Social Research: Analyzing the Performance of Word-of-mouth on Social Media

The mass adoption of social media platforms have given researchers and strategists an abundance of conversations focused on brands, and subsequently their products and services. The power of this data is that much of what is being communicated is the “right now”. I covered this notion in a past post.

One avenue to explore peoples’ thoughts, feelings and conversations is to systematically listen. In Listen First! Steven Rappaport refers to this as social listening or social research. He writes: “Social media is not only a window into what consumers are saying, but also into what they are doing” (p. 200). This approach is radically different from other methods, but can be just as rigorous.

In this instance, I systematically analyzed the performance of word-of-mouth on a branded Facebook page. While not providing a comprehensive picture of all conversations, understanding how consumers choose to discuss products and services is still meaningful. The goal of this exercise is to begin to think through, and apply, what I saw through a theoretical lens and begin to distill this data into actual business insights.

Word-of-mouth is important, because consumers have become increasingly reliant on the recommendation of peers. 89% trust these recommendations more so than any branded messages. As consumers begin to publish, with more frequency and in greater amount, their experiences with products and services. According to Xun and Reynolds (2010), this results in three positive consequences for researchers. Researchers have greater access to information and respondents. In many cases, the “openness, anonymity and decontextualization of the online enables people who are more reserve to participate [online]” (Xun and Reynolds, 2010, p.20). Secondly, this information is often digitally archived. Through blogs, forums, social media posts and comments, the transcription of data is made easier. Not only does this strengthen the breadth of research, but also it allows for it to be continual and a stronger depth of insight produced. Researchers have the ability to follow conversations and provide more context than when studying face-to-face communication. Finally, online environments allow for self-reflection. Xun and Reynolds argue that the ability to directly quote these statements and the references within these statements should benefit the explanatory power (2010).

“It has become essential for marketers and advertisers looking for new growth from new markets and customers to understand these “mind-set markets.” Because the markets are defined primarily by commonalities among apparently dissimilar individuals, social media listening research can identify them by uncovering the conversational themes and topics uniting them (p.44)”. – Rappaport

What I Did:


From May 1st to September 15, 2014 I captured the performance of word-of-mouth on Vans’ Facebook page. Westbrook (1987) defines word-of-mouth as “informal communication directed at other consumers about the ownership, usage, or characteristics of particular goods and services or their sellers (p.261)”. I screen grabbed posts written on Vans’ wall. During this time 1,002 posts were captured. I employed Braun and Clarke’s (2006) thematic approach to content analysis to synthesis and distill my data. In my first analysis I performed a systematic, observational content analysis of 205 posts.

My first study:

What Does This Begin to Uncover?

Search for topics that resonate

Consumers express themselves through customization practices. It allows them to express creativity, while still identifying with Vans’ culture. Similarly, consumers customize shoes the same way fans remix songs of artists they like, to pay homage. Both practices are used as a way to self-enhance (i.e. take pictures of work or limited edition shoes)

Discover the language the consumer uses

Long-term listening does provide the foundation for an understanding of who we are – through the words we use – and how we say them. From an applied perspective I believe Hunter and Burkhart’s thoughts in Newsjacking warrant a mention. They write: “If you want to get noticed among all this clutter, you have to generate ideas that truly stand out. If they are ‘of the moment’, they’re more likely to be successful. They need to capture the zeitgeist” (p. 13). The ability to track how consumers perform word-of-mouth, allow the listener access to relevant content and context. The right language, in a particular moment, has the ability the find an audience willing to disseminate that content. While I would argue that this is an important component that can be fleshed out through social listening, I believe I did not collect enough data to offer much insight into particular Vans’ vernacular.

Develop a better understanding of consumer perceptions (or mindsets)

Consumers use products to better define achieved milestones in identity building. This practice is often referred to as cultural projects. McCracken describes cultural projects here:

The project is an ongoing enterprise by which the individual concepts of the self, of the family, of status, of nation, of world. This project consists in the selection of key notions from a range of alternatives and the more or less thorough and harmonious enactment, refinement and integration of these notions in a single life (Hirschman 1986, McCracken 1986b, 1986c). In this scheme, the self and a life are “always in production, in process”.

On social media channels we tend to project how products help us achieve these various goals. Through social listening we can begin to uncover how products embed themselves into consumers lives. Similarly, we can extend these observed projects to better define our consumer’s mindsets.

Vans consumers express uniqueness. Many of the active posters were teenagers. Most are going through a time where they must confine to social norms and school enforced customs. Limited edition and customized Vans may add a splash of uniqueness in teens everyday lives. The ability to express a collective identity, or signal status are common markers.


Monitor responses to marketing messages

Marketers can also observe (and in some cases in real time) how the consumer responds to marketing messages. During my research Vans announced a limited edition Star Wars shoe. To promote the shoe Star Wars characters visited multiple Vans stores. The ability to track how consumers interactive with these tactics offer the ability to test future promotions.

Where Does this Lead?

Long-term, observational approaches to digital strategy can help to uncover the “betweenness” (I stole the use of this word from Mark Earls) among people. Instead of building loyalty, it is more about building something people can rally around. We can build around real-time, emotional connections, expressed by fans. What my research revealed were threads of connections, that once woven, can help to create things people truly want and messages that unite. If we follow the notion that we should always be in “BETA” when planning, real-time insights can keep us nimble and should encourage the use of this approach.




Main Visual: Yonolatengao


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