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Social networking a two-way mirror to public opinion

The Sydney Morning Herald – August 31, 2011

When Nestle wanted to find out more about what Australians talked about in the kitchen, it created a 5000-strong online community and began a regular, two-way conversation with grocery buyers.

Its customers were asked to contribute to discussions and complete surveys within the secure online community, and were encouraged to post their own topics.

Nestle’s head of consumer research told me it was important to find a way to bring alive some discussion – to find out what made them tick and excited them.

”Research” used to mean leaning against your front door for half an hour to fill in a printed survey, or a long conversation over the Bakelite telephone attached to the wall. These methods are still valid, and they work.

But the Nestle project is a good example of how researchers can use the digital revolution to diversify their tools to gauging public opinion.

Research has become an industry unto itself over the past 10 years, a growth driven by the increasing need for more informed marketing, advertising, public relations, politics and public policy decisions.

Finding people to participate in research has always been a problem, but now it’s likely more than half of young renters cannot be reached on a fixed telephone line – they rely on mobile phones and Skype instead.

Researchers have to expand their methods to adapt, and the internet opportunities are far more exciting than surveys simply being posted online.

By using Facebook, Twitter, online forums, online focus groups, mobile phones, SMS messages, and GPS technology, researchers can secure wider audiences by using both traditional surveys and real-time conversations.

Researchers also realise the way they ask questions, observe and gather information has also had to change.

One researcher who works with a bank monitors Twitter daily to analyse how many times the bank is mentioned, whether comments are positive or negative, and what the issues are: comments about waiting times in queues, changes in interest rates and anything else people comment on. No one is asked to fill in a survey or take a phone call.

My organisation – the Australian Market and Social Research Society – engages more than 1000 members regularly to discuss where the industry is going and which methods they think have lasting value.

This is an important point: research using social media is generally a two-way conversation. The lines between interviewee and interviewer are blurred, and the art of listening is increasingly important.

Researchers using mobile phones have also changed to suit the medium. The questions are fewer and shorter, and can be sent as an SMS.

They can conduct interviews while an event is taking place (such as a concert or football game).

Location-based research using GPS on mobile phones is particularly interesting. Should a researcher need to find out more about where their target audience travels daily, or what shops they visit weekly, people’s locations can be monitored in real time through GPS on their mobile phones. People do not need to enter any data or answer any questions.

Still, while social research expands the tool kit for any researcher, it will never be able to do it all.

The most effective research is managed by choosing the most appropriate method or medium to deal with the specific problem at hand, and to capture the opinions of a good cross-section of the target population.

Peter Harris is the president of the Australian Market and Social Research Society.