Category Archives: Blog

The ‘Absolute Value’ of listening to social media forums

Social media researcher Jess Owens (@hautepop) on consumer decision-making and why brands need to listen to social media forums:

There’s a new book out about how social media’s changed how people buy things.Absolute Value Simonson & Rosen

In Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information, Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen argue that amid more reliable sources of information, branding is losing its value:

“How people buy things has changed profoundly—yet the fundamental thinking about consumer decision making and marketing has not. Most marketers still believe that they can shape consumers’ perception and drive their behavior. [… But] when consumers base their decisions on reviews from other users, easily accessed expert opinions, price comparison apps, and other emerging technologies, everything changes. Counter to what we frequently hear, consumers will (on average) make better choices and act more rationally.”

So it sounds like a book we at FACE ought to buy, right?

But we wouldn’t want to be under-informed consumers!  If social media is so good for helping people reach informed decisions, we thought we’d first turn to social to see what people were saying…

Turns out it’s pretty contentious.

What’s driving discussion is the “bad news” Simonson & Rosen have for brands:  “…brands are less needed when consumers can assess product quality using better sources of information such as reviews from other users [or] expert opinion,” they said in HBR last month.  This was picked up by James Surowieki in the New Yorker with a long piece on The Twilight of the Brands

This is a big claim, and it’s driving reaction from the plannersphere.

Twilight of the brand? Don’t bet on it – says Edward Boche. He argues in defence of branding: it’s not just a label and an advert, it’s the shaping of the whole product experience.

Patricia McDonald, Chief Strategy Officer at Isobar UK, was more practical. She tweeted:

“I think the idea of “perfect competition” implies a lot higher interest in many categories than consumers have and ignores the fact that many purchases are impulsive/emotional.” [12]

This is a great point. Sometimes we can overcomplicate things in the marketing world – but really, who researches the chocolate bar they buy at the station, or the toothpaste they pick up at lunchtime? What does drive those purchases? Habit, price – and brand recognition at the shelf.

Simonson & Rosen’s claim that there’s no such thing as “information overload” (and so everything can be researched) just doesn’t stack up against the common sense of what we know of our own shopping behaviour. Much of the time it’s not rational to spend time researching and making a rational decision, right? The automatic, stereotype driven instinct of Daniel Kahneman’s “System 1” thinking is usually good enough.

So brand functions as a decision-making short-cut, making sure consumers have the stereotypes and emotional associations to mind when it comes to making a decision at the shelf.

No new ideas

‘Absolute Value’ ultimately reminds us of the Cluetrain Manifesto. Arguably Simonson & Rosen’s book is just fleshing out Cluetrain points 6-12, written fully 15 years ago:


6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.

7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.

8. In both internetworked markets and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.

9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.

10. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.

11. People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products.

12. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.

It’s funny how little changes, right?

The answer Cluetrain give is a lot more listening.

34. To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.
35. But first, they must belong to a community.

And companies have to listen to what this community is saying, and what it’s concerned about. Market research isn’t just about product testing: “Here’s what we’re doing. What do you think about it?” It’s got to be built on a solid foundation of listening. “What are you thinking about?” So the brand can go away and think about “How might we fit into that?”

This is arguably one of the strengths of social media forums and reviews: brands can’t talk back! The channel can’t be repurposed as a matter of comms and CSR. It’s just there for listening. So what can you get if you do that?

There’s value in social media reviews yet

Looking back to the book “Absolute Value’, it ultimately reaches a conclusion that’s still good news for market research.

“Today, products are being evaluated more on their “absolute value, their quality,” Dr. Simonson said. Brand names mean less. The results suggest that companies should spend less money trying to shape consumer opinions in traditional ads, he said, and more on understanding what and who are shaping those opinions.”

Now, we disagree with Simonson & Rosen on advertising’s supposed death – how do people start talking about a new product on a forum if they’ve not been exposed to it through broadcast media to spark an interest?

But it’s a useful set of pointers for what might be worth researching.

