Focus Groups Or Social Media?

Cathy Whitehead McIntyre, on

The question of which is better when it comes to marketing research – social media or focus groups – has been a hot topic for a while now. In my opinion, there is no hard and fast answer as to which is better. Both have an important role to play in helping brands better understand their customers, and better meet their needs.

Social Media Has Real Benefits

There is absolutely no question that there is lots to be learned by listening in on the conversations your customers (and your competitors’ customers) are having on social media. Whether it is monitoring product or service issues, uncovering unmet customer needs, or generating competitive intelligence, social media monitoring can provide invaluable feedback. Keeping tabs on social media can also be a fantastic “early warning system” to alert organizations of potential problems and provide valuable opportunities to address issues before they exact serious damage to brand reputation. And social media shines as a tool for maximizing customer engagement with a brand.

But Social Media Can Be Skewed

What is important to note, however, is that those who use social media to comment on your brand may, or may not, be truly representative of your customer base. Your target audience may not be accurately profiled by those who are having conversations about your product or service in social media. People who use social media to talk about a product or service are already engaged with it and, in some cases, may also have a particular agenda with regard to the brand – either positive or negative. What about the “silent majority” who may not use social media or may not spend as much time online?

Social Media Monitoring Can’t Replace Focus Groups

To me, social media monitoring is “secondary research” – an approach to research that is based on collecting existing data that is already available in the public domain. Focus groups, on the other hand, are a “primary research” methodology, like other forms of qualitative research (one-on-one interviews, for example) and quantitative methodologies such as surveys. As such, focus group studies are more pro-active; they are designed specifically to directly ask for input to address a specific set of research objectives, conducted with the rigour applied to any research study.

Focus Groups Get Deeper

Following people’s posted opinions online can be helpful. But hearing what a group of customers (or prospective customers) say about a product in a moderated focus group discussion, where participants interact around a table, answering questions as well as reacting to, and building on, each others’ comments, can be truly illuminating. Moderators can observe first hand how consumers interact with a product. Focus groups provide an opportunity to do a deep dive before initiatives are exposed to the marketplace – to test first reactions to new product ideas, measure responses to potential product innovation, marketing materials or advertising concepts, or to inform the development of marketing strategy. Focus groups can also be very helpful to more fully explore hypotheses generated from social media listening.

Complementary, Not Either-Or

There will always be a place for both social media and focus groups in marketing research. Neither is better than the other, and one does not replace the other. What is important is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each, and using them appropriately.

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Cathy Whitehead McIntyre

Cathy Whitehead McIntyre, Principal of Strategic Initiatives Inc, is a marketing research consultant specializing in qualitative research. She was one of the first in Canada to use online qualitative methodologies.

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