With social media usage continually rising and covering a wider range of people, it is a market research tool that marketers cannot ignore. Facebook alone grew 16% year-over-year and now has more than 2 billion users. Social media provides the capability for brands to access millions of consumers and obtain feedback regarding products and services in many industries instantly; this can enhance traditional research (quarterly surveys, focus groups, “voice of the consumer” research, etc.) with large-scale audience analysis.

Here are a few benefits and drawbacks of using social media as a market research tool and how to best leverage this type of data.

Analyzing social media can be fast and free!

Many social platforms have analytical tools built-in (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Google, and Instagram) to provide data on your brand’s activity. There are even free tools to analyze social media stats across multiple social platforms such as BufferCyfe, and PeakFeed. For more exploratory research to listen to the consumer for free, try Google Alert, Addict-O-Matic, and Social Mention; they have the capability of keyword searches across select platforms, forums, and blogs. At a price, you can get more advanced capabilities, such as greater number of platforms and target by segments, using tools like TalkwalkerKeyholeBrandwatch and Little Bird. Social listening will allow you to analyze consumer behavior and identify consumers’ issues.

Social media provides consumer opinions that are honest, organic and unbiased.

Social media is a natural habitat for consumer-generated, naturally occurring public statements because people post what they feel and think. Consumers talk freely about their interests without the constraints of specifically answering a moderator/interviewer/survey question and they are less inclined to social-appeal bias and mistaken recall. However, the anonymous nature of the online environment may encourage extremes of opinion to spark a reaction among others or said just for fun. These types of statements, which have no relevance to the individual’s true feelings, can skew the data.

Advanced, precise targeting of various groups of people on social media.

Advanced targeting is accessible on several social platforms, although, platforms target people differently. On Facebook, you can target people based on interests, behaviors, jobs, income and more based on their activities online. On Twitter, you can target people who follow certain brands. On Pinterest, you can target people who search for different keywords.

Social media research is great for brand monitoring, product improvements, competitive analysis and A/B split testing. With a bit more analysis, social media is also good for early exploration of consumer needs/issues and understanding consumer sentiment. To determine consumer sentiment, these tools have algorithms that identify certain words as positive, neutral and negative. For accuracy of consumer sentiment, the data needs to be reviewed by an analyst to pick up on sarcasm, content and nuances.

Another caveat of social media research is not all social sites provide the demographic and behavioral data of the consumer like Facebook does. This information is difficult to uncover accurately through social media sites like Twitter. The inability to find specific information about the consumers you are studying can raise issues of the representativeness of the data. Market research has always depended on the statistical sample representative, something social media cannot easily provide today.

Bottom-line: Should you use Social Media as a Market Research Tool?

Taking the pros and cons into account, social media research is best used as part of a mixed research approach. Social media research is evolving, but cannot stand on its own just yet. Social media is fast, cheap and has the raw voice of the consumer on a quantitative scale, but the data is unstructured, imperfect and certain types of information are difficult to identify. It is also difficult to ask further probing questions if the researcher was not in the initial conversation.  Social media can complement traditional research at every stage of the product lifecycle.  In this way, the insights picked up on social media can then be explored further via in-person or online qualitative groups.

Increasingly, marketers and market researchers are realizing social mediaresearch is an effective tool to complement their traditional market research methods.