And as Simonson & Rosen indicate, social forums and reviews are a huge information resource for this kind of study.  Sometimes they’re the most valuable sources for our research projects. Despite the rise in social media and social networks (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and so on), forums, reviews and blogs continue to be active sites of discussion – “Web 2.0” isn’t dead! Forums can be particularly valuable for research because they’re more in depth – people talk about details that couldn’t fit into Twitter’s 140 characters or that might bore their Facebook friends.

What can you get out of it as a researcher?

Firstly forum discussions give great insight into “System 2” decision-making: the rational thought-out stuff. This is most relevant for higher-ticket purchases such as mobile phones or personal electronics such as high-end audiophile headphones, or hair styling tools.

What kinds of things can you learn?

  • What factors do people mention most often in their comparison and decision making process? E.g. price, design, particular functionalities,
  • Which brands do people mention as the competitive set?
  • What strengths and weaknesses are associated with each brand?
  • What are the tensions and trade-offs they articulate? E.g. in headphones, it might be a fundamental tension between “warmth” and “clarity” of the sound. These “insights with tension” can be great creative inspiration for later product and comms platform development.
  • Who are they citing as people they’ve listened to? E.g. “My brother said that __”
  • What are the expert sources they’re citing, e.g. websites, reviews, or other forum members

But even for FMCG products, there’s sometimes a treasure trove of information. Take a look at this Mumsnet thread on shrinking chocolate bars with the above questions in mind.

mumsnet is chocolate getting smaller

But there’s another side as well – the bigger picture. Are you really listening if you just use forums to answer a fixed set of questions?  They contain a wealth of wider information about the context of people’s lives and the topics they’re passionate about. If you’re making baby buggies, read up on what mums say about the pleasures and difficulties getting out-and-about – and the wider question of how people negotiate the role of “staying at home” or “going out to work”.

Or sites such as Money Saving Expert‘s forums contain lengthy personal financial narratives, telling the story of how people ended up deep in debt – or the dreams of financial security they aspire to. It’s not exactly the quick, instinctive decision-making of the “System 1″ brain – but it is highly emotive.

From the “mortgage-free wannabees” trying to make my dream a reality!!  to threads talking about Why do you spend?, the wealth of insight is astounding. Often people talk about the families they grew up in and how this shaped their attitudes to money, spending and status – and they talk about how they’re trying to do better for their kids. Sometimes it’s pretty heartbreaking stuff to read.


Simonson & Rosen’s book, Absolute Value, is a useful reminder that consumer decision-making involves information gathering from many sources, many or most of which brands can’t control. It pushes the emphasis onto improving customer service and after-sales care over comms and marketing. Ultimately it’s a case for improving the product and product experience – make the object talk-worthy enough that it spawns all the positive word-of-mouth needed.

That said, all these things remain part of “brand”, the nexus of perceptions and associations people hold about a product. The claim that “brand is dead” is, shall we say, premature.

Where do we disagree with Simonson & Rosen? It’s not a brand new idea (Cluetrain got their first), and it holds more true for higher-spend, features-led techie product categories than others.

But mostly we disagree with the emphasis on rationality. Really studying social media forums shows that, yes, a certain amount of rational comparison and assessment is going on, to be sure. But forums and reviews say just as much about the emotive sides of purchase too – needs, hopes, fears. We wouldn’t call this irrational behaviour: what a purchase delivers socially and symbolically is just as much a source of value – and a valid reason to buy it  - as its objective functionality. That’s brand again.

And that’s why brands need to listen to people on forums.


Stay in touch with Jess on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Or, if you think forums could hold the key to your brand’s business challenges, speak to our Client Director James Hirst, on 07961 527 366 or email


Highlights from the Insight Innovation Exchange (IIeX) Amsterdam

We’ve just come back from Insight Innovation Exchange Europe. And what an inspiring two days! From Mark Earls and John Willshire making the audience work with Artefact cards to identify innovations needed in market research, to inspiring presentations on neuromarketing, gamification and mobile, there’s a lot of exciting ideas to take away.

We hope to have contributed to this ourselves: Our CEO, Andrew Needham and our Research Manager Jess Owens shared their thoughts on Using social media research for agile, adaptive customer intelligence” in a joint presentation at 17:00 on the first day of the conference.

