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May 14, 2024

Why agile scalable qual is the answer to the limitations of social listening

For years now, both governments and businesses have wrestled with how to systematically incorporate the voice of their citizens, or customers, into important decision-making processes. Both the public and private sectors recognized long ago that when decisions include the people they affect, mutually beneficial outcomes are more likely to result.

Whether it’s the design of a new policy, the need to identify what’s shaping consumer behavior in a particular category, or whether consumers resonate with a new piece of marketing collateral – the challenge of listening to your consumers in an agile, proactive, and empathetic way has given rise to a multitude of competing solutions and methods.

During my PhD, I worked on creating a new qualitative methodology to enhance the public’s input into policy decision-making, particularly through the use of social media. It was during this process that I came to identify and reflect on several limitations to a method many refer to as ‘Social Listening’.

Consumers’ language evolves to suit their needs, not those of a ‘social listening’ model

The language and phrases consumers use to reflect their reality shifts and changes faster than most can keep up. One need only glance at the rate of change for trending hashtags across the main social platforms to find themselves in a head spin.

My PhD research highlighted that the public do not use the same words and language to speak about topics that are important to them as do the government or institutions – meaning that automated listening filters established to capture specific keywords online were only hearing part of the conversation – and often not the most important or interesting parts of the conversation.

If you want to truly understand what makes your consumer tick, you need to understand how they think, and why they think it, in their own words! This requires you to go direct-to-the-source, put the ground work in, and proactively speak to your consumers – rather than hope they are out there speaking your language.

Social media can provide you with plenty of voices, but who exactly are we hearing from?

It goes without saying that many of the major social media platforms have yet to understand how they can combat the severe issues with trolling, bots, and user verification – which results in many platforms having hundreds of millions, if not billions, of users – many of whom we have no way of authenticating their real identities.

While this does not invalidate all data that is derived from social media, or from the ‘Social Listening’ that takes place, it does warrant caution on behalf of decision-making who are using this data to inform their way forward. Additionally, it highlights the need for data to be triangulated and validated through additional methods, such as those that speak directly to consumers and where their identity can be authenticated.

There might be billions of users, but who is really doing the talking on social media?

This brings me to the final limitation I observe for the ‘Social Listening’ method – who is really doing the talking, and even more importantly, where is it they are talking? Facebook, once considered untouchable, now struggles to retain young users, and has been referred to as social media’s retirement home (McCarthy, 2019).

Social Listening systems, by design, are intended to listen and report back on what is being said ‘out there in the wild’ – but what we are increasingly seeing is that conversations are moving to the private sphere, with direct messaging becoming the favored way of speaking to groups or friends.

With more and more conversations taking place in private, those relying on Social Listening will increasingly find their data representative not of the population more broadly, but only of those still speaking openly and publicly.

If not social listening, then what?

Given ‘Social Listening’ is limited by its ability to capture and understand the natural language used by consumers, that we aren’t always sure who it is we are hearing from, and that these public conversations are declining – what should you do if you still recognize the importance of including the voice of your consumer early and often in your decision-making processes?

What each of these limitations call for is an approach that is proactive in its outreach, agile in its deployment, and scalable in its ability to provide you with direct access to your chosen consumer group.

How we at GetWhy tackle this problem for you

At GetWhy, we still recognize the power and importance of generating empathy by hearing from (and seeing) your consumers.

Since 2019 we have developed our video-based qualitative insights solution to allow direct engagement with consumers – hearing and watching them speak directly to the camera, in their own words and language, all recruited and screened to ensure the right voices help you make decisions. This means consumers are participating in an environment and setting that is comfortable and natural to them, eliciting more nuanced and in-depth responses that get below the surface of their behavior.

Our generative-AI model allows us to scale qualitative research, meaning you get nuance and depth, alongside speed and cost – making GetWhy a truly scalable alternative to existing Social Listening tools.

Want to get in contact?

You can find my PhD thesis on the use of social media data to inform public policy and strategic communication here. Alternatively, you can reach out to me via email.

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