Friday, March 26, 2010

DIY Reports in Consumer Generated Media

I wrote a bit of a philosophical rant on why and how you could DIY CGM (social media/consumer generated medi) research and longditudinal analyses.

The key tool within this is to develop good enough search strings ( list of keywords in a boolean expression) and I will get back to a very simple, artithmentically based emprical method which will make you efficient in "cutting to the quick" of any topic or brand-tracker in CGM.

1) follow the path of least resistance: everyone has trodden there!

- If you get your search strings sorted in your preliminary build, then you will follow a route which all the sheep do, and therefore come upon the forums and bloggs which have the highest postings and the highest reads for your topic or brand.

Forums are for the moment, still the best source of consumer insight for many areas. Remember that google/yahoo etc only index about 15% of the web and probably less of total "live" content so far, heavily biased to some forums in some topic areas. This means you will follow the heard, but remember to go and look at the forum indexes once you identify which are the most ranked in google.

2) Once in the place, read the biggest threads:

subscribe to those which have not become off topic rants. Use the forum search functions, advanced if possible, on your topic of interest. ( go back to your snowballing query build - coming soon on a blogg from DF!)

3) Small can be beautifully ugly!

When looking for say, NPI problems, you want to do the opposite: find small threads or recent ones near a launch date for example, and then see if this has propagated out on bloggs, forums and twitter searches. If you see a smattering of discontent, then this can point to a failure in QA or just a bad product.

4) Follow the opinion leaders: the forum matadors.

Often you can find all posts by an author who seems to be an opinion leader, early adopter or influencer and follow your topic using this route. This is often valuable insight, and also you have a weigthing for importance based on them replying in threads.

5) Use "5 bar gate" counting on hits
for various opinions, co-mentions / brand comparisons and opinion polling: often called sentiment rating. Look for ratings for posts and any polls which appear in the area. Also make a note of "reads" on forums and bloggs. All these are useful stats and you are adding a quality filter which computers cant!

6) Too many results! ??

use an nth page technique: however, for a given date range or from the latest listings, read the first few pages to see if the same threads are getting multiple listings, or bloggs are getting extended replies. An nth page sampling strategy plus using quick hit counts onto a sticky note is just as good as a computer doing a census. For 100 pages, an every tenth page would be adequate, or every 5th if the results are often not in true CGM .

Use this also within huge threads- read the first few pages completely, then do every say 5th before moving up to every 10th until the latest 5 or first posted five (depending on rank order by date ascending/descending is default) thoroughly. Then you know the "currency" and "providence" of the thread and can rate it's value.

7) Linky?
Follow links to other forums and other CGMs from your top relevant forum postings. In this way you snowball out and can gain a picture of the prominence on the different SM platforms, and the interconnectivity- itself an interesting meta-metric to consider.

For example there may be a youtube video or a discussion on a related article on the BBC or CNN or so on, which means the prominence in "views" is really very high for a brand, product or topic.

8) Issue tracking:

now of course you can subscribe to a thread, but you can also do a bit of detective work: look back over time and follow external links. Expand your search strings to include.

9) Running statistics:

this is a little bit tediouos but can be done using repetitive searches on advanced SE forms over different date periods, or using five bar counts. Once again for very long results lists you can sample nth pages and get an idea of date-distribution.

A short cut is to know results per page / total pages and when you are in threads, the same for posts per page. It can be a little tedious to get to the last page for the count if there is no "skip to last" button.

10) summarise your stats and findings: priorities around the more prominent media spaces, BBC, CNN; the biggest forums while also pointing to those specialist forums which maybe have the highest QUALITY of insight - early adopters, beta testers, industry insiders, and innovators who are taking your product to bits. From your bar counts you can do a rough guide to opinion ratings for products and illustrate this with quotes and whole conversatipns. You may want to make a couple of case study threads on inlfuence by opinion leaders or on how prominent a single thread has actually been and how "linky" and " tweety" a page is. You also want to include the prominent blogs and the prominent Facebook groups, applications and fanclubs. From all this you could produce a very insightful report on a brand, an NPI issue or on a developing consumer need and this report would likely be of high quality compared to the big hit counter type products.

Show me the Money! Job offers in the Credit Crunch

...or the importance of getting a good deal before you accept the job offer

I haev ignored this three times in the last ten years and it is well worth your effort in NOT accepting a low offer despite your circumstances. Look the gift horse in the mouth! Make an informed decision and play some poker!

