Social media research is the hot topic of the research world and has fast become our primary "go to guy" when we want to find out data quickly and develop strategies based on the largest available pool of data in the world – the web. The role of social media research and its limitations are an incredibly important topic at the moment as we are still in a relative period of infancy and experimentation when it comes to proper social media research methodologies and outcomes. On the one hand we are seeing social platforms as the answer to all our prayers; they provide millions of potential research participants, they let us collect passive data on almost every demographic imaginable and they let us engage in on going and new forms of research. However, on the other hand, we still have lots of questions regarding the utility and limitations of social media research; who does it exclude, does it provide accurate quantitative data or only qualitative, does it need to be supplemented with traditional research methodologies? While many of these questions remain "up in the air" there are some developments that we can look at in this context.

The Role of Social Media Research

The role of social media research is slowly becoming clearer as we develop a better understanding of its limitations. Current thought indicates that most companies are using social media research as a way to supplement their traditional research endeavours. The core reason for this seems to be that we have not yet developed a holistic research methodology to use on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In et al. At a base level these platforms provide us with a plethora of individual and demographic information but much information is hidden or requires inference or further research. Many people are also realising that social platforms are limited in terms of the scope of research we can undertake through them. One question Tweeted or added to your Facebook group may generate hundreds of responses but an in depth survey will likely only attract a few; unless you have a very good incentive. At this stage in our social media development social media research seems to supplement traditional research rather than replace it. However, there are a few notable exceptions; which may be telling of how we develop social media research [1]. Firstly, many companies now use the demographic data available through Facebook to create incentivised focus groups and surveys – with prizes, discounts or cash for participants. Secondly, many companies are now using social media platforms as focus groups – initiating discussions across "groups" in order to collect extensive qualitative data over a period of time. These two methodologies seem to have proved the most profitable but are, in many ways, an extension of previous methods and practices; rather than a direct utilisation of social media in itself.

The Limitations of Social Media Research

Looking at the above it seems clear that social media research does have some limitations; it's in many ways stunted in terms of reach, it requires supplementation by incentive and traditional research in order to generate holistic data sets, it can't guarantee a specific demographic response or completely accurate profiling – though few platforms can. Its limitations are however fairly insignificant compared to its positive effects. We have easy access to more demographic information than has ever previously been possible, we have respondents who WANT to talk to us without prompting and we have the opportunity to simultaneously research and engage with a huge percentage of our target demographics and existing customer bases. Social media excludes few demographics and the number of people not using them dwindles day by day. So it seems that while social media research is limited it does have a serious role to play in current research and we are likely to continue expanding this role.

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[1]http://www.researchnow.com/en-GB/Services/Social%20Media%20Sample.aspx

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