How to Use Twitter to Conduct Market Research

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Most users who regularly access Twitter do so merely to read what the people they’re following are tweeting and to check their @ mentions, but because Twitter is an open platform with most tweets accessible to the public, there’s a wealth of information for those looking to conduct market research and gain insights into consumer habits. The key is leveraging Twitter’s search platform to zoom in on specific communities and consumers. Twitter offers a number of free options for this, but you can also purchase tools made by outside companies that perform sentiment analysis and graph longterm trends by accessing Twitter’s API. Whether you’re a lobbyist trying to gauge public opinion on an issue or a consumer packaged good company wanting to see what people are saying about your competitors, there’s no shortage of data to be pored over if you know where and how to look.

John Andrews has conducted marketing for consumer packaged goods companies large and small. He eventually joined the grocery marketing team at Walmart and founded the influencer social media platform called Walmart Eleven Moms. He’s now the CMO at Ignite, a social media marketing agency. We discussed whether sentiment analysis tools are advanced enough, how to find the signal in the noise, and how to detect problems consumers have with your product before they bubble into the mainstream.

Why is Twitter such a valuable tool in terms of gathering intelligence? Facebook is a very closed system, it’s not very easy to search. So Twitter, while smaller in terms of audience, is the world’s largest real-time network that’s publicly searchable.

I would agree with that. I think what makes Twitter such a great informational tool is that instant pulse. If you want to find out what’s going on right now, Twitter is a great place to go. If I’m out having dinner with my family and I want to check a game score, I don’t pull up my ESPN app, I go to Twitter and type in — I’m a huge Duke fan — and I type in “Duke.” And I get the score as well as people’s opinions. I get ESPN, but I also get some guy at the game, some guy sitting at home, and another guy who hates Duke talking about how much they suck. I get this really interesting blend of content from different perspectives immediately. So I watched the Super Bowl, and I watched it on Twitter using the branding hashtag that marketers were using, so I got instant feedback on the advertisements, because that’s something I’m interested in. There are a hundred ways you could have watched the Super Bowl on Twitter and all of them would have been different. If I’m a Patriots fan, I could have just put in hashtag Patriots, and I would have gotten all the Patriots stuff. If I’m a city official in Phoenix and I just want to see how this is impacting my city, I can type in hashtag Phoenix. If I’m Toyota, I could get a view about what people are saying about Toyota in context with the Super Bowl. You can curate that down to as fine as you want and get instant information. What was really cool about the Super Bowl, as soon as an ad ran there was just a deluge of content coming out. As soon as the Nationwide dead kid ad ran, you knew it was going to be derided as the worst ad of the Super Bowl. People instantly went nuts on it. I don’t need any special software to do that. It’s easy to do. I can do it from any device that I have. It’s simple. And marketers have gotten smart about dialing into what people are saying and then really drilling down to what are the things people are engaging with so they can become a relevant part of the conversation.

In terms of market intelligence, do you think brands are too focused on what’s being said about them on Twitter rather than trying to actively monitor what’s being said about their competitors and their industry as a whole?

Most marketers are doing a good job of knowing what’s being said about them and what’s being said about their competitors. To your point, what they’re maybe missing is what is the broader conversation they want to be part of? Elmer’s Glue was a client at my former company, and when I was talking to them I said “No one is talking about glue. No one wants to talk about glue.” And the first time I said that to them I thought they were going to throw me out of the room. Because that was what they wanted to talk about. And I said “That’s what you want to talk about, but don’t you want to talk about what your customers want to talk about?” What consumers want to talk about with glue is spending time with my daughter making a craft project. Being creative putting a gift together for my wife. Inspiration about things that I could do to have a Halloween party. Those are the organic conversations people want to share. Nobody gives a shit about glue.

You’re talking about doing research on ancillary industries like crafting, DIY, things that are related to the industry Elmer’s is in.

What I will say to brands a lot is what kinds of conversations do you want to be part of? What conversations are relevant and interesting to people that may include your products? How can you be part of those conversations in a way that’s helpful or interesting or provocative to the audience? If you went to a cocktail party and all you did was talk about yourself, you’d be viewed as a jerk. But if you look at the way people approach social media, that’s a lot of what they do. You look at a lot of Twitter streams where it’s just pictures of a brand logo or package. Great, who cares? I’m not going to share a picture of a bag of potato chips with my audience.

Let’s say a client comes to you and says I want to be more active on Twitter. Before you send out the first tweet I imagine there’s a fair amount of research that goes into it so you can understand how Twitter can bring value to that client. What kind of research are you conducting before you even send out that first tweet?

