Soar, an online marketing manager at Brandwatch in Brighton, England, which provides social media monitoring and analysis to businesses. "If you don't know about a problem with your new product, how do you know whether it's bothering people?"

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Conversely, person-to-person feedback, such as surveys taken by focus groups, can dive into an issue, especially one that people might not normally discuss online, like toothpaste. "Focus groups may be most useful where you have a specific set of questions about consumer opinion and behavior that you need answers to which aren't likely to be commonly shared online," Soar said.

Malcolm Faulds, senior vice president of marketing at Dunnhumby's BzzAgent division in Boston, uses online discussion groups and other types of social media forums to gain insight into consumer opinions.

Participants are invited to an online group based on their buying habits and enthusiasm for a company, including those who've signed up for loyalty programs or commented about online purchases. Those customers care more about the company and often provide the best insight, Faulds said. "We want brand advocates -- people who like it and are willing to talk about the brand without being paid for it," he said.

Faulds has used in-person focus groups and phone surveys to gather customer opinion, but he believes neither approach was ideal. He attributes problems with phone surveys to caller ID and voicemail, which allow major segments of a target group to simply avoid a call. Focus groups, he said, take too much time and sometimes garner too few comments.

"I've had to fly from city to city holding focus groups, and often didn't get a lot out of them. I might have eight or 10 people, and only two of them actually talk," Faulds said.

Still, some businesses prefer focus groups or phone interviews to social media listening. For instance, Martha Brooke, founder of Interaction Metrics in Portland, Ore., noted that, done well, phone interviews enable a business to dig deeper into a consumer's feelings. She likes focus groups for the way they allow a moderator to watch consumers interact with a product.

"You can see how consumers will actually use … a new product, and whether there are flaws in the design," she said.

A company's approach to customers should hinge on where they express themselves. Denis Pombriant, CEO of Beagle Research Group in Stoughton, Mass., learned that older people are not as likely to use Twitter or hang out on Facebook. "Traditional customers will want to use traditional methods," he said. "There are a lot of older people who don't use computers at all. So, if you go after an older population with social media, you may be missing an important segment of that demographic."

Pombriant uses filtering tools to capture young customers' sentiment on Twitter. "For people over 45, though, I'd probably start with standard surveys and focus groups," he said.

Ultimately, said Art Curtis, president of the Wellesley, Mass.-based consulting firm Curtis Club Advisors, it's a matter of whom a business interviews and what it needs to know. In some cases, he uses both methods simultaneously. This way, he gets both the quantity of a mass survey and the personal insight and color of a small focus group. "In the final analysis," he said, "both are often needed."

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