Social media research blows through Windy City

The Esomar Online Research Conference’s ‘Online Activation’ panel, hosted by Microsoft’s Steve Schwartz, promised attendees juicy case studies from the frontlines of social media research practice, and it didn’t disappoint.

First to speak was Volker Bilgram of HYVE Germany, describing the online co-creation community they built for jeweller and watchmaker Swarovski. The levels of co-creation involved ranged from simple customisation – though even at this level participants still spent plenty of time on the site – to highly innovative and creative watch designs submitted by members. Members of the community invited others, and this also served to spread the word about a new Swarovski brand: the kind of blurring of marketing and research which seems typical of brand-led communities and which will continue to spark serious debate.

Esomar Young Researcher of the Year, Annelies Verhaeghe, was next up, co-presenting a paper on ‘getting answers without asking questions’ with her client from Dutch broadcaster RTL. Information is out there, she said - it’s just a matter of scraping and analysing it to find the golden nuggets, and to back this up she presented a case study from Holland’s version of The X Factor. Information from social media was used to influence the choice of themes for each week’s show, but also the mined data revealed “bottom-up” insights: answers to questions the researchers hadn’t known to ask. Buzz, for instance, fell off after the initial live performances, so the broadcaster put more content online to lure fans back. And a particularly bland contestant was given a makeover after analysis of social media talk about him. Verhaeghe concluded with a description of the new skills these methods required, particularly the fusion of quantitative data handling and qualitative analysis.

Finally, Josephine Hansom of GfK NOP in the UK presented a paper on ‘bloggers as research partners’. In web 2.0 terms, blogging is almost as old hat as… well, the phrase ‘web 2.0’ – so at first I felt unfairly critical towards this paper. But I was wrong: Hansom was asking penetrating questions about the motivations and drivers behind online content sharing, with blogging simply the framework. She divided bloggers into three types: the ‘fast food’ blogger, who posts spontaneously and often with no concrete idea of who his audience are; the ‘dinner party’ blogger, who plans her content carefully and is keenly aware of audience and public; and the ‘lite’ blogger, who doesn’t think blogging is much fun and does it only when needed. Each requires different approaches and relationships from researchers.

The session content has obviously inspired the audience – a vigorous Q&A session had the panelists fielding questions on privacy, data scraping, the best text analytics software and ethical issues. As one tweet from the session by Twitter user @lovestats put it, “seems to me this is where research is going, has gone.”

Tom Ewing is social media knowledge leader at Kantar Operations, and a regular Research live blogger.

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