Did you ever ask yourself why election voting booths are concealed by curtains? Of course not. It’s perfectly obvious. Voting is a private moment. It shouldn’t be influenced by peer pressure or fears of retribution. Consumer research should follow the same rules, allowing participants to maintain their anonymity if they choose. If everyone’s opinion was subject to the scrutiny of friends, family, and co-workers, research would no longer reflect the will of the people but only the will of the popular and influential.
As companies and policymakers rely increasingly on social media to gauge public sentiment, the importance of privacy and anonymity are being ignored. The fire hose of comments and status updates available on places like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogs provide massive and cheap streams of information about what people are saying. But do they really tell us what people are thinking?
For most of us, what we share on social media is seldom an honest and unabridged representation of what we think. More often, it is a highly measured expression of what we hope will reinforce or improve our image among others. Academics refer to this phenomenon as “aspirational self-disclosure.” It means that we say things to make ourselves look funny, successful, humble, stable, adventurous, or, simply, normal. We keep thoughts to ourselves that make us look uncool, out-of-touch, confused, or boring.
Earlier this year, we surveyed a representative sample of 14,000+ anonymous social media users with a couple simple questions. First, we asked them “How often do you post things on Facebook or Twitter because you think it improves your image among your friends?” 48% of respondents said they “Never” do it. 36% acknowledged doing it “Sometimes” and a full 16% admitted to doing it “Most of the Time.”
Then, we asked another 14,000+ people: “How often do you think your friends post things on Facebook or Twitter to enhance their image?” The numbers virtually flipped. Only 17% of respondents said their friends “Never” do it. 55% think it happens “Sometimes” and 28% think it happens “Most of the Time.”
In other words, what people told us was: “Hell no, I’m not a self-promoter on Facebook and Twitter. But all my friends damn-sure are.” The real answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
Last spring, we attended a marketing research conference in Chicago, where at least a handful of the presenters were, in a word, awful. Other attendees joked about it and the negative reactions were more or less unanimous. (On whole, by the way, the conference was outstanding).
During that conference, dozens of people were live-Tweeting about the speakers and sessions. Guess how many people posted comments like, “Man, this guy is terrible” or “Can somebody please drag this wind-bag off stage?” Zero. Not a single attendee posted even a mildly negative comment. Naturally, nobody wanted to be seen as a jerk among their professional peers. Again, what they were saying was not a real reflection of what they were thinking.
The problem, though, is that if you viewed this stream of Tweets as a quantitative measure of people’s feelings, like many social medial listening proponents would suggest, you had to conclude that 100% of the conference speakers were 100% awesome, right? People are making misinformed business and political decisions based on information like this every day.
At another marketing research conference last spring (and again just recently), Joan Lewis, a well-regarded consumer insights executive from Procter & Gamble made waves with her statement that survey research would be rendered increasingly obsolete by the emergence of social media listening. With all due respect to Joan (she is certainly viewed far more as a luminary in our industry than anyone at CivicScience), we really hope she is wrong. There will always be a role for private, anonymous opinion research, both for the sake of business leaders and for consumers themselves.
Whether it’s a formal political election or a reaction to the behaviors of a brand or celebrity, people need venues to share their unfettered opinions without disclosing their identities. This is, first and foremost, a human right. It is also the only way to accurately measure public sentiment and to enable policymakers and business leaders to act in the best interests of the public.