Proponents favoring the use of traditional focus groups point to the ability for their clients to actively participate or directly observe the process in real time. Opponents of focus groups tend towards the effects of manipulative, leading questions as skewing results in whatever direction the practitioners of the research desire. With all the technology surrounding the Internet, and the relatively recent advent of social media networks, is it possible to use these online communities as a legitimate replacement for the focus group?
The answer surely depends upon who is asked. Traditional marketing professionals tend towards the use of tools and methods they can maintain control over. Those who are active in a variety of social networks and understand the powerful research capabilities built into most of these online destinations often argue to the contrary of the traditionalists.
Some more cutting edge of those from the former camp have actually started developing artificial social media networks for market research. Essentially they develop online applications which mimic the functionality one would associate with a Facebook or Twitter and then populate their networks with participants.
Much like recruiting individuals to take part in a focus group, those who become involved with these fake social communities may have very little reason to interact, except for whatever they research company is offering them. Like the results of a focus group, the fake social network results may be suspect.
By understanding the power of research tools built into most legitimate social networks, one desiring to perform market research can have the power and accuracy which hundreds of millions of potential participants bring to the equation.
One of the biggest advantages of these real world forums comes from the fact that many of the conversations about a particular business or product are happening naturally. Notifications can be set in place so the researcher is immediately able to observer the conversation, and even join in with applicable questions and comments.
It can also be more effective to consider using actual social media networks from a cost perspective. Without skewing results by offering unreasonable incentives for participation, focused sub-groups are easily created from existing community members. In most cases, the cost of recruiting these people is far less than corralling people walking through the shopping mall.Because of the relatively low cost and ease of use relative to social media market research, businesses or entrepreneurs can get real world feedback, in near real time whenever it is convenient or desirable. Traditional focus groups have the challenge of recruiting people who were not otherwise intending to devote time to such projects. It can take days to formulate a plan and put into place the participants.
Social media research only takes an Internet connection, the knowledge required to use the community search tools, and the time to perform the activity oneself. As a result, the ability to poll such large data sets can often provide better, more clarified information with which to develop marketing action plans.Additionally, maintaining constant (and automated) attention to all mentions of and conversations about a clients products or brand image is a great way to always have the finger on the pulse of the public. All of this and much more is currently available within most of the social media networks and for little if any cost.
Jason Knox is a freelance writer for 97th Floor.