Sign-up for our newsletter to learn more about our philosophy on all things creative.

* indicates required

Replace Focus Groups with Social Media Research?

Replace focus groups with social media research?
by Monika Wingate, Fountainhead Brand Consulting

This week, the New York Times wrote about how major companies like Frito Lay, Estée Lauder and Wal-Mart are using Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare as Corporate Focus Groups. Should your company be making the switch? How should your organization evaluate the viability of social media as a qualitative research tool and what types of social media research projects truly add value? Below are five important considerations that will help you assess the value of this approach.

1. Evaluating Viability

Roughly four out of five online users are engaged in social media today. So, assessing the viability is not truly about whether your consumer is using social media. The question is really about how they engage.  For example, Udi’s Gluten Free Foods found a natural fit with social media early on, because people on a gluten free diet rely heavily on Internet research to explore their options. Since they often look to advice from others on which products to try, social media became a clear fit. Conversely, a major biotech company tried to build a discussion with their customers on Facebook, but was unsuccessful in building engagement. They realized that even though their customers have Facebook accounts, work wasn’t a topic they wanted to discuss in that forum. However, their customers were engaging with colleagues regularly on LinkedIn, creating a viable forum for social media research.

2. Assessing Risk/Opportunity

Focus groups and surveys are tools often used by management to reduce risk or maximize ROI. Before launching a new product, companies want to know that consumers will buy it. Before investing in a new ad campaign, they want to know the message will move the needle.  And if a brand has many ideas, they want to pick the biggest and best idea. Several of the examples in the NY Times article pointed to brands using social media for risk/opportunity assessment. However, when looking beneath the surface, brands need to make sure this approach has the rigor for risk assessment.  Because you are not “sampling” from the total population of users, you do not have projectable results. For example, organic food companies tend to attract environmental advocates to their social media sites. However, this core buyer does not represent the majority of organic users. When doing focus groups, companies tend to use specialized recruitment tools to ensure that each market segment is represented in their research efforts. A similar step is also needed with social media qualitative to make sure the population participating in your research aligns with the broader population that would buy your product.

3. Gaining Competitive Advantage

Often marketing research is an investment in competitive advantage. That means the insights you garner are proprietary to your business. In my opinion this is the most critical component advocating both for and against the use of social media research. Our experience has shown that you gain deeper and richer insights when you engage with your customer every day over a period of weeks – something really most effective using social media. You begin to fully understand their decision processes as well as the problems and issues that, if solved, would put your company ahead of the competition. However, this is the kind of research that major brands are doing behind the scenes. Private social media communities allow both observation and focus group-like discussion without the eyes of your competitors on the results. And, it has the added benefit of being able to recruit exactly the type of participant you are looking for.  Conversely, engaging in social media research in public forums such as your corporate Facebook page raises the potential to give away proprietary knowledge or have unknown competitors sabotage your results.

4. Empowering Consumers

If proprietary learning is so important, then why are companies using public social media forums like Facebook to discuss new product ideas?  When Frito Lay asks consumers to download a Facebook app and vote on ideas, or when Toyota asks consumers to submit new product ideas using Toyota technology, they are not really conducting new product research. They are building loyalty by engaging consumers in co-creation or crowdsourcing. Consumers feel empowered by giving their opinions and the brand wins from building that relationship. In fact, a study by Nielsen suggested more than over half of consumers enjoy giving product feedback through social media. However, don’t be fooled that these organizations are loosening their grip on competitive advantage by giving away their innovative ideas. Companies can lose patent rights through public disclosure of disruptive innovation, so this type of public consumer engagement is for low risk opportunity areas. Private social media forums can also be created for co-creation of moderate to high-risk opportunity areas

5. Integrating with Traditional Research

Social media research does not need to be an either/or choice vs. focus groups. For example, we recently worked with an appliance company client who wanted to engage customers post-sale. There was a significant segment of high-touch customers that preferred customer hotlines, in-person training and written materials that would have been overlooked had we only engaged new buyers via social media. On the flip side, by engaging via social media we achieved much deeper insights and feedback through the use of the website, emails, demonstration video and social media sites. We also learned how both on-line and off-line oriented users engage with print materials, retail stores and customer service representatives. This gave us a better understanding of the importance of all media in the total customer experience.

In summary, don’t underestimate the power of social media to transform how you engage with and learn from both business-to-business customers and end consumers. My belief is that social media will become the primary place for individuals to discuss brands and products over the next ten years and therefore the majority of research will be conducted through this forum. As a result, brand teams will see vast improvements in the quality of research insights as well as a better ROI through this lower cost, more efficient research approach.

For more information, visit:

Drop us a note, give us a call at 608-257-6464, or follow us on Facebook to find out more about our thinking, our ideas, and what we see in the world of design.