By Gareth Price, Senior Brand Insight Specialist, Precise

“People don’t want to talk about brands, they want to talk about their lives” — Global Head of Social, OgilvyAction.

A billion tweets are posted in three days; there are more than 500 million Facebook users and more than 25,000 posts per day on the Mumsnet forum alone. These figures are even more astonishing when one considers that social media is a relatively new phenomenon. Not everyone tweets but a significant number do — too many to go unnoticed.

Sceptics may argue that social media is a consumer tool without a business purpose. They may presume that people don’t want to interact with a business online and, in the context of everything they post, don’t want to talk about them much either. Some people have even used these excuses as the main reason not to undertake any form of social media research. And yet research into brand mentions on Twitter, such as this old study from Penn State, suggests brand chatter is higher than one might imagine.

Would these same people discount these companies from focus groups altogether because they’re unlikely to be mentioned in pub conversations? And yet a brand can play an important role in our lives without passing the ‘pub conversation test’.

Coming of age

Frustratingly social media analysis has been held back in the past by an excessive emphasis on just tracking the ‘buzz’ and sentiment towards a business, or, if using more advanced tools, the topics of conversation around it. These past limitations have given the impression that is all we’re capable of doing.

Of course attitudes and perceptions are important, hence why agencies like YouGov sell tracking services like BrandIndex, an internet accessed reporting tool, which provides a daily measure of brand perception among the public. It’s also a big part of what we do but it’s not the only part and, as we’re increasingly finding, it’s not always the most interesting part. 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.

By way as an example, we recently undertook some research for a major pet food brand and discovered, not surprisingly, that people rarely talked about the business in question. However, people do talk about their own pet and by looking at these conversations we were able to look at what the animal brought to their lives, their inner feelings towards their pet and understand how their pet made them feel. This enabled us to help the pet food company create a more engaging brand experience and to strengthen its relevance to pet owners.

This type of research has proved particularly fertile when people take the time to analyse wider conversations and company mentions and derive intelligence from it in relation to their business. It requires people to understand that social media research isn’t just an exercise in ticking boxes but can act as an illuminating and strategic tool to support and inform decision making. Even more importantly, it requires talented researchers that are able to think laterally and more creatively; not unlike successful traditional market research providers. When fully realised, the marketing benefits are profound.

Uncovering insights

Our work with a well-known instant milkshake company demonstrates the power of applying the understanding of the social audience to shed light on previously unrevealed behaviours. By asking intelligent questions of the data and analysing conversations on Twitter, we discovered a lot of consumers talk about consuming milkshakes in the evening and strongly associate the drink with their childhood, leaving them with a happy sense of nostalgia. Milkshake appears to have an important and widespread role as a comforting, stress-relieving drink before bedtime. This constitutes a new need state, consumption occasion and crucially, enlarged target audience to market products to.

The digital age may have changed the way businesses choose to interact with and get under the skin of their customers, but the guiding maxim, 'Know Your Customer' has never been more important. To succeed and grow, businesses need to know what their target audience is thinking. Only by gathering these insights can businesses meet their customers' needs - even pre-empt them. To do so, they need to listen to what people are saying, whether these conversations are happening on the streets, in focus groups or on social networking sites.

Crucially businesses need to make sense of these conversations and put these lessons to good use by allowing insights to inform business strategy. Social media is a gift. Used and understood properly it can help a business be the best it can be. But ignoring social media or stalling because the business owners feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of online chatter, amounts to a wasted opportunity.

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