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Using Google+ for qualitative research with connected consumers

Article ID:
August 2013, page 53
Sharon Chen

Article Abstract

Google's Sharon Chen reports on her team's experience using Goolge+ to conduct a multifaceted qualitative research study with Web-savvy Generation C.

Meeting them more than halfway

Editor's note: Sharon Chen is advertising research manager at Google.

Here at Google, our team ran several studies earlier this year to better understand one of YouTube’s core audiences – Generation C, a psychographic of highly-connected consumers who care deeply about community, connection, creation and curation online. We wanted to learn more about how they define themselves, get a better understanding of their attitudes and behaviors and get their thoughts on effective marketing. The results of these studies were published on Think Insights, Google’s online hub for large advertisers and agencies, in a series about Generation C.

The team used Google+ to conduct some of this research. This article offers some details on how the studies were conducted and some best practices we learned along the way.

Drive interaction

With social media becoming increasingly ubiquitous in consumers’ lives, social platforms like Google+ can serve as an easy and accessible way to conduct market research. These platforms are free and research participants already know how to use them. Plus, features like photo and video sharing and commenting are great ways to facilitate discussions among participants. We’ve found in previous pilots that the social environment can drive interaction and rich conversation between participants.

Beyond the standard commenting and sharing features, Google+ also has a myriad of other features designed for group management and user engagement that can be leveraged for group conversations and activities. These include:

Hangouts, which are one-on-one group video chats. During a Hangout, you can share your screen with other participants, watch a YouTube video together or brainstorm collectively in a document. For studies, this makes it possible to run focus group discussions regardless of participant location.

Events, which can be used to organize activities like Hangouts or get-togethers among a group of users. Posted pictures, videos and comments can be linked to events. This is a great feature to use when scheduling participant activities like shop-alongs.

Communities, which are essentially interest groups where all discussion, posts and Events can be contained within the group. These can be set up as invite-only and are a useful way to keep all posts related to a study contained in one place. Posts made within a Community are automatically only shared to the Community unless the user specifies otherwise.

Photo and video uploading for sharing rich media.

Commenting and +1-ing posts to upvote favorites. In studies, participants could be asked to vote for a creative concept that they find most appealing.

Mobile capabilities via the mobile Google+ app on iOS and Android. Users can share on the spot or participate in Hangouts from their phone.

Circles let users manage their contacts and share posts only with the people they want to. For research studies, this means participants can share some things with the entire group but share other things only with the researchers or a subset of people.

Because Generation C tends to thrive on connecting with others, creating and curating content online and participating in online communities, social platforms are an ideal way to interact with this audience online for research studies. That isn’t to say Google+ doesn’t work for other audiences as well. We’ve run successful studies with half a dozen other audiences focusing on a myriad of topics within the past year.

Variety of options

There are a variety of options available for recruiting. If you’re a business with a Google+ page, you might choose to ask your followers for participation and then invite them into a Community for the study. In our case, we wanted to talk to a very specific psychographic audience so we developed a screener and recruited from standard focus group panels. Focus group panels are more suited to this type of study than survey panels since panelists are generally more open to conversation and engagement. Accepted participants were then asked to join Google+ if they weren’t already a member.

Within the screener, it’s good practice to include questions that assess whether potential participants possess the technical hardware and savvy to participate in the activities you have planned. For example, if you’re planning an activity that includes video uploads, make sure participants have the ability to record and upload videos. For Hangouts, you may want to screen for the existence of a Webcam and working microphone. Adding screener questions to assess comfort with the Internet and the digital space is good practice as well.

Planning the study

We began by coming up with a high-level list of questions and topics that we wanted to learn more about from the study. Using that, we could then design activities appropriate for the study.

In our case, we had questions about Generation C: How do they define themselves? What are their attitudes on technology, media and social sharing? How do they perceive their influence on family and friends? How do they actually behave? What are their attitudes around brands and marketing?

To address these, we planned out a video self-interview, an online discussion, a Hangout session and an activity asking participants to show marketing that works and then design their own marketing campaign in a way that would speak to them. We planned four activities to cover a span of two weeks in order to give participants time to complete each activity.

The key is to go into the study with a clear plan of attack. Know what you’re looking to learn and map out the activities you want to do to get at the answers. We went into a lot of detail in the planning phase, creating full discussion guides and timing for each individual activity.

Running the study

We created an invite-only Google+ Community for the study and invited participants to it. All discussions, events and posts related to the study were shared only to this Community.

For each activity, a corresponding Google+ Event was created that participants could post directly to. This way, for example, all of the uploaded pictures showing “marketing that works” ended up being grouped together within the Event. For the “marketing that works” activity, some of the participants also got creative and designed marketing plans in Google Drive to share with the Community. As we progressed through the study, we were able to use the later activities as opportunities to deep-dive into some of the things uncovered from the previous activities.

In addition to activities, participants were also kept engaged with small daily interactions. These could be anything ranging from reminders and encouragement to complete activities to a daily question or even comments on posted items. The key is to keep the daily conversations small, as you normally would in a social media setting. We’ve found that lengthy questions necessitating lengthy answers are generally not as well-received by participants and are less engaging for this purpose.


The four activities in this study generated an incredible amount of very rich material that we were then able to construct into big learnings and insights. These included all of the pictures and videos that were uploaded, discussion on the posted items, responses to daily discussions and other media shared as part of the activities.

Among many other findings, we uncovered motivations for sharing content online:

“I like to share things that interest, fascinate and inspire me.”

“I do a lot of competitions and triathlons and use social media to keep in touch with my teammates and also to motivate them.”

“I like to generate a conversation, even arguments. It’s about stirring up a discussion. If you always agree, it’s not really a discussion.”

As well as how they use digital when they’re in the market for things:

“I use YouTube a lot for beauty tutorials, hairstyles, nails and I look at a lot of product reviews for things I am looking to buy.”

“I like to compare different brands with my friends to compare and get the perceptions from people I respect so I can make good decisions about what to buy.”

What we learned

Social platforms like Google+ can be used effectively for the purpose of gaining rich insights and in the process, getting a lot of great supporting content from uploaded media, comments, and discussions. The array of features available works as a powerful toolbox for designing innovative activities. Feedback from participants that we’ve gathered post-studies has also shown that they enjoy being able to interact with other participants and especially love the Hangouts. Actions like sharing and posting also “made sense” to participants already used to using social media in their daily lives.

However, Google+ is a consumer experience – it’s not designed for research – so there are some drawbacks as well. For example, researchers have less control over the environment than they might in typical studies. There is also the possibility that participants being able to see each other’s posts may skew how they respond. Lastly, it can be more difficult to aggregate participant responses for post-study analysis.

The bottom line, though, is that Google+ proved to be accessible, low-cost and effective at engaging users and gaining insights. I look forward to hearing what kinds of insights brands and researchers are able to generate through creative use of some of these tools.

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