I cannot stress enough, I will not say too many times and I dare not shout too low that you must get what you need from a first (or second ) job before you accept the offer. Usually this boils down to money, and YOU MUST be happy with the balance between training, projects and salary, because that is all you are going to get while in the job.

Work experience per se is meanginless if you accept a "marketing assistant" job blindly or the nice tasks are only 10% of the time and maybe telesales, database admin, photocopying etc are 90% of the actual job. I wasted a crucial year in such a job! I managed to play catch up with a heck of a lot of hard work in my next job though. It is in fact much better to be paid virtually nothing on a 2 month work experience project where you actually conduct quality marketing tasks than the department GOFER for 12 months.

You need to avoid this by negotiating before you start. Negotiating is always a subtle play of information, and probing for a little bit more and then using it as a little bit more lever, while giving only a little bit out which gives a poorer lever to the other side. This is how you win, you subtlely win tip the balance in your favour while accepting some sort of concession compromise: a few prawns fall but you put them in check-mate.

But firstly, back to green-backs: Companies will palm you off with " we can't afford" or " we have current wage frameworks". This is rubbish, they want to screw you especially in a recession. " If you want people to work harder, pay them less" ...this is true in bum jobs or non graduate jobs......but how effective this stressed, undervalued work period is for both parties is quesitonable. The cost between a market going rate ( admittedly low -I know in the credit crunch hangover period) and a lower offer boils down to a few hundred pounds per month, maybe £70 quid per week for you as a graduate. Can't afford? they could save this by using a better travel agent for business flights, or missing one useless client dinner a month.

Facts are bosses like to screw you over and say they got you cheap, it makes them look good.

So what is on the table to get your information war going in your favour
1) salary
2) training
3) projects and defined responsibilities
4) relocation expenses
5) a 50 to 80% job so you get time to look for something better
6) promotion prospects and turn over in the firm/sector
7) external prospects when you have a year experience
8) the company brand name for your CV ( or client brand names !)
9) start date
7) legnth of trial period
8) Legnth or termination period
9) possible contract engagement only

How can you bargain? Well your only chip is to withdraw your offer of labour. If you are on benefits, this is high risk - you can get them stopped for refusing a job. But given the job is high risk and has financial implications ( expense of rented property). But it is still a poker game and you can't show your hand too soon

How do you bet this chip then, play this card?

Well first of all, you should from outset know what the "wage framework" would be for this position, and know that you as an MSc Marketer have five years of uni to offer and a very good marketing masters under you belt. This should NOT be turned back on to your expectation: some jobs have been 18K outside london for a while. Play dumb, say you have only started looking for work and have expectations to work hard and get on over money: what would they suggest as for me in this job? Don't push too hard, but do revisit the wage BEFORE you bother to go to final interview. Also don't go to employers who dont refund expenses and prefably choose those who book everything for you: if they do this, then put on a bloody good show as they will look after you as an employee!

Now when you get a disappointing offer in an interview, you need to not look too disappointed. It is more likely you will get this on the phone, same here , move quickly on from the money to the responsibilities. Now between this and the eventual decision you must buy time and get concrete DECISIONS not just information, but agreements on tasks, training and projects you will get. You need this in writing to refer to if y our job starts going down the pan soon in.

The important thing with a low offer and poorly defined work responsibilities is to stall in an assertive, positive looking way. Comms mus tbe very positive but not fully committed.

The pieces then come in the list come to play: low pay versus excellent experience or low pay because it is a crap job a graduate in medieval history could do. What tasks, repsonsibilities are up for grabs? Remember you have an MSc, they have not made their minds quite up, so help point them away from the photocopier and mail list towards the high valuie customer satisfaction survey, the social media PR campaign, monitoring competitors, the effective review of the marketing budget and so on....What training courses are internal, who will be your mentor, what courses do they offer externally, will they support your time and materials in doing the CIM courses?

The next thing is of course relocation expenses. These were , a while ago, tax deductable for employers but funnily enough NOT employee personal tax. Employers will put new senior managers up in penthouse suites with hired 4x4 executive wheels! But they will try it on with you as a new graduate in need of work experience. Don't let them if the salary stinks. If it just an average salary, negotiate even a lower salary for the first six months relocation on the back that they find you afirst a hotel and then pay rented accomodation. I have not done this on one notable occiasion and really got stung for the outlay when the job didn't work out ( they put a directors daughter in my job) As a graduate you will have enough debts.

