Governments, corporations and not-for-profits are increasingly turning to social media to engage and consult with their constituents and clients. Almost every level of government across Canada routinely pushes out open ended, open link surveys to the masses trying to get the information and evidence they need to guide and evaluate their policies and programs. They are doing it for good reasons. First, it is relatively easy. Second, the data or evidence they collect is virtually free. Lastly, over a third (37%) of Canadians (ranging from 41% for those under 34 years old to 35% for those over 55 years old) say it’s their preferred way of participating in consultations.
At the same time newspapers and magazines are abandoning their online comments sections in part due to the cost of managing them but also do to the less than savory crowd that they attract. In brief, they don’t like the tone of the open public debate that is occurring and while news outlets want the eyeballs to sell advertising they don’t necessarily want to be associated with the views and attitudes of these same folks for fear it might tarnish their corporate image.
Government responses to online studies and web pop ups are rarely made in a forum where the public can see other responses and engage in a back and forth conversation. It is usually during these conversations that the worst, most offensive comments occur. Presumably all of the responses are viewed from within the walls of the bureaucracy and perhaps the less than agreeable comments (ranging from the truly racist to those simply disagreeing with the policy du jour) are expunged from the record and not included in any reporting.
Many of these online studies offer anonymity to respondents and this leads people to write things that they would never say to someone else face to face. One has to wonder if this “freedom” to express themselves allows for a truer expression of beliefs or are people pushing the envelope to get a reaction? Most likely the answer falls somewhere between the two extremes.
Before I go on I should note that at Ipsos Public Affairs we run a lot of online consultations. We see great value in them both as a cost-efficient tool and as a method for providing great insight. At the same time we shy away from anonymous forums and when we do run them we take the findings with a grain of salt unless we have collaborating data from another credible source.
Similar holes can be poked into the practice of social media listening or as some call it scraping. (Note: At Ipsos Public Affairs we do a lot of this kind of research as well.) While more and more people are joining the social media melee it is still very far from being representative. When the motivation for many people to join was to snap and share a picture of their latest spaghetti carbonara, one has to wonder what thought they’ve given to the more complex issues of the day let alone how they could convey these ideas in 140 characters or less.
At about this point you’ve likely decided that I’m about to launch into a defense of traditional public opinion and market research methods or perhaps even go as far as making the case that randomized live person telephone calls are still the gold standard – I’m not. Telephone surveys still have a role but they are rapidly being left in the dust by new technologies. Interestingly, if you want to have very robust and representative surveys in Canada we probably need to go back to mailing paper based studies but these are costly and slow. Nor are online surveys the sole answer for how best to understand society. Same with focus groups and online bulletin boards or online communities of like-minded folks, they all have their limitations as well as their benefits.
None of these approaches or methodologies can stand alone anymore because we live in a complex world where people access and share information in numerous ways and no one method covers the waterfront.
At Ipsos Public Affairs we know that in order to provide the best advice possible to our clients we need to be equally open to all data sources and equally skeptical of all data sources. We need to draw from multiple streams of evidence and use our brains and our understanding of a client’s objectives to figure out which data is relevant and what it all means. We need to be able to look at the data in context and use our access to other data and our experience to provide strong insight and actionable advice to our clients.
We do this by putting our clients’ objectives at the center of every project and then building the methodology and data collection approach around these objectives rather than trying to fit clients into our preferred approach. The more data sources we can include the better able we are to triangulate and potentially pin point the right decision for our clients.