Market Research for the Hashtag Era

Jan 24, 2018
As Featured In 
Journal of Marketing

Harvesting Brand Information from Social Tags

Among the many changes brought about by the evolution of social media is this one: Marketers now have a powerful new tool for assessing consumer perceptions of products and brands.

Social tags are the keywords, hashtags and Pinterest pin labels that users create as they discuss or categorize topics on social media. And these tags can offer a qualitative and revealing look at consumers’ perceptions of products and brands, according to new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. The Smith School’s P.K. Kannan, the Dean’s Chair in Marketing Science; Yogesh Joshi, associate professor of marketing, and former Smith Ph.D. candidate Hyoryung Nam, authored the report, published recently in the Journal of Marketing.

The researchers compared conventional techniques that brand managers use to determine consumer perceptions — tools such as brand concept maps and text mining. And they highlighted the added value of a technique that would employ more unconstrained, open-ended and synoptic information contained within social tags. Then they analyzed and demonstrated how marketers might use the information in social tags to understand how people perceive a particular brand.

“The advent of user-generated content has revolutionized the art and science of marketing research by making available a significant amount of online data that reflect consumers’ opinions, attitudes, and preferences for products, services and brands,” the study says. Marketing scholars through the years have proposed a number of different methods for assessing brand perception, including internet search data, online reviews and microblogs.

Kannan says social tags, though little studied to date, could be among the most reliable metrics. “As researchers we were looking at reports that come out about brands, for example, when Apple launches a new product and there is news about that, and we were asking ‘How do people tag it?’”

The tags, taken together, can create a narrative about how people are perceiving the new product or the brand itself.

Previously, marketers worked to build so-called brand maps in market research. They would conduct an interactive session with a group of consumers, asking them, “What comes to your mind when you think of this brand?”

And they would collect the responses — “good quality,” “cheap,” “trendy,” “athlete,” “old fashioned,” “environment” and so on — to create a narrative that describes consumers’ overriding sentiments about a brand, with the terms that are most repeated dominating the narrative.

“This can be a very intensive process,” Kannan says. “We argue in this article that these social tags are basically a snapshot of what consumers are thinking about brands. They are giving marketer researchers a lot of information, for free.” “It is likely that this information is a more accurate description of what’s in their minds, since consumers typically generate these tags entirely on their own, rather than when prompted by researchers, as in the conventional approaches,” adds Joshi.

This research demonstrates, for example, that Volkswagen, prior to its emissions scandal, had certain words — “quality,” “engineering” – that would emerge with prominence from looking at the social tags. But when the topic modelling was done after the emissions news, the words that emerged had changed, reflecting the scandal.

“Using these social tags, we can see how brand is being perceived over time and how brand strength is changing over time,” Kannan says. “This can help managers track how brand perception changes and help them make decisions.”

“Our research also enables a brand manager to understand consumer perceptions regarding a brand’s competitor. This is an important perspective to have, since most marketing actions require the manager to take into account potential reactions from competitors,” says Joshi.

The recent paper builds on previous research from Nam and Kannan, including “The Informational Value of Social Tagging Networks,” published in the same journal in July of 2014, and winner of the MSI H. Paul Root Award for the advancement of the practice of marketing.

That paper analyzed social tagging information to determine brand perception and relate it to a company’s stock market performance. The researchers found that social tags could serve as a valuable proxy for determining consumer-based brand equity and foreshadow a share price’s rise or fall.

Read more: Harvesting Brand Information from Social Tags is featured in the Journal of Marketing.

About the Author(s)

P. K. Kannan

P. K. Kannan is the Dean's Chair in Marketing Science at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. His main research focus is on marketing modeling, applying statistical and econometric methods to marketing data. His current research stream focuses on attribution modeling, media mix modeling, new product/service development and customer relationship management (CRM).

Yogesh Joshi is an associate professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He works in the areas of marketing and innovation. His research focuses on strategic marketing decisions, product differentiation, brand strategy, social influence, the diffusion of innovations, and new product development. He teaches customer centric innovation in the undergraduate program and innovation and product development in the MBA program.

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