So now you have the balance of information: if the job now sounds poorly paid, poorly trained, low level tasks without relocation, then you may as well ask for say 20k and tell the m you have an offer at that level: never tell them where ( esp recruitment consultants, they are desperate for leads and to close deals! )

Now given the pay is low, but there is relocation and training, you need to find out more about career prospects. Suggest a day's visit to meet the team and finalise the contract. This is a positive thing for the employer. Ask other employees how often people leave - is there a turn over- ask why the job is vacant from your prospective coworkers . Ask how your coworkers started out in the firm. Ask what they studied.

One thing too, what type of cars are in the car park? This is a very clear indication of salary prospects later. Audis, beamers, volvos, 4x4s good...., old fords and citroens very bad...a subsidised canteen is nothing much really as a benefit but a gymn, studio , pool? .

Now you have enough information to make a decision: take it only with more pay, reject it outright, ask for silly money as above or there is another option: shape something new based upon your own needs: a more focused project 3 days a week or for just three months on say expenses only as a work trial. Or a 60% position covering only relevant, higher value marketing tasks. Or they pay for your CIM proffessional development and two triaing courses of your choice within industry average cost of courses.

In negotiating you need to push them to the wire: stall as long as you possibly can if the wage is low: get as much information out of them while remaining positive, but non committal verbally amnd on paper. Then if you have managed say two weeks stalling for a job where there are lots of questiona and a final visit to meet the team, then you can pull your card out and say the offer is not attractive enough and thank you but no thanks

Then you can let them do the talking and you should not let them bully you, just repeat the pay is very low, you have a better offer, or you have interviews for better paid jobs.

If you have been looking for a job or working temp for a long time, up to 8 months say, and you feel forced into accepting a job, then a final end game is to stall and ask for a later starting date. Use the time and security of something to do anyway to look hard for other jobs. The fall-back and interview-offer experience will be good. When you get a better offer you will only have a months termination, which may be even before your start date or you can turn up to work with an offer, see what tasks and training you will actually get and then demand them or you will just call it all off.

Once again you could ask for a 60% position focusing on the real marketing tasks and thus avoiding being given rubbish to do. You could probably expand it to 100% if it goes well or at least have two days a week to look for other work.

Friday, March 19, 2010

DIY Consumer Generated Media Survey

DIY Market Research in Consumer Generated Media

At this instant, many universities around the world are spawning out small start ups and VC are raising eyebrows as angel captial invests in a new type of market research and intelligence firm.

The new enterprise opportunities are based on the sheer volume of CGM and the vogue for the big brands on the web in this area: Twitter, Facebook, Digg, and the latest brave new entry, google-buzz. Statistics, as I discussed below, are a little hard to use in reality and the cold world of market-movements and quantitative , conclusive, inferential and the numerically indicative is somewhat removed from CGM at the moment. What the meat-of-the-dinner is in fact, remains qualitative research with some utilisable methods for stat's which help describe the parameters and prominent qualities within voice-of-public or "Buzz" in social media.

Now from the arena I have seen, there is quite a smidgen of the "emperors new clothes" around in social media-monitoring. Take for example what is all dressed up and being used and no doubt abused: In areas like sentiment with some pretty flimsy algorythms out there, or little if any statistical significance to confirm the relative changes over time or differences between brands.

Also hit count statistics: for reasons of the prevalence and magnetism of the big sticky threads I discussed earlier, these can in fact populate a large amount of your hits in a topic, and if a topic has become google-rooted ( search engine ranks are high for that forum on the given free search in the topic area) then these get alot of noise about nothing other than one place to look. You see where I am going? If you want to open a kosha sandwich deli, then you will soon realise that most of the current world market is in new york.

It is actually pretty easy to follow the path " he who hath shall have a cup which over floweth, and he who hath not shall go without for ever" : the sticky sites and the sticky threads suck in a lot of the numbers and within this lies some of the really good qaulitative insight. You don't need large indexing or meta crawling tools to get the same qualitative result: but you do need sound judgement and the "corner pieces" of your social media space and range of consumer expression.

The opposite is also true: very small postings or postings which are very similar over a range of web forums and other social media, can point to a lead indicator or early problem alert after NPI. New users posting in a period after product launch are worth picking up: they are often the tip of the iceberg of customer dissatisfaction!

