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Does Social Media Buzz Paint an Accurate Picture of Consumer Opinion?

I personally am quite interested in the topic of connecting with users and customers through social media. It sure beats traditional methods of researching customer bases, such as surveys and interviews, although there can be some privacy concerns as to how much information is able to be shared and researched. I’ve noticed a few articles online recently that discuss the privacy concerns both Facebook and Google are facing these days as they stockpile user data and make it easier to share all that data between services and sites online. I even talked to one friend who was vehemently against joining any social networking groups as, in his words, “Companies can search those sites like Facebook and Twitter and use that stuff against you. If they see something they don’t like, you could get fired, or not hired.” However, if user data is used carefully and not sold to companies, then researching customer buzz through social media can greatly benefit a company.

Of course, that’s not to say that surveys and interviews are no longer of any value. I think that they can still be just as important, if not more so, in getting an accurate sample of the population of users as a whole. I’ve noticed in Korea, that often times the only buzz circulating about English schools is bad buzz. When someone gets hurt by a company, they are often more vocal about the bad experience than someone who has a good experience. More blogs are written as complaints about certain products or services than as praise. Social networking, interactivity among users, and the word-of-mouth spread of experiences also have some other interesting effects. By writing a negative comment or blog on Twitter or Facebook, a user is inviting other people to jump on the bandwagon and chip in their two cents on the issue as well. Additionally, negative postings can lead to grudges against certain brands or companies. Though some users may defend their brands during these times, the fact remains, as a peer of mine wrote, “that company reputations are made and broken through that communication vehicle.”

Janet Fouts paints a picture of this social media backlash in the “Motrin Moms’ incident” in chapter one of her book. Johnson & Johnson delivered an online ad that offended some “Mommy Bloggers” and within 3-4 hours of the posting, “backlash videos had cropped up all over.” The company took down the video, and the whole website for a while, quickly issued an apology, and “learned a valuable lesson: Even if you’re not actively reaching out to your users in social media, you’d better be listening so you can put out the fire while it’s small…If a storm blows up, be ready to act quickly and empower your staff to respond in a friendly and informal manner directly to the source of the issue in minutes, not days.” (Fouts, 2009, p 11-13). On the other hand, Fouts also points out that Bank of America’s Twitter service @BofA_help has helped a number of customers with their problems within 24 hours of complaining about issues on Twitter. (Fouts, 2009, p 33).

With all that being said, I do still think that social media can be a great angle to research customer opinions about companies and brands, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear more complaints than compliments. A few vocal negative bloggers can – under the right circumstances – have a greater impact on a company than even thousands of satisfied customers. And I know that for myself, I’ll sooner complain about a single instance of bad service than I will thank a company for years of consistently good service. Therefore, I also still think that surveys and interviews should be included in any form of gathering research, in order to get a better overall picture of the research target.

What about you?

What do you think about companies reaching out to users through social media? Do you think this is an effective avenue of communication between companies and customers? Or do you think that more is still needed in order to get a true idea of what is happening within a company’s customer base?

Fouts, Janet. (2009). Social Media Success! Silicon Valley: HappyAbout.

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