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Just about every social media platform these days has become a vast treasure trove of data for brands and businesses. With a few cleverly executed keyword searches, you can see what customers are saying about your products, what potential prospects think about your brand, and what business rivals think about the current state of your industry, niche or market segment. Even better, a whole host of free social media tools – such as the ability to launch blitz polls on Twitter – make it surprisingly easy for companies to conduct very quick and dirty polling on just about any issue. But just how insightful are all these social media insights?
The art of social media data mining
After all, as they say in the world of statistics and polling, “garbage in, garbage out.” In other words, if all the data you’re mining is digital garbage, then you really can’t expect all of those data mining efforts to yield anything more than garbage as a result. You might have access to tens of thousands of tweets, but that doesn’t mean that even such a huge volume of content will generate any meaningful insights.
And, yet, many companies and brands continue to rely on social media polling as a go-to replacement for traditional customer polling and market research polls. Remember the days when you had to hire a company to assemble a group of 5 to 10 complete strangers, put them in a room together, and observe them through a glass window to see what they really thought about your brand, products or market niche. Who has time or money for that these days? That’s especially relevant if you’re a startup or small business trying to make sense of a post-COVID world in which it might be well nigh impossible to find 10 strangers willing to sit in close proximity to each other in a small room that hasn’t been properly sanitized! Far easier to rely on completely contact-free social media to get the customer insights you need.
Social media amplifies extreme views
There are a couple of watch-outs here, though. Perhaps the biggest watch-out when it comes to relying on social media for your market polling needs is that the most vocal people on social media tend to land on one of the two extremes. They either “love” your products or they “hate” them. You might find them complaining about your products on Twitter, or if you’re lucky, you might find random, spontaneous Facebook Groups sprouting up to share the love about your products.
But what you won’t really find on social media are all the normal, everyday people who don’t feel compelled to share their normal, everyday opinions on social media. In other words, they might not post adoring photos of your new breakfast cereal in artfully arranged Instagram shots, even if they regularly stick a box of that cereal in their shopping carts every week when they hit the supermarket. So you might be getting a hyper-amplified and extreme view of what people think about your products if you only rely on social media.
Understanding social media demographics
The second watch-out involves demographic data. When it comes to sharing information online, most people prefer some form of privacy and anonymity, so you will never really have a complete overview of their demographic background. You might be able to infer, for example, that a social media user calling himself or herself “PhillyEaglesFan1990” is a 30-year-old living somewhere in the Philadelphia area.
That’s useful information for statistical and demographic purposes – and it’s the kind of information that professional polling organizations or market research firms would be able to tell you much more precisely. They would be able to narrow down your audience by age, by geographic area, and perhaps even by a host of other descriptors (e.g. a 30-year-old mother of three working as a nurse for a local Philadelphia hospital who loves to host tailgate parties for her co-workers during the NFL season for her beloved Eagles team). That same type of exact data and information is probably not available if you are solely relying on social media, unless you take the time to drill down on each individual social media account.
The upside of using social media for polling and brand insights
That being said, it’s hard to beat social media for its ease of use, as well as the proliferation of free (or nearly free) online tools that make it very easy to monitor brand conversations taking place everyday online across every social media platform. But just be aware that the social web tends to amplify the loudest voices and most extreme opinions. With a little extra work, though, it should be possible to determine whether you have a legion of adoring, diehard fans – or just a few statistical outliers who are able to project their massive influence across social media in ways that might distort your understanding of how customers actually view you and your brand.