Until a few years ago, search engines did not want to index "live content" for various reasons best known to them selves! So any php , asp or cfm pages where ignored as perishable and not to be indexed. This had me stuck on a few forums we ran for clients a decade and more ag- Iit became a bit tedious because back then the big-thread magnet phenomenon, and ettiquette (discussed two blogs ago). However the corporate bosses were hanging on every word written down in awe and fear of libel suites or some tumultuous disclosure ( which did happen actually)

So your start point should be to follow the well trodden path like a wolf amongst the sheep who go google, and then like the idea of CGM forum rather than reading the corporatised blurb or sanitised PR bloggs. The doors to the crime scene are all open and there are hundreds of footprints.

So your tools are the search engines. Beware being all google centric: some may be more prominent nationally or within a specialist niche of global or national citizens ( academics always used Alta Vista and then moved over to FAST all the web for example). Now you add google buzz, google blogg search, twitter search, youtube, tweet deck etc and you start to have a powerful set of doorways to be able to set out and build a report like "attitudes the the bumble bee brand amongst international english speaking consumers in Social Media"

A few weeks ago, Google announced they would be indexing public content on FaceBook which will make both some opportunity , and a big stick to beat yourself with. As with analysing tweets, it can be a torturous route of reading conversations or following links to actually make sense of hit results.

It is a little difficult to get meaningful statistics in DIY SMMing but some clever use of search string arithmetic will help. More on this , making your google etc advanced or multiple searches efficient and exhuastive in a later blog.

You can meta-track launches, from rumour mill to unboxing and consumer adoption. You can track political issues, viral news story discussion...anything that affects several hundred thousand people in a western country, and you can bet it will be posted on, blogged, tweeted or have it's own fan or hate club on FB.

On some topics you will find a fairly concise set of mega-threads, a smattering of blogs and a pitter-patter of small threads and comments around the various social media nodes. Other topics you choose to research will be huge, sprawling and broad in both their appeal and the spectrum of opinion which is expressed.

Larger topics are usually worth sub categorising by sub topic, geography or forum-colour. Alternatively you can try to see the amenability of searches which find a type of segmentation based around a more qualitative factor: like consumer intention to purchase ; polars of sentiment ; brand or feature comparative posts and pages.

When you find page hits ( times 10 for post hits on average!) which run into the hundreds then it is worth using a very simple, well validated sampling methodology. First ensure that the page listings are exhaustive and you know the total number. Then take this and take it as every tenth page to counts of 100 or 500, and every 25th page for over 500 and so on. This will mean opening everything in "new tab". Most pages on forums will have 10 posts, but some may list the entire thread or hundreds. Then you can apply the same rule of thumb: every nth post: 5 for 100 would be a more quality result. The point of this discipline being that you sample from the whole distribution, (population of posts as species if you like) and you don't follow "interesting routes". In other words, you are forced to take a wide angled shot so you understand the landscape before you can decide which features are actually representative, prominent or meangingful in light of the whole spectrum.

From this approach you can do some surprisingly quick five-bar gate counts of keywords, brands or even sentiment. Many forums have sentiment ratings, and if you include comments and reviews on places like Amazon as CGM then you can start to do sample based sentiment ratings - which in fact can be pretty much as accurate as the latest AI driven ratings- if you have enough time.

All is not equal, as discussed in the sticky threads blog below. Some threads which are large or have topical subject lines, receive many more hits than others. Also some medias are more prominent and perhaps carry more status: like the BBC web forums and comments boxes. Forums with high SE rankings tend to have the most traffic. Retweet rate /total is another meta-metric .

From a knowlegde of prominent forums for a product type, brand, band, author, lifestyle or political view point you can then consider the sub set of consumers who are most interesting to follow up: the innovators, the early adopters, the opinion shapers, the self-appointed authorities, brand champions ( fan boys / fanboi's) ..brand terrorists....and follow their posting to gain a high level view of the discussion: see if indeed they are influencing people or if generally people make their own minds up and buy that pink coloured laptop anyway!

So you start to get a feel for how a report may be structured, using simple hit counts as a top level introduction and then results from your measurements within the samples. Finally you get into the qualitative observation with the prominence of the media and the activity of the opinion leaders, and the sentiment tallies from the different samples to give some kind of summative opinion poll for the topic. The conclusions you may draw should therefore be based upon prominent information, a knowledge of why it is prominent and what else lies in the spectrum, a handle on the polarity of sentiment expressed and the average point for consumers, be it neutral or not! When you make a conclusion which points to a useful management insight, then go back and check the prominence: check the hit coutns relative to other topics or shades or opinions etc, check your sample is exhaustive and re-check your search strings ( a little more on this latter below and then another blog , coming soon to a soggy-spot near you!)

