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Rethinking Re:think

March 28, 2012

Random thoughts from this year’s ARF Re:think 2012

The Advertising Research Foundation’s annual Rethink conference just ended. As the biggest annual research event here in the north east I always enjoy catching up there with both new and old colleagues.

Buzzworthy Presentations

Two of Monday’s presentations seemed to catch a lot of attention (and offend some). One of these which attendees were still buzzing about yesterday was a presentation by Karen Nelson-Field of Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science. She challenged researchers on the importance and uniqueness of social media and asked whether the current investments really have been worthwhile.

Facebook Likes for instance certainly seem to have little correlation with engagement or increased sales, and even those among us who are more active on Facebook, even with the micro targeting possible, find it difficult to remember a compelling ad there. Few many of us return ever to a brand site.

Personally I think the problem lies not in the value of social media as a marketing tool, but more in how marketers are approaching it. More on this later.

The second source of buzz carried over from Monday was a panel entitled “Getting Ahead of Change” in which CEO’s of Nielsen, Millward Brown, GfK, Kantar, and Ipsos tried to dissuade the audience from the common belief that research innovation isn’t coming from them directly, but only from startups which later are bought up by the “big guys”.

While I’m obviously biased in this area having spent many years with some of the larger firms before starting Anderson Analytics (OdinText), most of those who attended seemed to continue to share my bias after the presentation. While the ‘big guys’ have traditionally had some advantage in scaling certain metrics, they certainly don’t seem too innovative and most of their acquisitions eventually just end up competing against each other ( It mainly serves to decrease margins and is more of a case of 1 + 1 = 1/2). I would also argue that with the rise of API’s and web data becoming equally available to all, this one benefit of scale will also become less of an advantage.

Digital Research and Tracking

I made a point to attend two consecutive Unilever case studies focused on digital research yesterday. The first was a collaboration between TNS’s Cymfony and Compete.com, and attempted to draw insights between what people say online and what they actually do. An interesting idea for sure, but I was rather disappointed that the data had been analyzed in isolation. The research would have been far more compelling had the data sets been linked, something that we’ve looked at in the recent past and I l know is already possible, privacy issues aide.

In the study TNS Cymfony had provided social media comment analysis, I’m assuming from the standard mix of primarily Twitter and Blog data. Compete had analyzed website traffic data. Unilever’s Bob Bowan commented that “engagement” (comments), “solutions” (sites where information was consumed), and “purchase” were occurring in completely separate online locations. The consolidation of which obviously represent a great opportunity for those who can do a better job creating credible and engaging content sites within their category. Unfortunately, as of today I rarely see this happening in practice.

At the GRIT party later that evening my friend Larry Friedman, CRO at TNS, said it well “Most are just focusing on the ‘Media’ component of ‘Social Media’, they are missing the ‘social’”. I do think brands can get there, but it will take some time to change the corporate mindset. Companies must be willing to yield more control to the customer for it to happen.

The second case study was presented by Pattii Wakeling of Unilever and John Burbank, CEO of Nielsen Online. I noticed Facebook was in attendance as well, and it’s nice to see that one social network is interested in at least the advertising related side of the market research industry (Google was also present).

Nielsen, through their relationship with Facebook, has been able to leverage users Facebook cookies allowing for a much broader level of tracking ever previously possible. This is exciting as it allows for research far more representative than traditional panel related methodologies.

By leveraging other options available today I believe it’s possible to get similar insights beyond facebook, but doing it via facebook is obviously an attractive option for Nielsen as the privacy concerns are then in facebook’s court.

Discussing the issue later with Mark Michelson of the newly formed Mobile Marketing Research Association (MMRA), we both agreed that the old research privacy standards that most of us have followed for years are becoming less and less relevant. If consumers know we are tracking them online, then whether or not our clients get user level survey information also becomes less important.

Scope of Social Listening

A lighter presentation I attended was one by Netbase in which they had looked for online comments using search topic criteria of comments containing “I like/need…” in social media, and had then compared men vs. women. In regard to food/snack mentions for instance they had found that the most popular comment by women was “chocolate” while men were most likely to mention “bacon”.

These social listening results were compared to short open end comments from a survey that seemed to find relatively similar answers. Both genders for instance were likely to say “money”, and women were more likely to say “a nice house”. These were extremely similar to data we’ve seen in our own annual research among college students where we conduct an icebreaking exercise to encourage fast top-of-mind unstructured responses.

Audience comments afterwards were rather interesting. One researcher commented “these seem to be such as basic level of needs. Is the discussion really all driven by brands online? There seems to be very little thinking… Did you just look at Twitter or also blogs with deeper thinking?”

I think this is a common issue and reflective of the problem inherent with casting a wide net in social media listening rather than more carefully scoping out a research problem and identifying specific sites for a deeper dive. The latter which I have always found more actionable for clients.

The problem lies in the fact that most social media listening data constitute RSS data from just a few large sources such as Twitter and Wordpress. If a client knows of a specific site of interest where an important customer group is active it usually requires custom scraping and text analysis.

Subsequent discussion on the topic focused on the value of visceral answers in both social media and survey research. I think everything has its place, but in my opinion the main lesson as usual is that the more specific we get in study design, whether survey or social media, the more actionable the insights will be.

As seen here: http://www.tomhcanderson.com/2012/03/28/rethinking-rethink/

 

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