Like any form of marketing, you need to have a sense of what the grand objectives are. Where the brand lives in the overall environment. We look a lot at sentiment. Whether a brand has accounts on social media is irrelevant because they still have people talking about them on social media. Some of that conversation is good, some bad. For most brands, most conversation is neutral. Our job is to really understand where are those points of engagement? Why as a consumer would I follow this brand? More important, why would I share anything about the brand? And then developing content and testing that content against what people want to talk about. I said to a marketing friend of mine when the Nationwide ad ran during the Super Bowl, I can’t believe they tested that spot, which kind of baffled me. If they wanted to go and test that with several hundred consumers, that’s super easy to do, and they could have easily predicted what the reaction would be.

In terms of sentiment analysis and positive versus negative tweets, do you put much stock in the technology that claims it can scan all of Twitter and spit back out sentiment analysis?

I think that you can get some sentiment out of Twitter, but what I’m skeptical of is the technology that promises it’ll give you this precise assessment of what people think about your brand and tells you what you should say in response. It’s social media, it requires a human. A human should look at data to understand what happens. If you’re going to have computers manage your social media, then you should probably not be doing social media. You have to be able to engage with people, and you can’t do that with a machine. I absolutely think a machine should inform what you’re doing on social media, but a human has to be thinking and writing and creating the interaction.

With something like the Super Bowl where you have this huge audience and these huge brands, there’s just so much volume. How do you sort through all that noise to deliver real intelligence?

A lot of people chase numbers. Two years ago, your ultimate number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers were the main goal. There were marketers whose bonuses and evaluations were based on how many people do we have and do we have more than our competitors? So there was this arms race of “I have to go get a million followers.” And now, I think most people would say that’s not the goal. Engaged followers is the goal. You see lots and lots of brands with these huge follower counts with no interaction. You’re pumping out a lot of content nobody cares about. A professional community manager is the biggest asset that a brand can have. And the reason is they spend time and energy every single day inside a community of people who are engaged with the brand, good, bad, or otherwise. The longer a community manager spends managing a brand’s channel the better the engagement rate they get. That’s because they know the community as well as the community knows them.

If consumers have problems with a company, do you think the first place they’ll give voice to those problems is on Twitter?

It’s a great place to listen and to identify any potential issues. It’s going to happen fast. For any brands that are my clients, I have text alerts so if there are any mentions on Twitter, I know. Most of our community managers that manage individual brands have the same thing. It’s not the only place, though. There are many tools that have sensitive triggers that look for anomalies and jumps in the rate of mentions of a brand. They can spot things very quickly if there’s a change. Twitter can be a very valuable early warning system.

Let’s say you have a client that has lots of enemies and activists, like a cable company or oil giant. Is part of the intelligence gathering identifying all the activists on Twitter and trying to determine whether they’re having any success at stirring up shit against your brand?

I think monitoring the good and bad is great. I think a more advanced strategy is engaging with those people. When I was at Walmart I found some of our harshest critics really appreciated it when you got in a real conversation. With social media you could do that in a way where a lot of other people who were just lurking could witness and be impacted by it.

If you look at a lot of companies with heavy customer service components, companies like AT&T or airlines, a lot of them have launched customer service-specific social channels so those problems are dealt with. I don’t think it’s to get the negative conversation off the main channel so much as companies like AT&T are receiving so many responses that they need to have specific accounts for dealing with certain issues. You see people getting even more creative about it where they’re morphing those customer channels into specific issues, like whether you’re having connection problems or a problem with your billing, etc. I think there’s a reasonable expectation that I can go to a social channel and get help. It’s your 800 number.

Last question. Does monitoring Twitter create a distortion effect where you assume Twitter sentiment reflects public sentiment when in reality Twitter makes up a relatively small portion of the U.S. population? Do brands overreact, not realizing there’s a world beyond Twitter?

Obviously, just being on social media creates a specialized audience. Twitter is not the world. The other thing is, I don’t care how good your brand is, somebody is not going to like it. Somebody is going to always complain. What I look for a lot with attacks, I look at the individual, and frequently they’re just people who complain. That’s what they do. You’ve got to be able to create a sensitivity between that and your customer base as a whole, because that could be a very different group of people. You could be administering to this one person who doesn’t really have much influence at all.


This article is excerpted from my book: Your Guide to Twitter Marketing. I sought out some of the world’s most powerful marketers and grilled them on their subject matter expertise. This book gives you direct insight into how the world’s top marketers approach Twitter and use it to drive sales and influence.

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