There are plenty of kid on numbers you can put around these things. For computer scientist graduates, metacrawling or re-indexing can be a way forward to producing statistics based aroung the single post as the "Unit of selection". Different sampling strategies based on random and temporal dips can be useful when confronted with 50 million tweets per day!

For the very numerate amongst you as marketers, sociologists or computer scientists, you should be aware than CGM is in such large numbers that a topic such as a fairly common brand name or product, will have a "normal distribution" of opinion if you like, and this can be captured in a correspondingly 2 SD centric list of keywords: the first six search strings capture the first two or even three standard deviations .

There is a bell curve : x axis rating versus Y axis volume. The majority of opinion/keywords etc, will be within the first two standard deviations. When you do a nth sampling you really get to check that the bell curve is covered. If you do manage to plot data, sentiment or keywords, and you find that there are more peaks and troughs than one bell curve then you have either too small a sample size, a poorly defined opinion-keyword-etc scale, or in fact you are measuring two different things: either from two destinct populations with some degree of polarity to each other on your scale ( OOPS! you sample tory and labour forums ( republican / democrat) and not general political discussion!) .

When you know you have a nice bell curve then you can be very safe in using nth sampling or random statistical sampling and that your comparisons can be shown to be statistically significant: FOR THIS DESCRIPTIVE DATA SET. You cannot use this as inferential statistics, primarily because you cannot accurately capture social demographics in CGM and there fore you cannot make any extrapolations to the population as a whole.

If you combine an offline survey which identifies people's demographics in relation to their interaction with CGM, it can be possible to make some tentative inferences based on the knowledge that your large sampling base is composed of a cross section of society idenitfied in this CGM interaction survey . Even then you have to tread very carefully, statistically speaking, because your "Hits" are by a decided number of authors, some using several handles over forums, some using multiple identities to stimulate discussion on the same forums ! In other words your actual "n" for the study group is too small. Is the post more important than the author? Hmmm well people tend to be consistent and only change opinion after some degree of cognitive dissonance so really your "n" is authors and not posts.

Inference to the general population soon evapourates when as you get into small number of authors per posts, and some of my "sticky, syrupy threads" are very much dominated by a gang of less than 10 key proponents. But then again a knowledge of what cross section are reading those forums and the thread rankings on the SE's means you can start to make a judgemental call on the importance of an issue or the opinions around a topic.

Sociologists and psychologists are very taken up with not interfering with the subjects:not introducing experimental method source errors, researcher interference or interpreter bias. If it is purely observational, then just a simple permission disclaimer is all that interfere, or in focus groups, skilled moderators stimulate debate and keep it on topic while being allegedly carful not to introduce biases (observers are usually in other rooms and should not confer on their notes themselves! )

But in the area of CGM you can be a little more anarchic. Having identified and qualified your CGM sources as "prominent" then you can set out to interact a little by starting threads, or tweets, yourself. This is a purely qualitative approach, but it can help you gain insight in an area where you found many tangenital conversations, unclear opinion or forum leader-or fanboy -bullying ( shutting out opinions, topics , alternative products/ solutions etc) previously skewing the area you are researching. Tread a little carefully and pick those forums or social networks where you have established that "noobs" ( newbies...first time or low count posters) receive a positive welcome and a range of replies and are not shut out when they post sensible . This means you can pose a question within a subject which is tenable : this could indeed include concept building around latent demand and unmet needs.

I hope this has stimulated some ideas for just going out and doing some DIY research from your desktop. This approach deals not only with qualitative observations, but you may also pick up some qualitive ideas on what would work with a crawling-indexing system, or a new type of social media platform!


To show how long in the tooth I am, and just how jaded I am by the industry, market research is a be-whoared cinderella within marketing. Of course it should be the lead violin, the first on the dancefloor but instead it is the working girl who turns up in her best frock only to have a hand put up her skirt! They want her knickers off, just to get as quick as they can to what makes them happy: to drop the analogy, product managers have often made their own minds up about what makes a good campaign and where they are going and only want market research which will support that or their plan B. They have sales and national account managers to keep happy and they need to steal a bit of limelight by doing something unique.

