I participated in an Economist story published this week called "Listening to the Internet," penned by Ben King. Compared to another recent Economist story on blogs and corporate reputation, this week’s story focuses on the value of unaided online discussion for consumer insights:
For example, ConAgra, an American food giant known for its Butterball turkeys and Healthy Choice ready meals, tracks discussion groups to keep abreast of new diet trends, such as Atkins and organic food. “These discussion groups are very useful to determine whether a trend is really a trend, or just a fad,” says Nick Mysore, ConAgra’s director of strategy. “They also help you get a read on the marketplace quickly and cost effectively, and provide you with the ‘baseline hypothesis’ that you can test further, using conventional market-research techniques.”
A lot of marketing thought leadership and hype around social and consumer-generated media (including the critical listening component) has come from the PR industry, but I’m glad to see more discussion and news coverage focused on consumer insights — coming from the perspective of the brand marketer. PR people certainly grasp the world of social media, relationships with influencers, and uncontrolled/unpaid (or earned) media — arguably better than any other discipline right now. But PR people tend to approach social and consumer-generated media in a similar way as they do media relations (of course, in a more participatory and conversational context). Which means their role tends to be in the weeds, day-to-day and short-term. I’m not discrediting this approach or function; sleeves up and hands dirty is absolutely critical, to be sure. Without this on the-ground embracement, you’re toast.
But listening to and applying the bigger, long-term insights underlying discussion in social media is just as important, if not more. It’s about embracing the entire forest, not just a few trees on your periphery. Understanding which way the tide of opinion is flowing, or how psychological drivers are changing the predispositions of your brand or category, can have billion dollar consequences. Consider the food company that must make a $100 million dollar decision over which vegetable oil to commit to incorporating into its product line over the next year. As the ConAgra example demonstrates above, it is the consumer insights and early warnings that come from online buzz (often by early adopters) that can provide guidance on which ingredients, diet and nutrition trends are gold mines or mine fields. Wide-reaching measurements and exhaustive analysis of unaided discussion over long periods of time can help divulge the important, strategic marketing questions that the marketer never even thought to ask or pay attention to in the first place. Although there are some exceptions, this particular application of consumer-generated media is usually out of the purview of the PR discipline.
I hope to see more stories like this Economist column.