The Chicken or the Egg? Interpreting Social Media Data and Business Results

Two recent studies purport to prove that social media has a strong, positive impact on business results.

  • A recent study by Bain & Company uses the Net Promoter Score satisfaction/loyalty research methodology to assert that those customers who engage with companies through social media channels are more loyal (have a higher NPS) and spend more with that company as compared to those customers who don’t engage with the company through social media.
  • A second study by Constant Contact and Chadwick Martin Bailey cites data from a survey of Twitter users to argue that Twitter users who follow a company/brand on Twitter are more likely to purchase products from that company.

There is, as I see it, one big problem with this “proof” of the impact of social media channel usage: Did the chicken come first or the egg? Isn’t the most likely scenario the fact that social media engagement AND buying more/loyalty/recommendations are simply both symptomatic of a pre-existing strong connection between the user/customer and the brand? In other words, there’s no proof that social media engagement caused the increase in purchases/loyalty, only that the engagement and the increase coexist in the same population.

The good news, however, is that my note of caution regarding the interpretation of the data touted by these studies doesn’t make that data useless. In fact, a better way to interpret the data would be to conclude that those who engage with a company on social media are self-identifying themselves as that company’s high value customers. With this in mind, the social media channel can then be leveraged to ensure that these customers are rewarded for their engagement: offered special deals, encouraged to spread the word, given opportunities to provide input to product development, etc. Whereas the previous interpretation of the data suggests that it would be a good marketing strategy to try to attract more users to engage via social media, this revised interpretation would lead a company instead to invest in harvesting already engaged users to drive additional revenue.

The moral: Companies must exercise caution when using survey data to drive strategy—not because primary research shouldn’t drive strategy (it should), but because misinterpretation can have significant, often negative, consequences.