Social media surveys: have you ever read a helpful one?

You would think that the survey was the ultimate piece of social interaction. After all, you’re asking the person their opinion in an open way. But of course it’s not that simple. Research into surveys has thrown up all sorts of issues, such as people giving the answer they think people want to hear, or different answers from the same person to the same essential question asked three different ways.

That’s not to say surveys are completely unhelpful; they’re not, if they’re conducted intelligently and without the sense of having the results lined up and using the survey to fit the hypothesis (which isn’t really a hypothesis as you’ve already decided the result – following me?).

But surveys about social media are a dime a dozen these days, and few of them are remotely helpful to either social-savvy employees or potentially social-wary employers – or anyone in between, for that matter.

Take yesterday’s gem from The Telegraph about social networks costing the economy billions in lack of productivity, as reported in Social Media Today. The survey is rightly lampooned as it implies social networks are the only form of office timewasting – and before you ask, I’m writing this in my lunch break and rarely take the whole hour! – and relies on people estimating both their own usage and their colleagues’. I don’t know about you, but I take is as given that people are generally phenomenally bad at estimating anything. For example in that survey people estimated their own time spent on online networks at being about a third of the time their colleagues spent on them; the survey used the bottom number but really, aren’t they both shots in the dark?

I’ve been asked a number of times at conferences to say how long I use each network professionally for per week or per day. The answer is as long as is needed. Some days Twitter gets five minutes, if that, some days it gets two hours. Likewise Facebook, etc. If there are questions to be answered, comments to be responded to and news items to be shared, then that happens, in order of urgency, every day, no matter how long – or how little – it takes.  Of course that’s professional, not personal use, but even then I struggle to estimate the percentage of my time it takes as opposed to updating our websites, building microsites, running AdWords campaigns, writing presentations etc etc. So how utterly rubbish would I be at estimating my personal usage? Let alone Jacqui’s or Lo’s? Extremely, let me tell you. And I can only imagine those whose jobs have nowt to do with digital marketing are much the same.

The sole commenter on SMT points out a survey pointing in the other direction: Social media keeps [sic] employees’ heads in the game, screams the headline (‘media’ is plural. Hard to remember, even by me, but I at least try to check the title). This is duly commented on and gushed over… but is actually no more useful than The Telegraph’s alleged churnalism.

All it really says is that employers are using the established social tools, such as blogs, in place of the old emails and meetings. That gives people more of a right to reply, but doesn’t really tell you if as a result of doing that employees are any more productive or better informed. Perhaps there’s an argument for more engaged, but if you’re not asking the employees, how do you know for sure? It doesn’t sound like there’s any actual metric – of the kind we need to use to see how supporters are responding to professional networks – to base these results on other than, once again, poorly remembered anecdote. Take the meat of the results:

Nearly 80 percent (79%) of respondents said they use social media to frequently engage employees and foster productivity. Tools such as company blogs and discussion boards even outranked e-mail (75 percent) as means of keeping employees’ heads in the game.

Okay – they’re using it. Does it work?

I’m not trying to be difficult here, as it’s in my interest to support the latter kind of survey; the more people that are online during the day, the more people I can reach, professionally and personally.  And I recognise that one survey is not really an answer to the other, as one is focussing on estimated personal use and the other on professional use internal to organisations (although that means opening access and accepting that personal use will happen as a result).

I just can’t help feeling that, positive or negative towards social platforms, these surveys just muddy the waters and confuse already hesistant senior management teams further. Blanket statements and ‘proofs’ like these just lead to the situation I see coming up over and over again where teams are either told “we need a Facebook page” with no sense of the whys and wherefores (though isn’t that just whys and, erm, whys?) or told that it’s all a distraction, a fad and completely lacking in usefulness. What they really need is case studies and examples of the myriad ways companies in their sector are using social tools, and working out what’s good for them and where they can afford to experiment. There’s a massive wealth of this kind of resource for charities online, for example, but I’m still asked time and time again ‘how we convinced our managers’.

It wasn’t using linkbait, press-chasing surveys, that’s for damn sure.

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