ARF: Consumer Opinions Online Still Seen as Curse, Not Gift

Marketers Still Rely on Survey Research Despite Free Discourse on Web

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- "Listening" ostensibly has become the rage in consumer research, but the Advertising Research Foundation is finding that many marketers view what would seem one of the digital age's biggest gifts to marketers -- the torrent of unsolicited consumer opinion -- as more of an added expense item than a blessing.

The ARF, looking to give the nascent science of passively tracking word-of-mouth and behavioral cues a boost, has put together a new book, "Foundations of Listening," that encapsulates the state of the art of listening and recounts its strongest case studies. But it finds that tuning in to the millions of people freely sharing their experience with brands in ways that are relatively easy to track isn't anywhere near ready to replace the old system of "asking," i.e. survey research that serves as lubricant or "decision support" for marketing processes throughout the more analytical reaches of the marketing world.

Steve Rappaport, ARF knowledge solutions director and author of "Foundations," believes a continuous "listening" program is vital for modern marketers. Marketers such as Domino's Pizza (booger-gate), Johnson & Johnson (Motrin-gate) or Yum Brands (KFC's Oprah-gate) have learned that the hard way.

But he said that while marketers need to spend more on the emerging science of buzz tracking though one or more of a growing host of new-age research firms, they can't really get away with spending less on their old survey research yet. As a result, research departments are seeking funds for new "listening" tools while trying not to sacrifice existing survey spending. To solve the problem, he suggests spreading the wealth, or perhaps the pain.

Realistically, buzz tracking has value as a performance-monitoring or early-warning system for a wide variety of corporate departments, including marketing, market research, product development, quality control and public relations and even legal. Just as departmental ownership of buzz tracking and social media has become diffuse, so too should budgets to pay for it, he said.

Ocean of opinion
The irony, of course, is that while survey research (thanks, in part, to voicemail and cellphone-only households), has faced an increasingly difficult time finding and persuading people to take surveys, there's more unsolicited opinion out there than ever as consumers spread their views through Facebook, Twitter, online review boards and other outlets.

Oddly, marketers seem to be seeing this outpouring more as a curse than a gift, ARF President Bob Barocci notes in the book's foreword, citing discussions at a November "Listening Workshop."

"Listening is exploding, right?" he writes. "Wrong. The disturbing thing to me was that all but a handful of speakers seemed to be preoccupied with the obstacles to effective listening -- no budget, nobody in charge, where is the statistical rigor, is it project-able, tough organizational issues, hard to sell internally, ROI tough to determine, legal has major issues.

"Listening is scary. ... It's a big change from our traditional way of thinking. So, the single biggest opportunity in the history of consumer marketing lays dormant. The singular opportunity to tap into the brain of today's newly empowered consumer in such a natural way that what we hear is the purest 'research' ever is buried in nay-saying."

Little correlation
The trouble, and the reason new-age listening technologies won't be replacing survey research anytime soon, is that some researchers believe the correlations between online listening and survey research aren't always neat. Perhaps the best illustration of that came in a response to a question at an ARF media-research forum last June in which Ed Keller, author of the book "The Influentials" and principal of the research firm Keller Fay Group, outlined how little correlation there often is between online buzz -- which can be readily tracked via listening -- with offline buzz, which generally requires some form of survey research to track.

Offline discussion makes up around 90% of word-of-mouth for brands, Mr. Keller said. And in a recent study of the 100 brands most talked about online, only two of the top 10 were most talked about offline. Only about 25 of the top 50 most-talked-about online were most-talked-about offline.

In about a third of cases, offline- and online-buzz volume correlates strongly for a brand, he said. In another third, online and offline buzz have a negative correlation. In another third, there's no clear relationship. In other words, on average, there's little correlation between online and offline buzz.

Of course, the other problem is that all kinds of research can be wrong, including survey research. ARF Chief Research Officer Joel Rubinson said that even when survey research is methodologically sound, it can be wrong, either because people don't really know what they'll do when decision time comes or because circumstances change.

That makes listening tools, such as tracking search, increasingly important, he said. "Tracking search is part of what we mean by listening," he said. "We had an economist from Google in November talk about predicting the present, and showing how what people are searching for can predict everything from the flu to auto sales, down to the individual brand."

How some companies are listening

  • Showing that listening can be done, at least symbolically, relatively inexpensively, Procter & Gamble Co. has installed flat-panel monitors tracking real-time Twitter Search feeds regarding brands in the lobbies of brand-marketing floors at its Cincinnati headquarters.
  • BMW's Mini retained listening vendor MotiveQuest to mine online conversation data and found Mini owners "view their cars as a blank canvas onto which they could project their personality," according to the book. The firm then worked with agency Butler, Stern Shine & Partners to develop a campaign that included specialized mailings and personalized messages to drivers via digital billboards based on digital identification chips in their cars. MotiveQuest then used its "Online Promoter Score" methodology to track how many people recommended the brand to others online and found that the score could predict sales impact one month out.
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