This is true of research in social media, and it there is a danger for observer bias in generating keywords and search strings, and the in choosing themes or summarising the spectrum of opinion. Conversely, any-road-will-take-you-there-if-you-dont-know-where-you-are-going, so it is easy to follow seemingly prominent themes and paths of arguement which take you down blind alleys. Avoid the critical path approach, and keep it broad and objective.

In a later blog I will discuss how you create an objective set of search strings which are both exhaustive enough while being efficient in "containing" a topic, and as mentioned making sure you are within the first couple of standard deviations for a given distribution with the majority of your efforts.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why Monitor Social Media ?

Perhaps you are new to the world of social media monitoring at work, or are embarking on your studies at university in this area, and you are wondering just exactly "what is in it for me ?"

Maybe your background is in traditional marketing or perhaps you work in a technical or customer services function and have heard that this new area is indeed something worth looking into further . How can monitoring social media help you make decisions and deal with problems and opportunities?

Well it is of course e-Marketing and web masters are the most interested and are sitting glued to the analytics and consumer opinions. Of course it is not just for the geeks: communications and customer services who are aslo getting engaged with SM. The benefits reach wider and deeper into the organisation though. Everything from new-product-introduction & tracking, or competitor pricing, to issue containment is amenable in almost real time : the feedback loop from action-consumer reaction is drastically shorter.

Statistically Speaking

One burning question is how can information in SM be used to make conclusions about the wider consumer population? Well speaking mathematically, usually we cannot make inferences to the general population or produce actual statistics - yet.

The day may come in the near future though, when the numbers of consumers engaging in discussion will be so high that we can draw inferences to the wider population, such as intent-to-purchase or brand awareness, and put some hard numbers behind this with SM a quantitative source for extrapolation to consumer behaviour in the market as a whole.

Even then it will most likely be from a definable cross section of different geographical- or network-societies: age and education related. It would be dangerous to draw inferences on anything but the first three standard deviations from one of those sub populations who are engaged with the internet and SM. However we will be able to utilise statistical probability based sample methods within any accessable or stored data set to produce smaller data sets which are make analysis more efficient within given parameters of accuracy and inferential significance.

Social Media Monitor Should Be Qualitative

For the moment though, reporting is focuses rather on the valuable qualitative insights to be found, "straight from the horses mouth". These are the root causes of issues, the actual verbatim opinions, the dissatisfactions, the real point-of-touch customer experiences : I could go on! These help illustrate findings from a company's quantitative reports and data-sources, as well as pointing to new insights which uncover consumer opinion hidden or distorted by the very interactive nature of surveys, depth interviews or focus groups. Also they can uncover uncomfortable truths which are hidden by line managers, front line operators or re-sellers.

Everything is Relative

Despite the qualitative output of reporting, descriptive statistics can be used within the domain of social media to illustrate the relative prominence these qualitative observations This includes the relative prevalence (or you could say "share-of-voice" ) of brand names, consumer opinions and for instance problems with newly launched products.

In combination with ever-more-accurate sentiment algortyms running with AI (artificial intelligent) systems, this area of descriptive statistics will be used more and more to give a picture of the cross-section of society using SM to discuss your brands and customer support. The value will increase if it can be shown that the "listen-learn-decide-react" loop on the web connecting to SM, is functioning.

Then our little world of SM becomes a market in it's own right, and this is already happening with companies engaging in different campaigns and communications which are built around information from social-media-reportage. Some companies in future may only interact with consumers through this interface and connections form SM to their web-services.

Numbers and graphs are all very fine and nice to present and talk about, even with the provisio that this is a little and twisted version of the world at large. But even a very low number of "hits" within the latter, for example, can reveal invaluable insight into potential challenges in production lines or further back in the supply chain which are creating problems not detected earlier in the testing and launch programme.

Tracking New Product Introduction

This qualitative approach has been of particular value in tracking new devices launched on the market, which have a plethora of features and most likely diverse internal software. However, this is equally valuable in tracking a new service, or immaterial product from a financial institution or a mobile network operator. Or in defining an unmet need or latent demand out there in the market place.

Within the world of gadgets- consumer electronics like mobile phones, PDAs, laptops or digital cameras - it is in fact often the lead consumers who are the real experts: they can be tracked individually, from maybe a sample of 10, as they try and buy diverse gadgets and report their experiences on the web. Often they seem very informed on how the technical features, like processor, touch screen, GUI, actually deliver benefits in use and how much better this performance is to earlier products or competitors offerings.

