Social Media Research: Interview with Joel Rubinson of ARF - Part I


With the rapid increase of digital conversations the importance of not only listening to consumer generated content (CGC) but the analysis of this new data set is finally taking its place at the marketing research table. However, the industry is still at the early stages of determining how social media research (my term), which is based on the raw talk of our customers, can be used as a credible decision making tool that complements traditional research methodologies.

The Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) is taking a leadership role helping the profession determine best practices. Joel Rubinson, Chief Research Officer - ARF, and I had an extensive email conversation about some of the issues facing the industry ranging from the validity and trust worthiness of the information and content creators to where and how "social media research" fits into a marketing research initiative. Joel's responses were insightful and our interview ran longer than anticipated so this will be part of 1 of a series that will post through the week. Part 2 Interview with Joel Rubinson

Sidebar: It's interesting to see how Joel's views and the perception of social media research differ in 2009 from the 2006 interview I had with Bill Neal, former chairman of the board of AMA.

Arf logol The Advertising Research Foundation
The principal mission of The ARF is to improve the practice of advertising, marketing and media research in pursuit of more effective marketing and advertising communications.  We are the only organization with a complete view of the media and marketing ecosystem as we have 400+ corporate members who represent each of the key stakeholder groups:  advertisers, media companies, media agencies, creative agencies, research organizations, and academics.

Joel rubinson Joel Rubinson
I have been the Chief Research Officer and head of analytics at a number of big research companies, head of the research practice at a leading marketing and innovation consultancy, and started at Unilever.  I have an MBA in statistics and economics from the University of Chicago.  At the ARF, as Chief Research officer, I constantly speak with industry leaders and try to assemble the pieces I hear into a cohesive set of industry trends and priorities.  This approach got us to our three top priorities of research transformation, 360 media and marketing, and reestablishing trust in online research panels.
Joel's Blog CRO-ing About Research @joelrubinson on Twitter.

Toby/Diva Marketing: Let’s take it from the top. Why do you think that "listening in on the raw voice of the customer" has merit?

Joel Rubinson: In a world where consumers are in control, where social media provides unprecedented velocity to the spread of messages like the reaction to the Motrin campaign, a marketer must commit to continuous learning. In turn, “learning” comes from hearing the unexpected. 

If we only rely on traditional research approaches where the researcher controls the dialogue, your vocabulary will always trail the market and you’ll be much slower to sense the next move of the market than organizations that continually listen and learn. Listening to naturally occurring conversations in what we call both the consumer backyard (social media, search, @comcastcares in Twitter) and the brand backyard (like Dell Idea Storm) is essential for the continuous learning organization.

Social media and search provide a continuous flow of undisturbed insights giving us a continually refreshed picture of marketing opportunities and threats.  Also, the picture is always on consumer terms not yours (the marketer).  If people want to talk about a product in terms of the solution or social factors, if they want to find substitutable purposes for things that never sit next to each other on the retail shelf, God bless them.  If activists start to trash your brand, like happened with Motrin, you need to be there immediately to sense, respond, and dialogue.

Toby/Diva Marketing: What do you say to those people who question the credibility of consumer generated information/data?

Joel Rubinson: Marketing decision making is inherently risky business.  80% of new products fail. 50% of ad campaigns provide no sales lift.  Marketers are in the business of making decisions based on hunches that come from what Bayesian statisticians would call “priors”.  Acid tests are, “Does listening to CGM add to better hunches, improve the priors…does it increase the probability of an “aha” moment vs. the use of traditional research methods alone?” 

Many cases are now documented in books, articles, presentations where it did…by Nielsen Online, by Charlene Li at our recent conference in San Francisco, by MTV and Schwab via managed online communities. Others will be presented at our annual conference at the end of March. Also, no one is suggesting that it is an “either/or” situation as listening should go on simultaneously with survey-based information.  Listening can help brand tracking be more agile where new vocabulary is injected much faster into the tracker based on what is learned from listening.  I’ve seen better brand equity analysis from TNS/Cymfony who integrate their brand equity tool with listening.

Toby/Diva Marketing: What do you say to people who question the credibility and the statistical reliability of the “sample/people” who produce content and comment on social media platforms such as blogs, social networks, Twitter, review sites, etc.?

Joel Rubinson: Purists challenge listening to social media on the basis that the statistics of sampling can’t really be applied, at least not yet. However, that is not the same thing as saying there is no statistical validity. For example, there is published evidence from regression modeling that measures of brand affinity or equity can be calculated from social media which, in turn, correlate with sales trends.  Personal experience with publicly available tools like Blogpulse indicates for me that CGM trends pass the sniff test. 

Recently, the NY Times created a great tool for analyzing tweets from the super-bowl.  It seemed more “true” than commentary by trade journal columnists and was closer to biometric results in terms of which super-bowl commercials really popped.  While we might not yet fully understand the science, the natural state of these comments often provides more honest feedback than respondents’ answers to questions in a survey if they aren’t worded quite right.  However, we must acknowledge that these are still early days for this new type of data and the science of how to analyze it in some valid way. 

Clearly, there are certain types of marketing situations where CGM is of less value as the target consumer might not be active in social media or where the product is so “low involvement” that there is not enough input coming through.  Back on a positive note, CGM can either be thought of as a flawed sample (glass half empty) or a census of something really important (glass half full); what people are saying about you online, sometimes in direct reaction to a viral marketing campaign you purposefully executed. If you believe that comments in social media by consumer activists are important, you really must monitor social media. 

While there is push-back from some quarters on analyzing social media, it is a combination of legitimate questions based on the state of the art mixed with risk-aversion and change anxiety. Those who tenaciously hold onto old methods without considering this new source of insights will lose relevance as marketers will just go directly to those who mine social media, customer care, etc.

The ARF is committed to experimentation and harvesting industry experience to fully examine its usefulness and those key business issues where it is proven to add value. Ultimately, we hope to provide roadmaps for research buyers as to how to best incorporate social media in their “data feed” strategy.

Toby/DivaMarketing: Given as you indicated that decision making is risky business are you saying that the data (which assumes the people producing the content are trusty worthy) from CGM is a credible source of information for marketers to base important strategic initiatives?

Joel Rubinson: While we still need to create the roadmap for using CGM as a source of insights, I am very optimistic that it will add value, so credible?  Yes, I think it will have credibility as providing useful information and being believable to senior management. If by “base” you mean, use in isolation, no, that isn’t the model we are proposing. 

We believe that there is such a thing as a research value chain where the center of gravity is shifting from the activity of data collection to synthesis.  CGM will be a slice…one input…that will always be triangulated with other approaches.


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Our customers are beginning to expect direct engagement with brands that go beyond interacting with the people behind the brands or playing games on social networks or solving customer service concerns. Our customers are assuming they can influence the direction of the brand through status updates, blog posts, comments, tweets, review sites .. and more.

Posted by: mosquito net on May 23, 2011 5:01:47 AM

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