Online Research 2009

Thursday 5 March 2009. I am on the Eurostar to Brussels after a two day conference on online research organized by the WARC in London and I make up my mind: ‘what did I found striking?’ Although, I had expected a somewhat larger and international public and I had never (before yesterday) seen anybody faint on stage, it occurred to me that this conference was centered on three big themes: the listening economy, social media research and fusion research

Listening economy

In line with our connected research philosophy at InSites Consulting, a lot of the speakers focused on the fact that we need to start listening to our customers instead of always interviewing them. As Adam Phillips explained during his short speech, this thought is not new at all. In the 40-50th, P&G conducted mass ethnography. At that time,  5 ways of listening were identified:

·         The best way to get real insights is to eavesdrop natural conversations in a pub, the bus etc.

·         You can launch the topic you are interested in outside a research context and see what people are saying about the topic.

·         You can mimic natural conversations as authentically as possible in a research situation: you admit that you are a researcher and you memorize your topic guide/questionnaire and respondent answers.

·         If you go one step further, you also take notes during the conversation.

·         The final type of listening is the structured questionnaire or interview.


The researchers at P&G declared that the more you evolve to the last type of listening, the more one will obtain socially desirable and superficial answers. Therefore the third type of listening was implemented. Because of the memorization, this way of conducting research turned out to be too cost and time intensive: they had no other choice than to stop this type of research at that time.

Over the last decades, we all forgot about actually listening and bombed the consumers with questionnaires. With the rise of social media, we are now back to listening and the question really is if researchers will be able to do better this time?


Social media research

Although market researchers are gradually becoming aware of the importance of listening, the big question is how brands can use new social media in the best way possible. The rise of blogs, social networks, video and picture sharing websites, etc. has first of all provided us with new research tools. On the one side, qualitative research is brought online mainly by setting up bulletin boards or asynchronous discussion group. The usage of online discussion groups and blogs for qualitative research was hardly discussed. On the other hand, panel providers reshape their panel databases to research communities and recruit participants for research through social networks.

Listening to consumers can also be managed by tapping into natural user-generated content. Although, some dashboards were shown for capturing the online buzz, it was clear that a lot of pioneer work still needs to be done in this area: what are the best sources? How should I collect my data, how to analyze such a huge amount of data? What is the profile of people who post information online? What is the profile of the reader?


Fusion research

The importance of fusion was embedded in a lot of speeches. It seems that this fusion needs to happen on three levels in the industry:

·         Fusion of data: as stated before, we do not only need to learn from what consumers tell as in interviews and surveys but also to what they tell us spontaneously. Ideally, we also add other types of data to get a 360° degree: behavioral data (e.g. based on loyalty cards), data collected through neuroscience and cognitive psychology, insights from econometrics (which heuristics do consumers use in their decision process).

·         Fusion of insights: Researchers are no longer responsible for just delivering a good report for one study; we should try to integrate the insights coming from different reports. In line with the slogan of ‘no size fits all’, we carefully need to select the right methodology for each research question and study research questions from different points of views, an idea that is often called triangulation. Every methodology has also its bias and we should also take those different biases into account when trying to see the whole picture.

·         Fusion of skills. The internal organization of a market research agency or department also needs to be adapted to the changing environment. Researchers need to have more skills than just good analysis and reporting techniques. They also need to be good journalists so they are able to communicate about the research on the new social media.  The line between quantitative and qualitative research is nowadays blurred: by using social media for qualitative research, the amount of data that needs to be analyzed has increased. In order to get a grip on this large amount of data, qualitative researchers can get inspiration with their colleagues of the quantitative department who have experience with processing large amounts of data. 

9 March 2009:  Back at the Ghent office. I am going through my notes again from the conference and completing my blog post before it goes online. It is however hard to summarize all information that was shared during the conference in 1 blog post but I have an idea. Over the past couple of days, I have been working on analyzing social media via textmining (some wrongly call it blog tracking while it should be nethnography) on all types of user-generated content. So, I decide to do a little experiment to see what the common elements in all presentations at this conference were: I text mined all the documents from the conference and the following word cloud was the result:




I agree that textmining DID a good job at summarizing the conference. Again, what did I find so striking in this conference? It is clear that social media like communities and social networks are dominantly present, but surveys and internet penetration (very much 1.0 if you ask me) were still a significant theme. No attendee at the conference would probably disagree with the fact that we need to start listening to our customers, but in the majority of the cases, presenters were still speaking about respondents instead of participants (?). Clearly, many are talking about it, but who is putting the deed to the word? With the forwaRD lab of InSites Consulting, we are conducting online safaris with our participants; we follow their life through blogs; we study how we can moderate synchronous and asynchronous discussions via chat and bulletin boards in the most optimal way and are analyzing user-generated-content with textmining tools.  I hope therefore that for next year’s conference we can start discussing our experiences and best practices with new types of research so we can really take online research forward.


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