In fact these lead consumers seem to have a more wholistic view of the product's perfromance than the head of R&D and most likely the CEO at the manufacturer! Worth listening to SM?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sticky, Syrupy Threads

Discussion forums continue to be the most useful social media space to gain consumer insight from, for now at least.

Within these forums you can follow consumer's problems, desires, experiences etc and see how discussions evolve around out clients products, services and brand values. One species of thread which has always very been prominent on forums is the mega-thread. Why are they so "sticky"?

These threads are way longer than average in number of posts. Some run to many thousand entries. It seems they break down into both serious, often heated discussion, diverse postings around a topic - like a new mobile telephone - , or pure trivia like jokes or chain stories.

One reason that they are sticky (ie attract users and keep them coming back) is that they often have prominent placings when forum threads are ranked in order of date on topic listings page, or on the more recent "hot topics" side bars on home pages and top level forum category indexes. It would be interesting to see statistically when such threads attract a critical mass, and how they develop from there. This could be a useful metric and watch alarm-trigger. Rate of growth, number of lead influencers, ranking: some algorythm could be made to work and fish them up to a dashboard panel of "Hot stuff"

Consumers coming to a forum see these mega-threads as the " tall oaks" amongst the grasslands of granular postings. By their stature, they demand respect and people will often come on board a product topic and post their " 2 cents" before they would consider creating a new thread, even if their "2 cents" is a little off topic or outside the current line of arguement. In this way they appeal to the conformist consumer.

These threads then, are not purely a result of some natural magnetic force , or social diffusion through the ethers of the internet. Most are nurtured, and some are not only fertilised with fresh content, but have their space cut clear for weeds, these being small competing threads. Users who can be identified as opinion -leaders, early adopters, expert-insiders or collectively lead influencers, will steer a thread they like and by carefully timed posting and replies to users comments, they will keep the thread up there in the top 5.

Lead influencers vary in how often they initiate threads, but they turn up like clockwork on the hot news threads or major theme threads relating to the forum's raison d'etre. They are in fact instrumental in coaxing the threads to gain critical mass.

Nurture also happens unfortunately perhaps, from forum owners and appointed "moderators". Some forum owners will post on new, related threads, stating rather rudely that the users should refer to the long running topic and "this is closed". They even delete competing threads apparently. Scornful lead influencers will also pounce on unsuspecting thread-starting-newbies, and stamp their forum authority by refering the user to an old worn arguement they should join the gang on the proper big thread, or just have used the "search" function to find the info' on old threads.

Some lead influencers like to demonstrate their boundless knowledge and articulate debating skills, while others can appear very helpful and down-to-earth, sometimes though outright patronising to those with lower post number seeking advice. In fact some lead influencers post almost exclusively in big threads and never start their own.

Usually as rule-of-thumb, one can consider those users with over 1000 posts as a start point to identify lead influencers within a topic of interest.

After this start point, you can delve further into their posts and behaviour, to assert if they are leading discussion and influening others to change opinion, be informed or of course buy something.

Mega-threads have another type of gravity: Often they attract a disproportionate number of "reads" to their actual post number, relative to smaller threads in the same forums. In effect they become the headline pages, or new-channels within the forums. People go there first, they grab attention for read-only "lurkers".

This read-count makes them even more important for companies to gain insight and summary of which direction the group of big threads on say, a product launch or a service problem are going.

One explanation for their disproportionate is their prominence on the forum as mentioned. But also these are the threads which the Google/Yahoo type spiders actually come upon and index. The threads live longer and are earlier on the index-crawl. They have bigger clusters of keywords and have by pure virtue of size, more links out and eventually IN to. Hence they are search engine friendly and score high on relevance and hits. In conjucntion with good web site SEO, the forums get quite high index listings on the SE's depending on the search terms. Also consumers set a bigger price on their own generated opinion! They would rather read 100 different user opinions than one PR story regurgitated, neigh, re-tweeted 100 times.

SE listings then helps the threads gain extra critical mass and keeps them "bumping" back with new posts even some time after they seem to have bruned out.

As we know though, yahoo and google only index an estimated 15% of the web, so it is pretty much hit or miss for actually finding these threads. Choose a good SM monitor company with either full indexing on main sector forums and general consumer forums, or those who can sample effectively from these for the big issues.