Close-Up: Can Twitter be a potent research tool?

Anyone planning to use Twitter as a big focus group should proceed with caution.

Twitter has grown up so rapidly that it's possible to suspect, in darker moments, that it may turn out to be the Solomon Grundy of the digital era.

It may now be five years old, and a very bonny five-year-old it makes too, but not long after its coming-of-age party (the SXSW bash in March 2007), people were already predicting with confidence that it would utterly change the rules of marketing and advertising.

Precisely how, or in what way, it would utterly change those rules was, at that stage, a rather impertinent question - but there were many theories.

Prime among these was that it might, if it could be harnessed as a rhetorical instrument, be used to develop social media communications techniques that would supersede the very notion of impersonal, boastful mass-market advertising.

Interestingly, though, there has always been a rather more subtle minority view.

In short, if looked at in a certain way, the Twitter community might, from time to time, serve as a giant focus group. Knowing what people think about you and your rivals would not only help drive strategy but could also, surely, allow for the real-time tweaking of advertising campaigns.

And, last week, Joan Lewis, the global market knowledge officer at Procter & Gamble, indicated that social media could shake up "structured research".

This comes hand in hand with the notion that conventional media channels could not only survive Twitter but may actually be enhanced by it was surely proved rather compellingly last year when Twitter and ITV's X Factor struck up such a rewarding friendship. And at least one advertiser, Yeo Valley, managed to find itself at the centre of that social media buzz.

The contrarian view might question the validity of that buzz. Its severest critics maintain that Twitter is an entirely disingenuous construct, used mainly by the sorts of people who would be disqualified from your average focus group. Almost everyone is posturing or has an angle, is selling something or is fronting something. Almost everyone Tweeting regularly is there, at least part of the time, to drive traffic to websites in which they have a commercial interest of some sort.

So social chit-chat might, in many instances, take place as a secondary pursuit - making it an unreliable indicator of what goes on in the real world. And that picture has been further complicated by a hybrid theory about how best to use Twitter as a marketing tool. Some advertisers have been taken with the idea of actively soliciting feedback. And that process may contain elements of persuasion too - if, say, it involves promotions and offers as a reward for participation.

But there are ways of exploring fruitful dialogue with your audience. As Georgina Palma, a digital strategist at Publicis, puts it: "People using Twitter for informed opinion need to be reciprocal. You need to be following and followed by a good number of people. When you ask too many questions, you might find the level of responses decreasing until you start interacting and offering your help."

- Got a view? - E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com

CREATIVE HEAD - Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman, Ogilvy Group

"Twitter is a narrow universe, of course. But it can be a source of useful insights nonetheless.

"People's Tweets are made in real time and on location, and they are volunteered spontaneously and without inducement. This means they may be more behaviourally accurate as a guide to people's actual motivations than the more post-rationalised feelings people tend to attribute to themselves when quizzed in decontextualised research.

"Conceivably, too, it allows you to spot problems in real time and respond to them with enough speed to make a difference.

"You would be insane to bet the farm on Twitter as your sole form of customer understanding. But, equally, you would be mad to turn your back completely on any source of useable insight."

RESEARCH HEAD - Justin Gibbons, founding partner, Work Research

"I don't think Twitter is going to replace consumer research. Once you've discounted the vapid celeb-stalking that for many is its main attraction, the rest of Twitter is dominated by opinionated people with views that represent the ends of the spectrum, not the consensus.

"Listening to Twitter is like only listening to the one loudmouth in the focus group. Twitter is a stage and Tweeters are often acting out roles on it.

"Qualitative research has come a long way. We use the latest neuroscience and behavioural economics to create new ways of asking questions and getting meaningful responses.

"Nothing will beat talking to real people. Real-time, behavioural data is a great complement to that but, in that field, Google beats Twitter hands-down."

PLANNING HEAD - Tom Morton, chief strategy officer, Publicis UK

"Surveys and tracking studies convince marketers that people care about their brands by forcing questions and opinions on them.

"Twitter gives you a read on people's real-world concerns and their reaction to real-world events. People have, mercifully, stopped listing their daily routines and started sharing what's interesting and important to them.

"It's relevant for brands that are already in people's conversations, and a reminder to other brands that they'll need to do something interesting or connect themselves with something that people care about if they're going to maintain a presence in the world.

"It's an unprecedented database of opinion and interests, which we'd be stupid as an industry not to use, particularly as the majority of data gathering tools are free."

DIGITAL HEAD - David Newton, managing director, VCCP Digital

"Twitter currently falls foul of audience skew and the representative recruitment necessary for truly insightful customer research.

"It gives you a good insight into the vocal Tweeting community, but it is not yet a reliable tool for investigating specific audience sentiment for most brands. It also fails to give the depth of insight that well-recruited, in-depth, face-to-face discussion gives you.

"People Tweet for a reason - a bit of self-promotion and showing off, in the main. Consequentially, it's not much good for testing brand strategy hypotheses or ideas.

"Twitter isn't replacing the focus group - but, alongside other social networks, it is giving agencies, researchers and clients new tools to help understand opportunities between brands and consumers."

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