Ain’t Been Droppin’ No Eaves

In the movie The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf tells Frodo that he is in grave danger. A moment later they hear a sound outside the window and fear what might be awaiting them. It turns out only to be Frodo's gardener, Sam. "Confound it all, Samwise Gamgee," Gandalf sputters. "Have you been eavesdropping?"

"I ain't been droppin' no eaves, sir," Sam says. "Honest."

With today's social Web, your brand might be in grave danger. And your natural impulse will be to listen to what's being said about you on blogs, Facebook and Twitter — some of the most common sites showing up in your customers' browser window. After all, the Web has evolved from a library to a store to a social sphere. As it has expanded its reach into consumers' and business professionals' lives, it has become a rich source of qualitative information. Social media market research (blog mining and Web scraping) lets businesses hear the Voice of the Customer in powerful and inexpensive new ways.

Do you need to take care to not be caught eavesdropping, as Sam was? Or should you boldly declare your presence and listen intently?

To find out, I first decided to eavesdrop on market researchers' conversations about social media research. I checked out what they were saying on blogs, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The field is so new that the recommendations were contradictory:

  • Seek/don't seek permission to share consumer comments in your research.
  • Cite/obscure identities of commenters.
  • Engage/don't engage with commenters.
  • Respect/ignore perceptions of privacy.

Annie Pettit, the chief research officer of Conversition, a marketing research firm specializing in social data, recently blogged about this process. "In the course of carrying out social media research," she wrote, "someone takes the step of replying to someone whose data just happens to appear in the research data set. The person didn't ask to participate and they didn't respond to a question. For me, this is in direct violation of the Prime Directive. Sure, the Internet is open. Sure, the links and names are readily available to everyone. But that doesn't make it right. People need to be able to express their honest opinions without worrying that some big company is going to try to change their opinions."

In the end, consumers aren't talking about social media market research, so eavesdropping didn't really tell me anything. Instead, I had to ask them directly. To find out what consumers expected, I surveyed a convenience sample of 400 United States–based members of an online panel (the results may not be projectable to the entire U.S.).

As a researcher, social media "scraping" is just secondary research to me. My hunch was that consumers recognized that public comments on the Internet were public and could be used in all manner of ways. Quite the opposite. In fact, 85 percent of consumers surveyed want you to ask their permission before you pass along their comments in research reports.

They want you to ask permission, but they certainly don't want you to use their real name: only 7 percent said that was acceptable. Most would either prefer that you not identify them at all, or that you describe them in terms of their demographics (e.g., age, gender, location).

The majority of consumers surveyed thought that it was acceptable to be contacted about their comment. But that acceptance was conditional on who was contacting them and on where their comment was made. It is most acceptable to be contacted by the organization they were commenting on (56 percent of respondents) — great news for internal researchers seeking to better understand perceptions of their products and services. It was least acceptable to be contacted by independent market researchers (only 15 percent of respondents) — horrible news if you are conducting research into new markets.

Consumers also aren't keen on hearing from competitors to the firm they commented on (17 percent of respondents). Respondents were most willing to be contacted on ecommerce sites, Twitter and their blog (32 percent of each respondent group that used such sites). Respondents were much less willing to be contacted on social networking sites (19 percent for Facebook, 21 percent for LinkedIn and MySpace).

The lesson here? Tread carefully. Certainly, no one will have cause to complain if you read their comments, categorize them and report the counts of those categories to your management: so many like this widget, so many like that gizmo. But social media is supposed to be about engagement. Some consumers want you to respond, some don't. And those who do want you to respond are more likely to want to hear from your customer service staff than from your market research department. And your competitors' customers certainly don't want to hear from you, no matter how bad a day they're having.

So if you are a market researcher, loiter outside the window, listening in as quietly as you can. Otherwise consumers, like Gandalf, might wish to turn you "into something unnatural".


About the Author

Jeffrey Henning (jhenning@vovici.com) is founder and vice president of strategy at Vovici, a provider of enterprise feedback management products and voice-of-the-customer solutions. He began his career at BIS Strategic Decisions (now part of Forrester Research) managing survey-research projects for high-tech leaders of the Fortune 1000. Formerly a columnist with Computerworld  magazine and the author of the e-book Survey Software Success, he blogs regularly about customer experience issues at http://blog.vovici.com/.


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For the rest of the June 2010 issue of CRM magazine — our second annual Social Media Issue, this year focused on communities — please click here.

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