Where is the insight?

Just prior to the holidays the folks at the Harvard Business Review released the results of a survey that asked 2,100 companies about their use of social media. This finding is especially telling:

Nearly two-thirds of the 2,100 companies who participated said they are either currently using social media channels or have social media plans in the works. But many still say social media is an experiment, as they try to understand how to best use the different channels, gauge their effectiveness, and integrate social media into their strategy.

Despite the vast potential social media brings, many companies seem focused on social media activity primarily as a one-way promotional channel,  and have yet to capitalize on the ability to not only listen to, but analyze, consumer conversations and turn the information into insights that impact the bottom line.

The methodology of this particular study is underwhelming but the results are largely consistent with other things I see and hear, some of which I blogged about back in August. 

Were a modern day Rip Van Winkle to awake after 20 years with an interest in MR and the only sources available to him were conference proceedings and Twitter he probably would quickly conclude that MR=Social Media Analysis.  But outside of that echo chamber it's a different world. Despite all of the hand waving about social media, the NewMR, Web 2.0, etc. clients, for the most part, remain unconvinced. The latest estimates from Inside Research suggest that in terms of dollars spent social media research is barely above the noise level in an $8 billion US industry. For the moment, at least, it seems that we are losing the argument where it counts most.

MROCs to the rescue!

A colleague of mine likes to say that real difference between the new MR and the old MR is that the new MR is a lot better at marketing. I thought of that when I saw this item from Research-Live describing the latest marketing push from Communispace. Now I have nothing against these folks or the MROCs they sell. By all reports they are very good at what they do and communities have clearly demonstrated their value as a research method. But I don't think that we serve the broader interests of the research industry by trashing other methodologies as a way to advance a particular business model. Now to complement other zingers like "engagement trumps sample size" we have "trading purity for pragmatism" and "decoupling 'quality' from purity."

To be fair, their marketing piece on this topic claims to support "an integrative model" of quant and communities. But the characterizations of the former throughout have that do-you-still-beat-your-wife kind of quality to them. The adjectives tell the story. Quant is artificial, backward looking, distant, controlling, authoritarian, generic, dry, top-down, alienating, artificial, and something called "researcher-centric." Communities, on the other hand, are relevant, authentic, engaging, purposeful, forward-looking, natural, agile, pragmatic, and "humanistic, person-centered." And then there are the callout quotes from clients saying basically that their communities are all they need.

There's also a matter of facts. "There is plenty of evidence showing that, except for a few discrete segments, the Internet population in the U.S. is quickly becoming the general population. . . Online versus offline is quickly becoming a non-issue." Really? I've blogged on this before. Internet penetration in the US has pretty much stalled over the last five years with a quarter to a third of the population still offline. According to the latest data from Pew, only about a third of adult US Internet users have joined a social network site, a likely indicator of willingness to participate in an MROC. The last time I looked, which admittedly was over a year ago, barely half of the countries in the EU were above the 50-60 percent threshold that ESOMAR describes as the tipping point for acceptance of online research. And with the exception of Brazil (36 percent penetration), the BRICs are still struggling to get north of 30 percent. It's one thing for clients to say that they don't care about these people because they don't have any money to spend but that's a different argument.

In the end, this is just a recycling of the ongoing debate about quant versus qual which shouldn't be a debate at all. We need them both along with whatever other information we can turn up to help a client with a business decision. I am reminded of something Ray Poynter said in his master class on communities at last year's ESOMAR Congress in Montreux: "If you test a new concept with your community and they hate it, then forget about it. If they like it, then go out and do more research."

Some marching orders from Neils

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) know that I have some genuine enthusiasm for Research 2.0 or Connected Research or whatever we call MR in the age of Web 2.0 and social media.  Yet I still find it largely undefined, mostly a collection of buzzwords still awaiting a real definition as a research method.  Niels Schillewaert at Insites Consulting in Belgium is doing some of the best thinking of anyone about what this future looks like.    I've recommended his stuff before and I follow that up here with the suggestion that you have a look at this video of one of his recent presentations.  I could nitpick with a couple of things he says, but not with the central thrust and certainly not with what seem to be his two central points: (1) we need to think long and hard about what all of this means and (2) begin defining the the skillsets and the tools we need to do research in a fundamentally-changed world.  A tall order for someone who has been doing what I do as long as I've been doing it.