Is Facebook the future of market research?

Facebook could be about to shake up the market research industry, writes Ray Poynter, director at Virtual Surveys.

For years the term market research has meant specification, recruitment, interview, analysis and presentation, taking weeks to achieve, requiring the intermediation of research agencies. Online interviewing made the process quicker and cheaper, but has changed it little.

However, ccould all of this be changing? Facebook has attracted millions of ordinary people to social networking and claims to be offering new solutions to old problems.

For example, Facebook Polling is a new way to find out quick answers to simple questions. Users log in, type a simple question, specify a geographic location and a sample size, pay as little as $51 (for 100 interviews) and the results start flowing in.

These polls are clearly not going to replace U&A or ad-trackers, but they could spawn new ways of working. Traditionally, we have expected everything to be designed before the research begins, but often the basic assumptions were wrong. With Facebook Polling, the first step could be to spend $200-$300 asking a series of questions over a couple of days, refining the scope of the problem, and answering some queries on the way.

Purists are going to moan about representivity, sampling methodology and validity. But they forget how shaky their normal methods are. And, at these prices and at this speed, there is plenty of chance to explore the medium, to estimate offsets, and create benchmarks.

Beyond Polling, Facebook offers a number of other ways for brands to learn more about, and communicate with, their customers. One option is to create a community in Facebook, with links to conventional online surveys, hosted outside Facebook. This approach is being used, for example, by Skittles Bubble Gum, with a group of more than 5,000 Facebook members.

One of the most important steps, for any brand, is to listen to what customers are saying, and one great way to do that is via social networks such as Facebook. Recently, Cadbury did just that when 93 Facebook groups, with upwards of 14,000 members between them, petitioned for Wispa (a bar discontinued in 2003) to be relaunched. Cadbury have announced that the product will be relaunched in October 2007.

In a Web 2.0 world, brands have to learn "to cede control to customers", as AG Lafley, Procter & Gamble's CEO, said. Cadbury have shown this with Wispa, and Facebook users have learned they can make a difference.

Will Facebook change the way brands research their users overnight? No. Will Facebook be the platform that will eventually replace old-fashioned research? Probably not. In the 18th century, French inventor Cugnot built a steam powered car, it did not become the blueprint for the future, but it did show that the age of the horse-drawn carriage was coming to an end. Facebook is doing the same for old-fashioned research.

Online Virtual Surveys is a full service online market research agency, with clients including Alliance & Leicester, BBC, Sony, GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever, Britvic Soft Drinks, Argos and British Airways.

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