LONDON: Social listening offers brands a way of uncovering qualitative insights on a quantitative scale more quickly and cheaply than other research methods, according to an industry figure, but only if one looks beyond the obvious.

In a WARC Best Practice paper, How to gain insight from social listening, Will McInnes, CMO at social intelligence platform Brandwatch, says social media research can surface consumer insights that can otherwise be difficult and expensive to identify.

But, he notes, it can be a daunting prospect, given that there are millions upon millions of conversations taking place online every day. "If you don't know how to refine what you are listening to, you'll drown in the data," he warns.

"It's also easy to rely on the vanity metrics: likes, followers, fans and so on. But they will tell you little more than what's popular: images and videos, humour and entertainment. And the time of day to get the widest possible reach and engagement from your audiences."

Starting with such known metrics adds little to one's understanding and limits the possibilities of what can be discovered, McInnes suggests.

"The foundation for good social media research is asking the right questions," he states. The focus should be on the problems and questions that need answering rather than obsessing about methodology which can follow.

McInnes highlights two main approaches to answering questions, one involving uncovering metrics that answer a defined question, the other relying on an exploratory approach where insights are discovered while working through the data.

"Where time and budget allows, a combination of the two approaches will generally reveal the most interesting and robust answers," he says.

On a practical level, human-led research will require a manageable dataset, with the problem clearly defined in order to create a targeted search and so reduce noise and spam.

"You want to surface underlying themes with a unique value, rather than things you can see easily on a topic cloud/trend line," McInnes advises.

"The fundamental tenet of social media research is noticing a difference between things," he adds – and by that he means a significant difference.

"If you notice a difference, start digging into it. Then dig some more. Keep digging until you have read something that helps explain why that difference exists."

Data sourced from WARC