Typically, we think of social media networks (e.g., Facebook and LinkedIn) as sites for creating new contacts, sharing ideas with current contacts and learning what people are doing , which is certainly the primary function many sites serve.
However, sites like Facebook and LinkedIn (and to varying degrees other networking sites) have developed enormous global audiences. The size alone with respect to membership has resulted in the creation of groups and user content on nearly every topic imaginable. Moreover, discussions within these groups touch on thousands and thousands of subjects.
This “user” generated content of sites like LinkedIn has launched them into new realms of use, which transcends networking. Market researchers have an opportunity to listen in on the marketplace dynamics and not just passive listening. The potential to conduct active listening (a.k.a. market research studies) is possible. In fact, it is already a reality, available to any professional or business owner willing to use this vast resource.
While employing skilled professionals may help you to extract and use information from network sites there are few basic methods you can use almost immediate. Here are three ways to access marketing information from LinkedIn:
1) Discussion Groups
Discussion groups offer a wealth of content. While you may rush to start your own discussions to capture content, you might find that the information you seek is already out there. Finding the group(s) and discussions with the content you are looking for can take some time but the cost is low when compared with launching focus groups or conducting one-on-one interviews.
If you find relevant content, much of the work has been done for you (assuming the topic generated a large number of comments). The trick is to synthesize the information and pull out important and relevant themes, trends, and other nuggets of wisdom.
Alternatively, you can start a discussion thread within a group. The advantage of this approach is you design the specific question(s) and topic(s) to explore. In addition, as the author of the discussion, you will have more latitude to guide the discussion, allowing you to simulate an asynchronous focus group.
LinkedIn has additional functionality such as “Answers” which allows a user to ask questions and receive answers from the LinkedIn membership (Go to the main menu click on More and select Answers). The person asking the question grades the answers and selects “best answers.” This is the motivation for taking time to participate.
However, you won’t have to ask a question to glean value from this function. You may find that another LinkedIn member, and in many cases more than one person, has already asked a question closely related to the question you want to ask. Now all you have to do is interpret the content. Which admittedly is the hard part, but the data are often sitting and waiting for your analytic expertise.
The Poll function offers a straightforward yet potentially powerful means for collecting data on an individual question. Used creatively, the Poll function can provide useful marketing information, albeit with a very limited scope, to a cleaver researcher. You can search the contents from past Polls or write and launch your own. Either way you can have the answers to questions you want with very little effort. The cost is low and if you have the means to develop a good sample (not a trivial concern), you can reap a good deal of market intelligence using LinkedIn Polls and other functions such as Answers either individually or in combination with one another.
These and other avenues for examining the marketplace, listening to target audiences, and conducting qualitative and quantitative market research are available to those who have the foresight to use them.
Carey Azzara is a marketing and research professional with 20 years experience and two advanced degrees. He has authored numerous publications including, Questionnaire Design for Business Research (2010, Tate Publishing)