There is some debate over the value of social media tools in qualitative research, particularly in regards to open communities for research purposes. Open communities are public social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace etc, which provide a continuous stream of peer-to-peer conversation.
Although both open and private communities sit under the social media umbrella, they require different research approaches from a qualitative perspective. Understanding the benefits and limitations of each type of community is essential in research design, data collection and analysis.
Below I’ve outlined some key considerations for researchers…
Benefits of open communities
Organic conversations - As public communities do not have a formalised structure, the conversations that occur are completely natural – giving researchers an understanding of topics that are of genuine interest to the consumer.
A wider audience – 75% of Australians are members of social networking sites. Many of these people may never have participated in market research and probably never would.
Cost effective - With no community set up costs, listening to these conversations is essentially free.
Limitations of open communities
Lack of context – As open communities are available to the public, there is greater difficulty in determining whether conversations reflect your target audience. There is no real way of telling who is ‘talking’ and whether they have a predetermined agenda. The lack of context provided is another challenge in gaining relevant insight.
Time consuming – Conversations are spontaneous, unprompted and live 24 hours a day. Trawling through thousands of conversations can be relatively time ineffective, with no guarantee that people will be talking about your brand/product.
Restricted pre-determined research objectives – As mentioned above, the raw, spontaneous nature of conversations means that defining a specific set of research objectives is unrealistic, and potentially counterproductive in listening to open communities in the first place.
No methodology is without flaw, however a balanced understanding of each tool and its application will provide a wider scope for research. While open communities offer a platform for listening to organic conversation, they do not give researchers the ability to direct discussions for further probing. However, these types of communities may be a useful starting point, and, when coupled with additional tools, can provide the researcher with a deeper understanding of the consumer.