Benefits and challenges of using social media to profile consumers



A recent consulting assignment prompted me to revisit the findings from a research project that I conducted three years ago, with Moira Clark and Paul Fennemore. We looked at how business-to-consumer organisations were using social media to complement their segmentation efforts. Here is an overview of our findings.


The first part of our study explored how firms used social media to identify and profile customers. We found that companies were enthusiastic about the potential of social media as a source of consumer insight, particularly around consumer behaviour, sentiment towards their brands, and the salience of particular users and topics. As one of our interviewees, representing a transport company, said: Social (media) gives us this data that we would not otherwise get.


Platforms routinely monitored by the firms in our study included the popular micro blogging service Twitter, the social network Facebook, and the video sharing website YouTube. Naturally, firms operating in an international context monitored services popular in those locations, instead, such as Ren-Ren in China. Some firms also screened the social scoring platform Klout and the blogging activity of particular users, namely influencers. A very small number hosted their own virtual communities.


A key perceived advantage of social media was that customers self-segment by joining particular online communities of interest. Self-selection improves accuracy in segmentation, and overcomes one of the key challenges of segmentation: being able to observe key drivers of behaviour. For instance, one financial services firm said: ‘We pick up a lot on forums. There are 415 forums associated with international banking’.


Our interviewees were not worried about the quality of social media data. For instance, one interviewee representing a financial services organisation said: ‘(On social media) people want to genuinely communicate with their friends and therefore have no incentive to lie about who they are’.


Our interviewees felt that data collected via social media platforms complemented information traditionally available in the organisations’ customer relationship management (CRM) systems, and could bring marketers closer to obtaining a single view of customers. However, for many firms there was not, yet, an automatic or seamless integration of CRM and social media data. Instead, social media tended to be added to the CRM system on an ad-hoc basis, for instance, following a complaint.


Integration of CRM and social media data was hindered by organisational issues, as well as legal and ethical considerations concerning data collection and data sharing. There were also issues related to the data sources, including the ability to understand foreign languages or accessing the data. Moreover, there were challenges in matching social media identities with those on the organisation’s existing databases.




  • Data of good quality
  • Timely information
  • Provides insight into areas not covered by other data sources
  • Towards a single view of the customer
  • Organisational barriers to integration of CRM and social media data
  • Legal and ethical considerations concerning data collection and data sharing
  • Language barriers
  • Access to data
  • Matching social media identities with those on the organisation’s databases


Given the perceived quality of social media data, and their value as a source of consumer  insight, firms were exploring ways of dealing with the barriers to fully utilising social media data. For instance, to overcome silos, some firms created dedicated customer insight teams. Others managed legal constraints by explicitly asking their customers for permission to collect and use data regarding their social media presence. To deal with language and cultural barriers, firms enlisted the help of agencies or local partners, and to overcome access issues firms tried to move the conversation off the social media platforms and onto their own channels (e.g. e-mail). Finally, to develop a single view of the customer, firms increasingly asked (and obtained) customers’ social media usernames or, conversely, they asked social media users for their post code or other form of customer identification to cross reference identities. One example was given by this interviewee representing a consumer products’ brand: ‘Users often want help or to be involved or are entering competitions, so there is an incentive to get them to (enter) their correct identity details’.



Overcoming the challenges

Organisational barriers to integration of CRM and social media data Creation of dedicated customer insight teams
Legal and ethical considerations concerning data collection and data sharing Explicitly asking customers for permission to collect and use social media data


Language barriers Use of agencies or local partners


Access to data


Move the conversation off the social media platforms and onto the organisation’s own channels (e.g. e-mail)
Matching social media identities with those on the organisation’s databases Collect customers’ social media usernames and/or ask social media users for their post code or other form of customer identification to cross reference identities

The full paper is available here. It is paid access, but there is a free version here, too.


Three years later, these challenges persist. New platforms (e.g., Snapchat) mean new challenges for data access and integration, and customer identification. Many  organisations have yet to merge key functions to overcome silos and facilitate the integration of internal and social media insight. And three years later, I never had a company ask me permission to use my social media data. Have you?


Recent publications

I thought that it would be a good idea to give you a quick update on what I have been publishing, recently. Hopefully, this update will make it easier for you to find something of interest or value to your own work or studies. And, who knows, you and I can find opportunities for collaboration.