Following a classic Andrew introduction – getting the audience to stand up and be agile, by squatting up and down doing an agility exercise – they talked about:

  1. What does “agile” research really mean? It’s not just about quick thinking – it’s about empowering clients to take action.
  2. Lessons from agile software development: it’s all about the feedback loop
  3. Why agile social media research? Jess shared stories from two social media crises, showing how real-time social media listening can get research a seat at the table
  4. Partnership with clients to build an agile, actionable research programme – aka is the weekly report always the best way to share research insights? We talk about the “client as superuser”
  5. The true power of the brand tracker dataset - how the unprompted nature of social media mentions enables highly adaptive and flexible research, providing the ability to instantly answer questions brands didn’t even know they had

Here is their presentation, for those of you who couldn’t make it:


We’d also like to congratulate our colleagues from Pulsar for winning the first DIVA (Data Visualisation Award) for our How Video Spreads Twitter network visualisation:

We tracked the conference on Pulsar (of course!). Here’s how the 1,711 IIeX-related tweets performed over the two days of the conference:

Conversation volumes by hour:

IIeX Volume per hour

Most active Twitter users:

IIeX Influencers


Most shared links:

1. Pulsar’s winning entry to the DIVA awards 

2. DIVA Awards Panel announcement

3. IIeX Europe Homepage 

4. #IIeX Focus Series – Technology & Market Research (2 of 5): Social Media

5. #IIeX Focus Series – Technology & Market Research (3 of 5): Photo & Video



Bad Andrew picture

Andrew Needham is a Founding Partner and CEO of FACE Research. A pioneer in the use of social data in qualitative and quantitative research to deliver a holistic view of the consumer, Andrew is leading the global expansion of FACE. Read more of Andrew’s thoughts here. Or reach out to him on LinkedIn or Twitter.


Jess Owens profile photo

Jess Owens is a social media researcher in FACE’s London office. As one of the first members of the Global Social Insight team, she has pioneered new research methods with social data, from audience mapping, channel effectiveness studies and studying social media virality and content diffusion. Get in touch with Jess via LinkedIn or Twitter – she tweets for us @FaceResearch as well as from her personal account, @hautepop


Three best use cases for qualitative mobile research

As Ray Poynter notes, mobile has finally arrived in market research!

 “people have been saying mobile is the next big thing for over 15 years, even in the days when that meant SMS, or WAP, or writing 100s of apps for different types of phones. At conferences and client sessions I keep being asked “So, when will mobile be the big thing?” The answer is that it is now a big thing, and it has been for probably 18 months or more.

What’s notable though is that industry discussion is still oriented around the ‘grand dames’ of the market research toolkit: surveys (now moving from online to mobile, albeit sometimes “accidental mobile”) and CATI (telephone interviewing). Here at FACE we’re wondering, what about qual?

Well, let’s start talking about mobile qual! We’re excited to have research director Sharmila Subramanian writing a series of articles for us sharing her vast experience of mobile research methods, something she’s built up over many years of research with Nokia in particular.

Mobile research

First, when do you need to use mobile research methods? Sharmila shares three case studies:

Why mobile is useful: 

Here at FACE, we are committed to trying to root consumer understanding and resultant insights within context as much as possible.  This requires us to be able to understand consumer moments and interactions when they happen – not just in the home, not just in the research environment. Out of any tool for capturing thoughts and behaviour, mobile presents the best means of doing so.

Beyond this, mobile provides a simple and intuitive interface for capturing consumer attitudes and behaviours for a number of obvious, but important reasons:

1.  It’s people’s primary communication device

2. It’s an extension of people’s bodies and selves: always with them, always on. This makes it invaluable in gathering in-situ understanding

3. It’s the most personal device that people own, so it’s a fantastic platform for capturing more  private or personal thoughts and behaviours

4.  People are used to engaging through apps, making a mobile research app a logical research interface

This is not to say that mobile should be utilised for any & every research activity. It is a one-way method of research, with little scope for researcher-participant interaction. As a result, it is not for briefs or lines of enquiry that require a great deal of laddering and researcher probing in real time.

