As the social networking phenomenon grows exponentially in terms of usage, variety, and publicity, marketers are scrambling to understand how to make the best possible use of it. While targeted online advertising is one obvious application, more companies are becoming interested in gaining insight, or a deep understanding of their customers, by engaging in conversations with them online.
In a recent paper, “Meeting Business Needs by Meeting Social Needs,”1 we offered some theories about which specific human needs are met through which specific forms of social media, and argued that companies seeking insight into and relationship with their customers are best served by approaches that meet multiple needs. In the study summarized in this paper, we put our ideas to the test.
Specifically, we conducted a study that compared three online strategies for obtaining consumer insight. We know from our experience working in communities that a great way to get insight is to ask for advice2, so we selected a generic travel-related topic—hotel rewards programs—because so many blogs, forums, and social networks already exist in support of travelers seeking and offering advice. We then posed the identical set of questions in the following ways:
Initiating conversations in large public social networks and forums: We posted inquiries on a popular social networking site (MySpace), a public forum dedicated to travel (TripAdvisor), a forum dedicated to business travel (About.com: Business Travel), and the largest forum for frequent flyers (FlyerTalk).
Passively mining the Web: We enlisted Nielsen Online’s BuzzMetrics service to apply their web mining tools to processes and generated a report for us on customer attitudes and behavior regarding hotel rewards programs.
Interacting with customers in private online communities: We initiated conversations with members of a travel-related private customer community run by Communispace Corporation.
We then compared these sources in terms of the speed, volume, and quality of insights we derived from each. We found that:
Both the speed and volume of responses to questions we explicitly posed in large, public social networks were low.
Passively mining the Web yielded a high volume of postings that provided high level insight into brand perceptions and invaluable benefit in identifying and tracking known trends and keywords used by consumers.
Our small, private communities provided a high volume of very focused responses in a short period of time, and were richest in terms of providing insight into both how specific brands and programs are perceived and how consumers themselves feel and make decisions.
While simply posting questions in existing forums and hoping for fast and deep responses proved to be an ineffective use of time and effort, a combination of active listening in small, focused communities coupled with passive mining of a larger data set can provide marketers the opportunity to gain a holistic understanding of their customers and to track emerging and receding trends.
 J. W. Schlack, M. Jennings, & M. Austin, “Meeting Business Needs by Meeting Social Needs in Small Communities: Why Size Matters” (Communispace position paper, 2007)
 M. Jennings, “Influence: Exploring Perspectives in Private Customer Communities” (Communispace whitepaper, 2007)