Journal articles are the main tool in an academic’s publication strategy – at least in marketing, in the UK. This is because papers go through a lengthy and rigorous process of peer-review, aimed at sorting the wheat from the chaff. Hence, having your work published in academic journals is a sign that it meets certain (high) standards and is deemed to be of interest to the discipline.

Journals articles are, also, a key resource for researchers and higher education students. Therefore, academics that want to have their work reviewed and used by other researchers and by future managers need to publish in these journals. So far, in 2016, I have published the journal articles summarised below.

  • Canhoto, A. I., Dibb, S. (2016) “Unpacking the interplay between organisational factors and the economic environment in the creation of consumer vulnerability”, Journal of Marketing Management, 32(3-4): 335-356 DOI: 10.1080/0267257X.2015.1123759

Summary: Access to credit is a key enabler of modern life. Yet many consumers face factors beyond their control which sometimes render them unable to borrow from mainstream lenders. This paper documents how firm-related factors determine lending thresholds and shape who is, or is not, a creditworthy customer. The impact of the 2008 economic recession on lending decisions is explored, an aspect that has been insufficiently discussed even though recessions are cyclical events. Drawing on semiotics and using multiple case studies, the study captures not only the groups that were excluded but also the reasons for exclusion. Empirical support is offered for the notion of vulnerability as a fluid state and the role of the timing of decisions as a source of vulnerability is described.

Keywords: Consumer vulnerability, customer screening, financial services, segmentation, economic recession, credit crunch

You can find this paper here. I also wrote a blog post about it here.

  • Canhoto, A. I., Quinton, S., Jackson, P. and Dibb, S. (2016). “The co-production of value in digital, university–industry R&D collaborative projects.” Industrial Marketing Management, 56(July): 86–96 DOI: 10.1016/j.indmarman.2016.03.010

Summary: In the context of R&D collaborations between universities and industry, this study investigates the co-production process and the contextual elements that shape it. We develop a conceptual framework that builds on the service-dominant logic perspective that value propositions emerge from the interaction between co-producing parties and the integration of resources. Specifically, the framework explicates how individual, organizational, and external factors shape the type of interactions and the platforms used, the availability and use of operand and operant resources, and the organizational and individual outcomes sought in R&D collaborative projects. We investigate the interplay among these factors through group interviews with UK industry practitioners and university researchers in the context of digital research projects. The types of interaction, resources, and outcomes sought that characterize successful R&D collaboration are revealed, and the contextual aspects that enable, facilitate, block, or create barriers to successful R&D collaborations are identified. Finally, we propose five practical principles for the successful development of collaborative R&D projects within the university–industry context.


  • Co-production demands right attitude, social skills, and complementary expertise.
  • Early wins, regular meetings, and form of IP protection aid trust development.
  • Discrepancies in modes of operation hinder co-production.
  • Information needs to be shared in ways that are accessible and relevant to others.
  • Third-parties can identify projects that gain from collaboration, and link partners.

Keywords: Value co-creation; Value proposition co-production; University–industry collaboration; Knowledge exchange; Digital research; R&D collaboration

You can find this paper here. I also wrote a blog post about it here.

  • Canhoto, A. I., and Murphy, J. (2016) “Learning from simulation design to develop better experiential learning initiatives – An integrative approach”, Journal of Marketing Education, 38(2): 98-106  DOI: 10.1177/0273475316643746 online

Summary: Simulations offer engaging learning experiences, via the provision of feedback or the opportunities for experimentation. However, they lack important attributes valued by marketing educators and employers. This article proposes a “back to basics” look at what constitutes an effective experiential learning initiative. Drawing on the education literature, the article presents a set of propositions for the development of initiatives that deliver deep learning, promote engagement, and develop digital marketing and soft skills. The article notes the attributes of simulations that deliver effective experiential learning, but also where other formats may be superior to simulations, and advocates for an integrative approach. The article illustrates the application of these propositions, and integrative approach, to the development of a highly successful experiential learning initiative, the Google Online Marketing Challenge. The article concludes with the following recommendations for marketing educators engaged in experiential learning: students need to plan, execute, and assess their actions, which requires the provision of feedback mechanisms as part of the experience; the experience should be gamified to increase engagement; developers need to provide guidance and support, to both students and educators, to reduce extraneous cognitive load; the initiative needs to develop digital marketing literacy, as well as soft skills.