Moreover, its very nature does not lend itself to long form, highly considered response. When was the last time you tried to write something akin to an essay on your mobile?  I bet it was pretty painful.  Don’t expect any different for a research participant!

Three use cases for qualitative mobile research

From our own experience on a range of projects, mobile research comes into its own on three types of briefs:

Mobile research FACE App

1. Understanding response to concepts:

Whilst we would not advocate a mobile-only methodology for concept testing and development, mobile can prove an invaluable supplement to F2F methodologies where we wish research participants to “live” with concepts beyond the confines of the focus group facility. Initial reads on concepts often give us an understanding of their initial impact and wow factor. However, getting participants to then live with the proposition, and document when they see roles for certain ideas and concepts via mobile, can go much further in identifying their potential usefulness, and ability to fulfil needs within the real world.

On a recent project using FACE’s mobile research app, this approach proved invaluable in deepening understanding around a concept for a new service.  Whilst an online community and groups gave understanding of the initial comprehension and appeal of that concept, subsequent mobile research gave us a richer picture of where participants actually saw a role for the proposition – in terms of where, when, how they would utilise it and why.  We would not have been able to get that level of understanding by utilising other methods that rely on hindsight or recall.

2. Product trialing:

Mobile can come into its own in terms of understanding product usage and response – ultimately, it gives us the ability to understand those moments in-situ, as they happen.  And it makes it easier for the user to document those moments – no paper diary completion, no need for recalling of hazy memories on an online community or in a group.  Everything from first impressions of a new product, to first and repeat usage, to understanding how response to a product can change over time can be readily captured within mobile research. Moreover, it gives us the ability to understand all of those things across a variety of contexts, times of day, as well as the social dimension that may be at play.  As a result, we get closer to a more holistic understanding of product usage.

A recent example of the power of mobile for product trial can be seen in a project FACE conducted looking to understand response to a new product format.  FACE’s mobile app was used by a range of participants over a week to understand their first impressions of the product, how they used it, the triggers and barriers to use, and how their response changed over time.  This helped us to define the key benefits and use cases for the product prior to launch, as well as helping to provide starter thoughts for which elements of the product experience future communications should leverage.

However, the approach also proved powerful in providing a wealth of rich multimedia material that could be utilised by the client to provide more compelling evidence of the value of the product.

Mobile research FACE App

3. Shopper interaction:

The very mobile nature of the, well, mobile, clearly lends itself to helping to better understand the shopper experience. Whether in terms of gaining learnings on retail environment, in-store communications, or product placement, the discrete form, and bite-sized mode of interaction of the mobile makes it ideal for consumers to gather quick thoughts, images, and documentation of journeys within store.

FACE employed a mobile approach for understanding response to a new store layout format for a well known food and drink brand. This was invaluable in gaining firsthand accounts of what was a new concept in-store – accounts that were not influenced by researcher presence. The unmediated nature of this capture was essential in identifying exactly what the key hooks, and turn-offs of the new format were, and helped provide a compelling story for the client, through the use of raw, consumer generated content, to help our client sell the concept to retailers.


So, that’s an initial overview of three times mobile research is one of the best methods we’ve got in our market research toolkit. Next up: getting the most out of a mobile approach – the do’s, the don’ts, and  best practice for making a mobile methodology a success.

If you’d like to discuss this further with Sharmila, contact her at, on LinkedIn or Twitter @SharmilaSub. To stay in touch with more of our qual thinking and methodology knowledge-sharing, join our mailing list.

The changing faces of independent women in India, China and Japan

When tracking the evolution of developing countries, we see many of the trends in the West working at hyper-speed in Asia (e.g. growth of the middle class, adoption of branding and technology).

A couple of weeks ago our Asia team had a really interesting discussion about how a growing trend of women’s independence is manifesting in the region. Recent articles such as The Curse of the Mummyji in the Economist, and Brands look anew at single Asian women in WARC inspired a fascinating email discussion as our Hong Kong and Singapore team shared their personal experiences and thoughts on the topic.

Serena Jacob (Head of FACE Singapore) talked about the Indian mother-in-law / daughter-in-law relationship, Andrew Ho (Managing Director of FACE Asia) had thoughts on “carnivore women” and “herbivore men” in Japan, and I (Nicole Li) shared some thoughts on “victorious women” in China.

