Social media research is chock full of leading questions

by David Spark on June 29, 2009

Jeremiah Owyang, Forrester

Jeremiah Owyang, Forrester

“We did research and asked consumers who they trust. 90% [of the people responded] said ‘people like them.’ Under 10% [of the people responded] trusted corporate blogs,” said Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester, as reported by Louis Gray at the San Francisco American Marketing Association (SFAMA) event last week, “How Tech Bloggers are Leading the Marketing 2.0 Revolution.”

Owyang is an industry friend and respected social media analyst, but I find this result to be obvious, yet at the same time misleading to the entire story of what corporations can do in the social media sphere. The question of “Do you trust corporate blogs?” is a leading question. Of course we know how people are going to answer it.

I attended the SFAMA event last Thursday and because I got distracted, I didn’t get a chance to question Jeremiah further. If I had, I know I would get a more in depth story, since consulting about social media for large corporations is what Owyang does for a living. The problem is when someone of his stature uses his well respected research outlet to make public statements such as, “Only ten percent of people trust corporate blogs” it resonates as if there’s no hope for corporations in social media and they simply should give up.

What were the questions Forrester asked that yielded those results? If all you do is simply ask a question, “Do you trust your friends’ blogs or corporate blogs more?” of course you’re going to get people saying they trust their friends over corporations. Even if Forrester split that question into two questions, it still would be lopsided.

What I’ve learned from all the social media events I’ve attended and research I’ve read is that social media research is chock full of leading questions. I’m sure that Forrester asked more involved questions, but unfortunately “corporate blogs are not trusted” is the result that’s being quoted. What researchers need to do is spend more time questioning the reader to see if there is any preconceptions, confusion, or conflicting stories. That’s where the real stories in social media research lie.

For example, sure, go ahead and ask that leading question, “Do you trust corporate blogging?” But then dig deeper and see if there are inconsistencies. Start asking the respondents the following questions:

(Continue asking if they read or follow any other well known corporate brands in the social media sphere)

  • Can you remember anything you read? Have you ever commented, retweeted, or responded to anything they’ve said?

You’ll be surprised that the same people who fell in the camp of “not trusting corporate brands” are also huge fans of well known and trusted corporate brands such as Southwest Airlines and Zappos. If you read, respond, and have a personal connection with a blog or Twitter account, you know there’s a person behind it. In those cases, do those respondents who track Southwest and Zappos even consider them as corporate brands?

What I would have liked to hear Owyang say, “Yes, we got people saying they hated corporate brands, but when we dug deeper, we discovered that they loved corporate brands that had a strong social media presence.” The problem is there’s a preconceived notion when people are asked, “Do you trust corporate blogs?” Please note that I am making this up and it’s only my prediction, but I’m sure there’s plenty of truth to it and I invite Owyang and anybody else who researches social media to agree or refute my estimates.

IDC’s misleading research about online advertising

A year ago I attended another social media conference, the SWAT Summit in San Francisco, and a woman from the research outlet IDC conducted an analysis of consumer social media use and attitudes towards targeted online advertising on social networking services (SNS). In the study, IDC asked people the question, “Do you want services tracking your online behavior and information so as to serve you more targeted advertisements?” Once again, as you might imagine, the overwhelming response was no. At the same time, they also asked people if they use Web 2.0 services such as Facebook, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, and Gmail which all track user behavior to serve up more targeted advertising. Do people even know that? Would they stop using them if they knew that? Did they even connect the question they were being asked to the way those tools behave?

Here’s what I was amazed by. The IDC researcher didn’t cross reference those responses. There’s obviously a huge discrepancy between what people say they want and what they actually use when it comes to Web 2.0 services. At the time, the IDC presenter said that since she had the information, all she needed to do was cross reference the results and she’ll get her answer. She said she would send those results to me. Guess what? It’s been one year and there’s no information. I’ll send her a reminder.

BTW, as a side note. In every single case where I’ve asked the question of “Do you have this information?” I often get the response, “Not right now, but I’ll send it to you.” In all the years that I’ve asked that question, no one has ever followed up, ever. I think they think if I’m really interested I’ll follow up with them and hound them.

Research companies need to tell the stories of discrepancies

The cross referencing of IDC’s research, between what people say they want and what they actually use is the story they should have uncovered. And that’s exactly what research companies such as IDC and Forrester need to do. Go ahead and ask the obvious questions, but show where people are confused about the tools they’re using. Don’t let them get away with an answer such as “security is really important to me” without discovering how often they change their passwords.

Ultimately though IDC’s data didn’t go deep enough and I need to learn more about the Forrester study.

