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I’m not who you think I am: the pitfalls of social media listening

Social & Digital

I’m not who you think I am: the pitfalls of social media listening


Social media listening only tells half the story, says Katharine Milner. Marketers need to make sure they’re matching what people are saying with what they’re doing.

Katharine Milner headshotIn market research we often talk about claimed and actual behaviour, essentially the difference between what people actually do and how they want to be perceived. Herein lies the problem with basing creative or competitive initiatives on social media listening data.

A good example of this is when the TV ratings collection methodology changed from filling in a diary to using a set top box where family members ‘sign in’ using a remote control. The result? The ratings of TV stations changed, with ABC and SBS losing share to commercial stations. The tendency for people to claim they were watching educational documentaries on ABC and SBS compared to the truth of what they were actually watching gives us an insight into the way we want to represent ourselves in the best light.

I can draw parallels with my social media life, and the ‘claimed’ data gathered through peoplemeters. When I’m taking a picture of my children, I try to get them against a blank wall of my home, not with a pile of unfolded laundry in the background. Indeed, if you knew me only through my social media profiles, you would think I was the queen of clean, with a tidy surburban home, a neat garden complete with fire pit and flower gardens. Mount Washmore teetering on the dining room table never gets a visual mention.

And yet if you actually visited my home rather than looked at my curated image, you’d see what I truly value. Brands that want to speak to me might note the importance I place on education by the amount of books, and the times tables charts on the wall in my children’s bedrooms. They might notice the family commitment to sustainability through the worm farm, compost heap and piles of reusable shopping bags. They might even notice the majority of those shopping bags have a certain supermarket’s logo on the side of them.

My Instagram regularly shows the greyhounds lying around on the rugs, but if you came into my home you’d know that pet insurance should be targeted at my husband, the one with the ‘home is the where the dog is’ sign on his desk.

Attempting to understand your target audience through their social media will also emphasise the extremes of emotions. People tend to post about things that are noteworthy, or when they feel extremely positive or negative about a service or product experience. Those quietly staying with their telephone provider year after year and not shouting about it are not going to be represented by social monitoring of their likes and dislikes.

Social media listening is one thing, but marketers need to make sure they’re matching what people are saying with what they’re doing. There is no better way to get to know your audience or customers than dedicating some time to observing them in real life. This can range from do it yourself techniques such as watching how they behave at point of purchase, or by dipping into the researcher’s toolkit of rich ethnographic techniques.

Understanding their environment and actual behaviours can yield insights into compelling category messaging and the channels through which it should be presented.

In another life I worked for an international cereal company and I remember the ad agency presenting a script in which a family gave their young children showers in the morning. Hanging around the average family with young children would quickly show how impossible it would be to leave the house if you tried to wash the kids at the beginning of the day. Effective campaigns rely on connecting with your audience, and to achieve this you need to spend time understanding the reality of their daily lives.

Your target audience needs to be able to relate to your campaign as a representation of their own concerns, needs and wants – and investing real time in getting to know your consumers is where this starts.

Keep up that social media listening, but take a peek behind that perfect curated life as often as you can to yield a wealth of deeper insights for your brands.


Katharine Milner is head of marketing and new business at The Leading Edge Australia


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Image copyright: pressmaster / 123RF Stock Photo


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