Our blog editors thought this was far too interesting not to share, and so we’ve written it up in this post. What are the gender trends we’re seeing develop, and why?

Understanding the wider Asian context

Before we look at individual markets, let’s consider some social and economic factors that sit across Asia. Firstly, the cost of living has been increasing rapidly in Asia, necessitating dual income households. When women need to work they also need to acquire skills and therefore need an education, which means that more and more Asian women have economic independence. Secondly, the exposure to alternate points of view and ways of being through a variety of media, including social media, is changing the mindset of Asian women. And last but not least, the Internet has raised public awareness towards crimes against women in Asian countries and helped moving women’s rights forward. For example, the gang rape cases in India have raised international attention.


All of the above factors have meant that more and more Asian women are now able to get an education, build careers, generate enough disposable income to indulge their own tastes, and have the confidence to make choices for themselves.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that women’s growing independence will take the same shape across Asia. Let’s look at how these have been manifesting in China, Japan and India, and how are brands adapting to these trends – or even leading the way.

China & Hong Kong – From “leftover ladies” to “flourishing females”

In China and Hong Kong, the term “leftover ladies” (剩女) have been a very popular topic in the past few years. The term is used to describe women who remain single into their 30s and beyond, and it implies that there is something wrong with them. However, people have recently started to push back on this by swapping the first word “sheng” for another word that is pronounced identically but is written differently in Chinese. This term has a more positive meaning – “shengnu” as in “flourishing women” (盛女) in Hong Kong and “victorious women” (勝女) in China.

How does this “flourishing women” trend play out?

Changing women in Asia - prebridal wedding shoot

  • In Hong Kong, many women are re-examining their identities and exploring how they can live a “flourishing” single life. For instance, solo pre-wedding bridal shoots have been gaining popularity, as many women decide that they do not need to wait for “the One” to fulfill their desire to be photographed wearing nice dresses, to leave a good memory of their youth and beauty
  • Some brands have joined Chinese women to celebrate their “victorious life” – for instance, according to the Wall Street Journal, Maserati has been hosting private cocktail parties together with Giorgio Armani and La Perla for successful young female business executive in China. According to the car company, women account for 40% of Quattroporte orders in China, compared to less than 5% in Europe and USA.

Japan – Enjoying the “single lifestyle”

Those who have watched Japanese drama will be familiar with the following scene – a Japanese housewife standing at the doorstep greeting her husband when he comes back from work. In the traditional role, Japanese women are expected to stay at home and take care of the family while their husbands deal with the outside world.

But this is changing – as illustrated by a few expressions that seek to capture change in women’s role in the Japanese society:

  • Carnivore Women vs. Herbivore Men – the rise of ambitious, career driven women in response to the increasing population of “vegetarian” men who (metaphorically speaking) do not aggressively hunt for dates or career advancement, but instead prefer to “eat grass” side by side with women
  • sekkusu shinai shokogun, or ‘Celibacy Syndrome’ – Japanese survey data is suggesting that many young women are avoiding engaging in relationships. A 2011 survey from Japan’s National Insitute of Population and Social Security Research reported that 49% of unmarried women under 35 (and 61% of men) were not in any kind of romantic relationship, and 90% (!) of young women believed that staying single was “preferable to what they imagine marriage would be like”. Instead, young women are preferring to build a carefree and comfortable single lifestyle
  • Products tailored for singles are not new news in Japan: for instance a real estate company called Tokyo’s Girl Fudosan designs “kawaii”/ cute feminine style condos offering communal living solutions markets itself towards female residents.

India – Women gaining independence

Traditionally, the role of Indian women is strongly defined and confined by the family. Indian women marry relatively young and once married, they are expected to be completely submissive to the family they have married into, particularly their ‘mummyji’ (mother-in-law).

This situation has been changing, however – the increasing cost of living and high real-estate costs mean apartments in large metros are small and can only accommodate “nuclear” families. This means that there are more households where the young housewife makes the brand decisions, and she will potentially adopt new categories and brands that her mother-in-law might not have allowed.