My question out to all of you reading this is, do you take social media research results at face value or do you question them? Do you question the research methodologies? Do you simply never question the studies because you implicitly trust the research outfit? I mean, geez, it’s Forrester, it’s IDC, they’ve got to know more about research than I do, right?

No, not always. Because they’re not going for the stories that the research can reveal. It’s your job to push them and to constantly ask the questions. There’s always a story to be told.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Esteban Kolsky June 29, 2009 at 7:45 am

excellent post.

i almost did not read it, since i don’t trust personal blogs — just corporate blogs :) (just kidding)

this is one of the things that irks me the most about “research” how the questions are “leading” to specific outcomes they want to prove, and they don’t share sufficient information for a reader to make an informed decision on the accuracy of the research.

even with a background as a research analyst (i was with Gartner for some time), i still think that there is lots to be done so analysts and researchers understand that they cause more damage than good by generating headline-grabbing research that has been developed to accommodate their hypothesis.

very well said.

Puja Madan June 29, 2009 at 11:01 am

Thanks for bringing out the “other side” of the story David. In our bit sized style of communication, a shocking statistic like “Only 10% trust corporate blogs” is bound to float around quickly. Unfortunately this doesn’t auger well for a space that is still evolving and where resources of research information are few.
I enjoyed this post and will subscribe to your blog.

Jasper Blake June 29, 2009 at 11:18 am

It reminds me of this classic on how asking questions in a certain way will give you an entirely different result – from BBC’s wonderful ‘Yes Prime Minister’ –

Jeremiah Owyang June 29, 2009 at 11:38 am

Thanks David, Esteban

How do you know we asked leading questions? Commenting about our research without even having read the report is a bit odd.

Here’s more information from the blog posts by the analyst Bernoff. We’ve done a few reports on trust –this is just one.

Here’s the methodology summary he put on the bottom of the blog:

A note about how we collect data. The data comes from an online survey we conducted in Q2 of this year. Our online panel is as representative as we can make if of the US online adult population (18 and older). Companies use our data all the time, and I believe it’s the best available survey of its kind; we’ve been conducting surveying consumers since 1997. In this case, we surveyed over 5000 people. We asked them to rate how much they trust information sources on a five-point scale, from 1 (don’t trust at all) to 5 (trust completely). Respondents could also answer that they didn’t use a particular information source. In this case about 80% of those we polled said they did use corporate blogs. Of those who used them, only 16% rated them 4 or 5 on the five-point trust scale.

David Spark June 29, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Jeremiah, you are correct that it was odd that I would make a statement like that without reading the report. Completely not the way to do reporting. That’s why I threw in all those caveats at the beginning (if I dig deeper, Forrester is well respected, etc.) I did go about this post in a very unconventional way.

But, I was more making a statement about your announcement only 10% of people trust corporate blogs and leave it at that. Because of who you are and the organization you represent, there’s a lot of power behind that statement. People will act on it and throw it up on a PowerPoint slide. Most, like me, won’t initially read the report.

After you reveal your methodologies I still stand by my statement. It still was “leading” even though you didn’t go about it in the way I predicted.

The reason is we still don’t know people’s preconceptions to corporate blogs. For example, you’ll get a very different answer to the two questions, “Do you trust doctors?” and “Do you trust YOUR doctor?”

Similar to “Do you trust corporate blogs?” and “Do you trust your company’s blog?” and “Do you trust Company X’s blog?” All three questions I’m sure will yield very different answers.

You’re still not revealing the story of people’s misconceptions about corporate blogging. And from what you explained, research could look deeper for the real sentiments.

Jeremiah Owyang June 29, 2009 at 12:23 pm

The data was hard for me to swallow too, as I setup, ran, and managed the Hitachi Data Systems blog at the start of my social media career –and encouraged my current CEO to start blogging at Forrester.

Regardless of the specifics you bring up, the data stands as it is. The real question to ask is “Why don’t people trust corporate blogs”. It’s pretty obvious, their often full of rhetoric.

So, let’s focus on fixing corporate blogs.

I wrote this handy dandy health check for those that have a corporate blog, it should help.

David Spark June 29, 2009 at 5:09 pm

I like the post, but it only touches the surface of the discussion as I commented. The real issue is creating an editorial mandate which goes much deeper and it involves connecting your PR, marketing, and branding teams together.

I think the core issue is the brand of the term “corporate blog.” Nothing about it is friendly. Do any successful corporate blogs call themselves corporate blogs, or do they refer to their blog as either “our company blog” or by the branded name they gave it?

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