Listen to Social Media, But Don’t Ignore Real-Life Conversations: Study

Thom Weidlich 11.30.17


A new study on the interplay between social media and offline conversations in brand research has a message for crisis communicators: Social media may be the rage, but when trying to determine what your customers and other audiences are thinking, don’t ignore actual, real-world talk.

The study, by Montreal-based market researcher Engagement Labs, looked at 170 consumer brands in the U.S. It linked social media and offline media with sales data. It then took a subset of brands, including Toshiba, Budweiser, and Tylenol, and added sales and media data into models that predict sales. (The offline data actually came from online surveys of consumers about their “brand conversations on the day prior to the survey,” according to Engagement Labs.)

The headline findings (literally, if you look at the press release) were that online and offline brand conversations together drive 19 percent of consumer sales. In addition, online and offline conversations each account for about half of those sales. That means 10 percent of sales are — even in this digital era — attributed to such old-fashioned activities as water-cooler talk and dinner conversation.

The study has some odd findings. For example, Engagement Labs found that social media was more important for Revlon and Hot Pockets, while word-of-mouth was more significant for Campbell’s and Kraft.

So what does this have to do with crisis communications? Good question.

Just as different sentiments online and offline may tell a company about its marketing efforts, they may also inform how it approaches its crisis communications.


The study was first reported by The New York Times, which focused its examples on situations where things go wrong for brands. It led off with the February incident in which President Trump Twitter-blasted Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s fashion line. Trump supporters went on social media to up their previous calls for a boycott of the retailer. And yet both Nordstrom’s stock price and its sales performance increased, according to the Times.

In other words, the social-media furor didn’t reflect the real-world calm.

“The danger is you can make some pretty big mistakes if you assume the conversations happening online are also happening offline,” the Times quoted Engagement Labs Chief Research Officer Brad Fay. “Very often, they’re heading in different directions.”

Clearly, more companies are setting up so-called social-media listening rooms. The Times quoted another market researcher saying it’s good policy to use the potentially over-the-top social-media chatter as a starting point, but to also listen to what’s being said offline, and to compare the two. The offline research can be done through focus groups, questionnaires, in-store surveys, and even manager chats with customers, the Times said.


The danger is you can make some pretty big mistakes if you assume the conversations happening online are also happening offline.

— Engagement Labs Chief Research Officer Brad Fay

We have another example from this past weekend: University of Tennessee Athletic Director John Currie was scorched on social media for hiring Greg Schiano as head football coach. Fans objected to both Schiano’s record at other schools and his having worked at Penn State during the Sandusky sexual-abuse scandal. Currie immediately rescinded the appointment, showing both a lack of crisis-communications preparation and a probable overreaction to social media.

Engagement Labs also has a crisis case study on its website. A “major beverage company” had a crisis with one of its brands. The market researcher designed a survey that found that the problem wasn’t as big as the client first thought. Sentiment was negative on social media, but offline conversations indicated that the crisis was not widespread and was likely to be short lived. The client refocused away from the crisis, and Engagement Labs’ predictions were borne out (according to Engagement Labs).

So this study points up the importance of listening — even listening in the real world.

Photo Credit: Sharpshutter/Shutterstock

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