I have a Google Alert set up under the title, "social media study" and it's always amazing what shows up on that alert. Everybody has a social media study these days. But some of it is not as reliable as you might think. All social media marketing research is not created equal.
Marketers who make data-driven decisions are always on the lookout for good data. We know it's impossible to put marketing goals together without it. So, how can I tell if XYZ company's study on social media is useful to my goals or applicable to my audience?
Dr. Karen Freberg, Assistant Professor in the University of Louisville's Communication Department teaches digital and new media. She says to begin by looking closely at the study's audience sample.
If the study is exploring the same audience and sample you are trying to reach, that is a good sign. A fashion brand may not be interested in what a sports brand finds in their research. Marketers have to be able to connect the dots from the findings of the research and ask the questions - how can this be applied in my field?
Before you put together any kind of marketing goals or decide if you want to use a particular social media platform, you'll want to do some basic research about your audience and who is using what, where, when, and why. This baseline audience research helps you compare your audience to the respondents of the study. How are they similar and dissimilar?
Audience baseline research is a fairly simple process if you have a good email data base. I recommend doing audience research annually at a minimum and more often in focus groups to see if your numbers are shifting enough to make course corrections. Survey Monkey or a similar tool is good for this process. Here's some information on conducting audience research on a shoestring budget.
When looking at marketing research, it's always important to understand methodology. Some marketers pull random facts out of research without any thought to what the research is really measuring. Know the context of the numbers. Understand what questions were asked (and why). What was the population sample? Were the conclusions valid for just their sample or do they have implications for a wider audience? Here's a short list of companies that consistently produce good social media marketing research:
- Pew Research Internet Project
- Nielsen Reports
- Edison Research
- Altimeter Group
- Forrester Research
- Blue Ocean
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but these are companies whose research is respected in marketing circles. The only 100 percent free resource on the above list is Pew Internet Research Project. Oftentimes the others will publish blog pieces or Slidehare presentations with highlights from their reports. It's a good idea to follow reputable marketing research firms on an RSS reader or Google Alert to get their latest reports.
There are a group of marketing companies that also do research to showcase their products and services. Their research is still valid, but sometimes they are measuring a specific set of data that they know will reflect positively on the need for their products. Again, this is not an exhaustive list. They include:
I have downloaded many free research reports from companies in the above group. There is often an email sign-up involved and a few follow-up emails, but they have a methodical conversion system where they give away good information to get you aimed towards their products. Just be aware that even though the report may be free, they may be contacting you.
Many organizations also sponsor research for the benefit of their constituencies. Examples of this would be the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, NCAA, Public Relations Society of America, or the American Marketing Association. Often these organizations may require a membership to access the research.
Also be on the lookout for annual studies done by companies who specialize in social media strategy. Examples of this are the annual Social Media Marketing Industry Report from Social Media Examiner and the annual Best Practices in Social Media from mStoner that is aimed at higher education.
Dr. Freberg also has some tips for marketers on how to wade through the large volume of data labeled "study" on the internet.
Always look at the data itself, the sample and method in which the data was collected, and whether or not the results match up with the question posed for the actual research and the method being used. A lot of times, there are some methods and statistics that do not match up with the results. In some cases, there are research studies that try to "spin" the results to make these big conclusions when in reality, the data does not reflect on this.
If the study does go into detail on how the research was collected and is transparent with the methods and audience they used, that is a good sign. However, there are a lot of studies that don't give readers any clue about sample size, audience numbers, how the data was collected, or what questions were asked. Having a solid base and understanding in traditional research methods to explore, critique, and analyze the results yourself is critical to know as a social media marketer now to determine what is good research versus promoted research.