Keywords: simulations experiential learning Google Online Marketing Challenge online marketing gamification student competitions

You can find this paper here. I also wrote a blog post about it here.

  • Canhoto, A. I., Meadows, M., Ball, K., Daniel, E., Dibb, S., and Spiller, K. (in press) “The role of customer management capabilities in public-private partnerships”, Journal of Strategic Marketing DOI: online

Summary: Commercial organisations are increasingly asked to perform tasks traditionally associated with governmental bodies, such as law enforcement. The rationale for these public–private partnerships is that there are synergies between traditional business skills and those required to achieve certain societal goals. However, there is a lack of research into whether this is, indeed, the case. This paper addresses this gap by investigating one particular type of public–private partnership: anti-money laundering (AML). The study explores the potential synergies between customer relationship management (CRM) and those required for AML. A quantitative survey-based approach is used to identify the overlaps and connections between these two areas of competence. The findings reveal tensions between financial institutions’ dual roles as both commercial organisations and players in the battle against money laundering. The consequences for these firms are explored, and the wider implications for other organisations supplying non-commercial services to government are considered.

Keywords: marketing capabilities, public–private partnerships, customer relationship management, anti money laundering, customer insight

You can find this paper here.

  • Quinn, L., Dibb, S., Simkin, L., Canhoto, A. I. and Analogbei, M. (forthcoming) “Troubled Waters: The Transformation of Marketing in a Digital World”, European Journal of Marketing

Summary: We establish how strategic target-market selection decisions are shaped, challenged and driven in response to the rapidly-evolving technological landscape. We critically evaluate the implications of these changes for: (a) the role of marketers, and (b) the organizational function of marketing. The research uses qualitative methods. Key-informant interviews are conducted among senior organizational practitioners within client-side organizations, digital agencies and strategic marketing consultancies, seeking to contrast their views. The findings reveal an erosion of responsibility for the integrated strategic role of marketing decision-making. In particular, we reveal that the evolving digital landscape has precipitated a sense of crisis for marketers, and the role of marketing within the firm. This extends beyond simply remedying a skills-gap and is triggering a transformation that has repercussions for the future of marketing and its practice, thus diminishing functional accountability. The findings have long-term implications for marketing as a strategic organizational function of the firm and for marketing as a practice. The study considers an increasingly digitalized marketplace and the associated impact of big data for the function of marketing. It reveals the changing scope of strategic marketing practice and functional accountability.

Keywords: Big Data; Digitalization; Target-Market Strategy; Analytics

This paper is still in production and, so, it is not available, yet.

  • Canhoto, A. I., and Arp, S. (forthcoming) “Exploring the factors that support adoption and sustained use of health and fitness wearables”, Journal of Marketing Management

Summary: The Internet of Things and, particularly, wearable products have changed the focus of the healthcare industry to prevention programs that enable people to become active and take responsibility for their own health. These benefits will only materialise, however, if users adopt and continue to use these products, as opposed to abandoning them shortly after purchase. Our study investigates how the characteristics of the device, the context and the user can support the adoption and the sustained use of health and fitness wearables. We find that the factors that support the former differ from those that support the latter. For instance, features that signal the device’s ability to collect activity data are essential for adoption, whereas device portability and resilience are key for sustained use. The findings contribute to the conceptual understanding of consumers’ adoption and sustained use of wearable technology for general health and fitness purposes. The findings also provide valuable guidance to firms investing in the development and marketing of these devices, as well as key insights for government initiatives aimed at combating rising levels of obesity and diabetes.

Keywords: Internet of things, Wearables, Technology adoption, Consumer behaviour, health and fitness

This paper is still in production and, so, it is not available, yet.

In addition to these journals, I co-authored a book chapter:

  • Quinton, S., Canhoto, A.I. and Budhathoki, T. (2016) ‘What makes a digital innovator?’, in Growing Business Handbook (Ed. Jolly, A.), IOD: London

Summary: The findings indicate that there are core similarities in the characteristics and capabilities  required of SME leaders between disparate types of businesses, irrespective of size, country or sector. Our findings also indicate that it is not only the knowledge level of individuals leading firms but also the positive predisposition of those individuals which facilitates the adoption of digital innovation. Being a digital innovator requires a combination of intangible, soft skills and externally measurable knowledge levels.

