Listening To AND Asking The Customer

Despite being a staunch advocate of classical marketing research methodologies, I’m actually starting to buy into some of the “buzz du jour” about social media as a viable tool for measuring fan sentiment.

The older I get, the more I become convinced that the average person in our “sound byte society” has the attention span of a gnat. Worse, I fear that in making this assertion, I may be describing myself. I’ve traditionally been a bit of a cynic for the latest fads. My elders drilled it into me that you “stick with something that works.” Yet despite being the immediate past president of the Marketing Research Association (MRA) and a staunch advocate of classical marketing research methodologies, I’m actually starting to buy into some of the “buzz du jour” about social media as a viable tool for measuring fan sentiment.

Now, I don’t want to overstate my case, or fall prey to the somewhat sensationalistic spin on the topic that Ad Age took in its April 5 issue, where it was inferred that social media listening was going to replace traditional surveys. After all, there’s nothing new or trendy about listening to customers.

But, as one who always valued empirical proof over convenience samples and the old “mother-in-law research” approach, I’m encouraged by some incremental insights that we’ve recently uncovered by formalizing the process of “listening to social media buzz.”

From November until just recently, singular yet disparate topics seemed to dominate much of the conversation surrounding two of my favorite topics, golf and marketing research. To the former, it seemed like everyone that I ran across either had an opinion on Tiger Woods or wanted to know mine. In the research world, the chatter abuzz was all about the potential for social media to become a reliable qualitative barometer for people’s opinions and attitudes.

Our team decided to meld these topics together. Using some of the latest methodologies available to cull and analyze online conversations, we tracked the magnitude and tonality of Web conversation and opinion about Tiger Woods to see if it was consistent with our attitudinal survey research.

In our winter 2010 omnibus study, a national sample of nearly 1,000 avid golfers agreed that the rancor regarding the transgressions of golf’s greatest player would dissipate significantly by the summer months.

Further, this study suggested that for the most engaged and passionate fans, Tiger’s on course achievements far outweighed any personal shortcomings. Our subsequent analysis of online conversations tracked and analyzed Web postings across over 1,100 disparate and relevant Web sites from January 2009 through mid-March 2010.

As one might expect, the level and tonality of buzz regarding Tiger was at its peak immediately after his November accident. But this chatter quickly and precipitously dropped in the first month of the new year, spiking again, though at nowhere near the level of November, around his mid-February statement. By March, the level of online conversation was back to pre-“scandal” levels. Further assessment of the tonality of these conversations was on par with the conclusions that we drew from the traditional quantitative study.

While many, including myself, would argue that this “listening exercise” is not as representative as a well-designed, quantitative study, it did yield strong and relatively consistent directional insights that gave breadth to our earlier findings.

So, while I won’t go as far as Ad Age did in suggesting the imminent demise of traditional survey research, I will assert that this capability presents us with a valuable new tool to enhance our understanding of fan sentiment. At the risk of further propagating the sound byte society, I’d maintain that social media, in concert with formal research, is a conversation that sports marketers should be paying attention to.