Cointreauversial India

As a result of their growing independence and increasing personal disposable income, Indian women are spending more and experimenting with more product categories. For example, there is a growing acceptance of women consuming alcohol - “We girls normally hang out once a week at some joint or the other. For us, it’s a stress-buster,” says one 29-year-old advertising executive. And brands have recognized this change: e.g. the French alcohol brand Remy Cointreau has held parties and promotional events targeted at female drinkers, with discounts offered proportionate to the height of the heels they are wearing!

Closing thoughts

Women’s growing independence is a strong trend in Asia, and in even less developed countries than those we’ve mentioned, we reckon it will become mainstream faster than many companies expect. While some brands have already adapted to this, most are yet to recognize this with brand communications that still harp back to traditional gender roles. We hope that a deeper understanding of their cultural differences and societal development would inspire more interesting and culturally sensitive communications for Asian women.

Please stay tuned for an extension of this article, as we will be tracking how the trends manifest in different countries in Asia.

Meet James Hirst – our new Global Business Development Director

FACE is growing, and this month’s new arrival in the office is someone whose role is to do exactly that: grow our consultancy business. His name is James Hirst, and he joins us as Global Business Development Director from branding agency Clear.

Doubtless a few of you will be hearing from James in the next few weeks, so we wanted to introduce him to you now – along with his fresh point of view on how agencies can help clients achieve their business ambitions.

Over to James:

James Hirst

Tell us what brought you to FACE?

In my opinion there are not many agencies who truly understand how to leverage social media in such a way as FACE. Couple that with leading edge research techniques and I was sold.

What do you think should change in the agency/client relationship?

As I touch upon below, I think agencies need to truly understand what our clients are trying to achieve and how that links to the ultimate goal of the business they work in. If we can understand that then we can truly help them. I guess it needs a bit of give and take from both sides and for agencies to be seen as trusted partners. Something that is hard (but not impossible) when you work on a project-by-project basis.

Tell us about yourself outside of work!

Outside of work I try spend as much time as possible with my family, although that is mostly made up entertaining my young son (whose current addiction has moved from Fireman Sam, through Peppa Pig, to Toy Story). When I do get a minute to myself I can usually be found training for triathlons and half marathons.


And now for a few thoughts from James:

“Unfortunately I was unable to attend the recent Marketing Society event, so when Marketing Week hit my inbox on Friday morning with a headline of Martin Glenn: ‘All business failures are marketing failures at heart, I was interested to read on.

The element that struck me the most was his point about bolder marketing leadership. To steal Martin’s quote:

“We’re put on this earth as marketers to either steal share from someone, grow a market, change behaviour or make more money and I don’t think we should be ashamed about that”

It made me think about the client/agency relationship and how important it is to make sure we are helping our clients achieve their ultimate goals – be they business or personal.

FACE, as leaders in the world of social insight, are on a mission to help our clients raise their SQ (social intelligence quotient). We want to help brands get a deeper understanding of their consumers at individual, group and network levels – so we like to think we are very well placed to help achieve all of the above.

“All business failures are marketing failures at their heart,” says Martin Glenn. “The businesses that don’t exist today that did 20 or 30 years ago got their marketing wrong.”

And why does marketing go wrong? It goes wrong when it doesn’t understand its audience, and it doesn’t understand their needs.

Imagine being able to understand and analyse what people are posting, tweeting, sharing on social networks from Twitter to YouTube to Yammer and then being able to go deeper with a selected audience to find out the why, the where, the when, and the different attitudes and needs  inspiring people’s consumer behaviour.

To quote again “We’re put on this earth as marketers to either steal share from someone, grow a market, change behaviour or make more money”

Research can play a pivotal role in achieving this. It gives brands the deep consumer understanding they need to change behaviours, appeal to new customers, or justify a higher price premium. Answering these questions (and more) is  what we do here at FACE. And the smart and innovative ways in which we do it is definitely something that has struck me in my first few weeks at the company.”


If you’d like to have a talk with us about your brand’s big business challenges and what we can do to help you meet them, then you can reach James on 07961 527 366, email or connect with him on LinkedIn here.