Listening to Buzz: Threat or Opportunity

How are qualitative researchers going to incorporate passive listening when we have spent our lives being trained in active listening techniques?

The proliferation of social media, blogs and other user generated content has spawned a new form of research that aggregates millions of online discussions related to a brand or concept or anything else.  Marketers can track the “buzz” surrounding a brand on Facebook, blogs, Linked-in and other sites to hear what people are saying about a product or brand when they don’t think we are listening.  The comments are real and unfiltered. 

At the QRCA Symposium this week, Kristin Bush, Digital Research Senior Manager at P&G for Consumer and Market Knowledge, presented P&G’s strong emphasis on “listening” to the online buzz surrounding its brands and marketing.  She even defined “listening as observing and interpreting naturally ocurring behaviors.” She also promised that P&G will strive to create an ever-more systematic approach to “listening” and integrate “listening” activities into their marketing research plans. 


P&G believes the benefits are the unfiltered perspecive that such listening provides along with the speed with which such listening can be aggregated in online enviornments using automated processes.  In addition, keywords or concepts can be tracked over time to identify trends.

Though “listening” buzz can become quantitative because when the sheer conversaton volume of conversations are aggregated, as qualitative researchers we have to know how it fits into our quiver.  Because we have traditionally been the experts at “listening,” does it threaten our contribution or does it provide an opportunity for enhanced research?

Though there is much to unravel and understand about the place of “listening” in research, it seems clear that “listening” to internet buzz is an excellent source of information that will be used to drive research into the “whys” of observed statements or behavior.  We will understand what people are saying but we will need research to understand why they are saying it, what the implications are and how a marketer migh respond. 

It also seems that passive “listening” can be a terrific tool to gather a baseline of information prior to in-depth qualitative research that will make “active listening” qualitative research more targeted and lead to deeper and more accurate insights.  In this scenario, “listening” information will perform virtually the same function as pre-group homework to help us develop better discussion guides that dive deeper and more accurately.

On the surface, the “listening” technologies seem a bit threatening to traditional qualitative research.  On further reflection, they may serve to create new questions for qualiative research to answer and improve the effectiveness of traditional qualitative “active listening.” 

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