Is facebook a research platform? And if so, how could we use it?

Stating the obvious social
have changed communication among people as well as the communication between
brands and their users significantly. And
it is no secret that facebook is currently the largest social network (and according
to this infographic will probably remain No. 1).
In times where communication
channels change
to that extent, this should however challenge market research. Because
we are dependent on the communication between people to learn and explore with
our entire tool box of methods, what people think, feel, and how they might behave.
Actually, the
conditions for utilizing facebook for market research purposes are very good. Facebook
as an internet platform is easy and always accessible from anywhere at any
time. It reaches outs in a wide range of target audiences and markets. In most
markets the penetration of the regular user base hits high double-digit
percentages. And the typical question-answer logic is widespread among the

So the question
is why this utilization works so poorly and nearly only from the social media
monitoring perspective.
I have noticed a number of reasons for that. Here I
will focus on three of them.

1. Market research is used to standardization,
social networks are not to standardize
One of the main parameters of market research has
been the degree of standardization of their tools. The
lower the need for adjustment of solutions the higher is the value. This
golden rule is now tried to be adopted on social networks and therefore on facebook.
This is supposed to
be a deadlock, for two reasons.  
of all, because facebook is continuously changing and evolving, in certain
areas with unnoticed changes, it is absurd to create standardized page
templates. Requirements,
guidelines and other conditions for pages are also changing constantly.
facebook users show a communication behavior on the social network that can be
controlled only in very, very few cases
by someone in the role of a market
researcher. Discussion paths, topics and content areas on the sides are
specified, structured and extended by the users themselves,. This works well without a
2. The possibilities for the use of Facebook in the DIY market research
mode are relatively comprehensive (Poll / Questions) and therefore there is no
need for “real” market research 
Building “surveys” on facebook

Facebook is a
platform that’s added values are mainly recognized and exploited by marketing
departments. Mechanisms
of market research, such as short polls and One-Question Surveys have always
been popular within marketing departments to build relationship between brand
and users.
modules are no substitute for market research with users of brand’s fan-sites
on facebook . Many
marketers, however, prefer the use of marketing-oriented marketing research
methods on facebook. An
understanding of the needs for “real” facebook-market research is only
slightly developed.

3. Facebook is confused with community  
Though online
research communities are a growing field in innovative research methods, there
are clear differences between them and facebook. Facebook
or a brand page on Facebook is not per se a research research community.
brand and fan page on Facebook can provide very good services for brand
building and communication of brand content
. They
are very well suited to increase brand loyalty or brand engagement. But
it is very difficult to achieve, that the user of a page do not only talk with
the brand but talk with each other. Even
those brands, which manage to do this, have only limited success in turning
this conversation into real relationship
However, there
are ways to get quick and easy information about users of facebook brand page. If
you agree to the following methodological issues and assumptions, a survey on facebook
is very useful:

- The target population is defines as people who have connected to a brand page by
the “Like”-button. All
results are only valid for this group and generalizations for brand users,
potential, etc. should be treated with caution.  
- In order to control the response there is just the number of completed
interviews. Since the population of the users is unknown in its structure, the
set of participants with regard to their structure cannot be compared with anything. 

There are many use
cases for such a research

- qualification
of existing “fans” in order to learn more about their structure,
- evaluating
and optimizing the Facebook pages,
- recruitment
of research participants for studies outside of facebook, e.g. online research
- for sites
with high “fan-numbers” special surveys in target groups which are in
general very difficult to reach.

Germany’s leading facebook page dealing with books and reading,
we have developed a number of different facebook surveys in the past. 
our experience, above all you must ensure that the barriers for participation on
this surveys are as low as possible. It is true that establishing the look and
feel of the facebook environment is very important for users. But it is also
true, that the use of applications are barrier, at least because of privacy
reasons. Additionally, the use of apps on Facebook, as previously reported here, is below average.

In this research triangle
of DIY, Social Media and Community Research, new potential and opportunities
for market research occur. These issues are addressed at The Market Research Event in November 2011
in Orlando, Florida. It will be interesting, how our industry will talk about these
issues on that conference organized the IIR, USA.

About the author: Christian D??ssel is blogging about market research in German language here and here.
After having worked for TNS, TBWA and other strategy and market
research agencies he now holds the position of Senior Research Director
at MM-Eye in Hamburg / Germany with special responsibilities for MM-Eye’s new media and online research approaches.