Social media tools are a great way to get to know your audience better and for less expense, than you ever have before. Yet, social media tools seem to change overnight. As Heidi Klum says on Project Runway, “One minute you’re in, the next, you’re out.”
For social media marketers, communicators, and researchers, this means not only keeping your finger on the pulse of public conversation but also on how that conversation is getting around. New technology impacts the quality, quantity, and use of information as it moves across a networked society. With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, both the medium and the message will impact your relationship with your audience.
Zeitgeist is a German term that means, literally, the spirit of the times. It captures what’s on our mind, our mood, and the energy level across society. As our world becomes more interconnected, we have the ability to watch the zeitgeist of the country online through different lenses, from sophisticated ones like search engine data to more intimate ones like trolling around on Facebook walls.
The zeitgeist is the context or social backdrop that has significant influence on not just what information flows across the networks, but how we understand the information and act on it. Keeping abreast of these trends is part of developing an more accurate understanding of the people you want to reach. Web marketing pundits argue that building buyer personas is the best way to create a great marketing program. A persona—or archetype, ideal model, or prototype, depending upon your industry—is a defined group that represents your primary customer. A good persona goes beyond the assessment of Influencers or Enthusiasts. Think ‘NASCAR Dads’ or ‘Stay-at-home Moms.’
Developing accurate archetypes addresses several problems. It provides:
- a reality check about whether or not you really know your customer
- an evaluation of whether the product or service will do what the customer wants and or needs
- focuses your marketing efforts more clearly on how to reach your audience
But where do we start looking for the data we need to understand the social context necessary to build up useful customer models?
Several research methods are available to help. These include surveys, interviews, contextual inquiries, web analytics and ethnographic research. The good news is that developing personas in social media relies heavily, and relatively inexpensively, on ethnography and web analytics.
For up close and personal, you can’t beat ethnographic research. It examines the patterns of behavior, artifacts, and social patterns within a society or segment of society. It conjures up visions of Margaret Mead heading out to remote villages to understand indigenous tribes. Previously out of reach of the budgets of most small companies, this kind of research is now available through social participation from anywhere you can connect via computer or mobile device. You can find and join conversations all across the web to find out where your audience is most likely to be. Then you can lurk about the edges and see what’s on their minds. Sites like Facebook and MySpace are contained or bounded communities with observable behaviors, patterns and artifacts in the form of photos, notes, recommendations, and widgets. Not much different from those indigenous tribes. The same is true of social networks like Ning and LinkedIn. This open access allows for immersion—important because you must do a lot of listening before you talk. Immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language because you experience the culture. It’s the same thing in social media. Immersion into social media networks will give you insight into a richer palette than normal psychographics. You can see the psychological manifestations of social networking, such as the need for affiliation, identity development, self-presentation, self-appraisal, belief structures, and interaction and communication styles reflective of individual differences and cognitive and emotional development. These things are fundamental drivers of our decisions and actions.
On the other hand, sometimes you want to get a view from 30,000 feet to see where the population is clumping. For that, try tools like Google Zeitgeist. Google, as the dominant search engine in brand recognition, if not every other way, has created a massive database of search activities. They are not alone in monitoring this data, but the nature of search engines means that each search company indexes information by their own algorithms and logic that can produce vastly different results. John Battelle in The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture says search behavior creates a database of intentions because searching is a manifestation of intended behavior. Bill Tancer’s Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why it Matters describes how the dynamics of emotional shifts or responses to society-wide events filter through the systems and impact consumer trends and behavior. Watching meaningful patterns emerge is a social psychologist’s dream come true. Articulating those patterns into strategy is a marketer’s.
Combining macro and micro approaches allows you to bracket your target audience with local influences and conversations in the context of broader social activity. This helps you formulate an understanding of an audience segmentation that encapsulate sets of characteristics, needs, and behaviors. Once you have a clear picture of your audience and market, you will be able to assess how the specific social media tools will connect you with your target audience in meaningful ways and fit with your goals.