Over the last decade, researchers have started to make more and more use of the data that is freely available online: consumers’ thoughts and opinions on topics, including brands and ad campaigns, shared in social media and blogs. It’s often argued that the power of social media insight lies in the fact that opinions shared in media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs are unsolicited and authentic – things that consumer really want to say, rather than answers to questions they were asked.
However, social media data must also be considered in its context, and it’s important for social media researchers to be aware of trends in user behaviours in order to be able to assess what conversations taking place online really mean for brands. For this reason, we visited an event called ‘Click to Update’ at Google Campus, held as part of Internet Week Europe, to learn about the latest trends in social media usage which have emerged over the last 12 months.
One of the first trends discussed was the rise of ‘constrained media’; the increasing popularity of social media that limit the way in which you can express yourself or communicate online. Examples of the phenomenon include the increasing popularity of Twitter which only allows a specific number of characters (140) per post, or Instagram which only allows a 1:1 ratio on images and little text to accompany them. This means users are increasingly limited in their expressions by the platform they use; they can’t necessarily fit all they want to say in a post. Users could for example end up having to be more concise and ‘black and white’ than they’d like to be, not able to include all the different considerations and complexities that their opinions encompass.
Another way in which social media sharing is changing is that conversations are becoming more visual, with users sharing images instead of or in addition to text in their updates. There are also signs of this trend going a step further, with platforms such as Vine, which makes it easy for short videos to be shared online, becoming more mainstream. This development has a lot of potential for researchers, as it allows us to see visual representations of what a brand means to consumers, and how it is presented by them. For instance, Instagram images shared about the Jack Daniels brand http://statigr.am/tag/jackdaniels capture how the brand has become associated with the good times and nights out, and the cult status it has among its fans, in a more insightful way than words could express.
Changing device usage for social media access also has interesting implications for researchers. In December 2012, mobile access to Facebook surpassed access from desktops, as social media users were increasingly sharing their thoughts in real time via their smartphones. This means we can now get a glimpse into what people think ‘there and then’ through their social media updates, capturing ‘in the moment’ thoughts and feelings. UK is one of the world leaders in adopting this behaviour; in other countries, including the US, social media access through smartphones is still behind the UK.
Finally, there are some trends that might limit researchers’ access to data. Social media users are increasingly sharing their thoughts with smaller audiences due to privacy concerns; examples of this phenomenon include the rise of Path, a social networks which limits you to 150 friends, and Apple’s new iOS 7 which has put focus back on users’ phone contacts – the people that really matter and users are in regular contact with – as opposed to their wider social networks. In addition, posts and photos are becoming transient; consumers are choosing to share their thoughts and feelings in ways that dissipate, for instance via the app Snapchat which only allows the recipient to see the image they’ve been sent for 10 seconds, with nothing left for the sender or the receiver – or the researcher – to look at afterwards.
In addition to understanding trends in online behaviour, it’s important to keep in mind that there are also fundamental differences in the opinions and thoughts people share online compared to ‘real life’ conversations. For instance, recent research has shown that online and offline brand conversations are driven by different motivations: online conversations are more likely to be driven by social signalling and ‘showing off’, whereas offline conversation are motivated by emotional factors, and are likely to be more positive.
Whilst social media data is immensely valuable, it requires careful interpretation – as all research data does. There is a need for everyone working with social media data to truly understand online behaviours and their development, and be ‘digital anthropologists’ as well as researchers.