Market Research and Social Media

The incredible popularity of Facebook and other social networking sites has given marketers something to think about. Is there a way to use the social networking model to conduct market research? Some very heavy hitters in the field think there is.

Starbucks Brews a New Blend
In 2008 Starbucks launched a website called MyStarbucksIdea.com. The stated purpose of the site was to solicit ideas from customers about what Starbucks might do differently. It has certainly done that. One customer wanted Starbucks to make ice cubes out of coffee so they wouldn’t dilute drinks when they melt. Others have requested more vegetarian food options, gluten-free pastries, and new coffee flavors, such as dark chocolate mocha. (Dark chocolate mocha turned out to be a winning idea. Starbucks started offering it soon after it was suggested.)

But the site has done more than just solicit ideas. It has created a virtual forum for people who like Starbucks. Once someone makes a suggestion, the topic is open for discussion. People share their opinions and their stories about Starbucks experiences. Then registered members vote on suggestions. A team of “Idea Partners” at Starbucks collects the most popular and most innovative ideas and presents them to key decision makers within the company.

Like Facebook, MyStarbucksIdea.com creates a kind of online community, a place where people with similar interests can connect with each other. The depth of community spirit shared by employees and customers can be surprising. One member posted a story about a barista who donated one of her kidneys to a regular customer!

On a more commercial level, the site can be a valuable tool for market research. The voting process is a kind of online survey. It gives Starbucks useful information about what its customers want and value. The idea behind the site actually came from another company known for its marketing innovations. In 2007 Dell launched a site called IdeaStorm.com to reinvigorate its business by learning more about what its customers were looking for. Like the Starbucks site, IdeaStorm.com uses a kind of social networking as a way of doing market research.
Starbucks and Dell obviously have the IT resources to manage this type of program, but smaller firms can create their own programs with help from consultants who specialize in online surveys.

Market Research and Online Communities

Starbucks and Dell use a “bigger is better” approach to social media marketing. Their sites are open to anyone who wants to join. Other companies are taking a very different approach. They are creating small, carefully defined online communities that function more like focus groups.

This type of online community is a group of people with common interests. Like other online communities, it features member profiles, discussion forums, online chat, and uploaded photos. Keeping the community small allows members to get to know each other and feel comfortable holding discussions online. Market researchers uses ideas generated by these discussions to create online surveys. BusinessWeek has an interesting article on Who uses social media?

Some nonprofit organizations have been experimenting with this type of community to learn more about the needs of the populations they serve. With help from consultants, the Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center created a community of patients to learn how people decide where to go for treatment. They discovered that most patients put more weight on recommendations from personal physicians than on the reputation of a treatment facility (http://nonprofit.about.com/b/2008/09/08/market-research-through-online-communities.htm).

Such smaller communities offer two advantages: they are easier to set up and they allow an organization to focus on a carefully selected group of customers or clients.

Whether the community is large or small, social media offers an exciting new approach to market research that is sure to keep growing.

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