You can find it here.

So, this is what I have been working on. Do you think that we can collaborate? Let me know.

Handling negative online reviews: speed and voice matter; status and action frame not so much

The question I get asked most often (after whether social media activity helps with sales and profitability) is how to handle negative online reviews. The comments left by other customers, and any responses left by the company, are available for all to see, and can impact on the company’s reputation. So, many companies worry that their response might do more harm than good.


Image source

If you are one of them, you may find this study by Beverley A. Sparks, Kevin Kam Fung So and Graham L. Bradley interesting. The authors investigated 1) whether providing a response was better than providing no response, and 2) how different elements of a response would impact on the consumers’ trust in the company and their belief that the company is ‘attentive, caring, and responsive to customer needs, preferences, and emotions’ (page 76).


The researchers develop a simulated webpage with the name of the hotel, a photo of the exterior of an unidentifiable hotel and several photos of service employees, a booking search panel, and a fictitious map of the hotel location. The simulation also included one negative consumer review.


Some participants in the simulation only saw the elements above. The others saw the elements above plus one response from the hotel. The hotel’s response varied as thus:

  • Source of response – the responses were ‘authored’ by either the General Manager or a Guest Service Agent;
  • Voice of responder – some responses were written in a formal tone, while the others adopted a conversational tone;
  • Speed of response – some responses had been posted one day after the original review, the others one week, and the others one month;
  • Action frame – the responses indicated whether the hotel had already taken action to address the issue flagged in the review, or, instead, that it was going to take action in the future.


Here is a brief summary of the findings in the Sparks and colleagues’ study.


To respond or not to respond?

The study is very clear: any response (from the options above) had a more positive impact on trust and consumer concern perceptions than a no-response.


A caveat to keep in mind, here, is that in this study we are looking at responses that addressed the concern raised
in the review, and were respectful.


When to respond?

Quickly! Responses within one day had the most positive impact on consumer evaluations of the company. In fact, responses posted 30 days after the initial complaint had minimum to no effect on consumers’ trust in the company, or their perception that the company cared.


This finding is in line with my own research on the role of social media on customer service, where most respondents expected a response within 24 hours.



Who should respond?

The literature suggested that a response from a highly ranked member of staff would be preferable to one from somebody else. But, in this case, it did not really matter.


Again, in my own research I found that consumers care more about reliability (i.e., consistent levels of service, and knowing that they will be able to access the organisation and get a response) than who is handling their query. Essentially, they want their problems solved.



How to respond?

Curiously, this was the factor that had the single biggest impact on trust and concern perceptions. Specifically, perceptions were most positive when a conversational (i.e., open, direct and friendly) rather than a formal one was adopted.


Illustration from the book ‘The Gift of Nothing’ by Patrick McDonnell

This, I think, reflects how we use social media in general. We tend to be rather informal, often using abbreviations and even emojis to communicate our ideas.



How reactive do you need to be?

Whether the hotel had already taken corrective action, or was planning to do so in the future, did not really matter in terms of improving trust or consumer concern perceptions.


As the authors say, this finding means that:

In some contexts, this may be quite liberating for busy organizations in that the receipt of a criticism requiring corrective action need not be cause for changing ongoing schedules or plans (page 83).


In summary, when it comes to handling negative online reviews, response speed and voice matter; status and frame of action not so much. But whatever you do, if you want to show potential consumers that you are a trustworthy company and that you care about them, do not ignore a negative online review.

Useful primer on (consumer) behaviour models

stairsToday I want to share with you a fabulous report that I found, summarising more than 60 theories and models of behaviour. It is a great primer on the topic, authored by Andrew Danton, which very neatly summarises the assumptions, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches.


This report is part of governmental initiatives to create behaviour change in areas such as exercise, eating habits or smoking. That is why the report also includes a section reviewing behavioural change, and why it has an emphasis on behaviours such as recycling or alcohol consumption. As the author explains:

Behavioural models can help in the task of identifying which factors are the most significant in determining behaviours (but can not explain) how behaviours change over time, and can be changed. While behavioural theory is diagnostic, designed to explain the determinant factors underlying behaviour, change theory is more pragmatic, developed in order to support interventions for changing current behaviours or encouraging the adoption of new behaviours. While the two bodies of theory have distinct purposes, they are highly complementary; understanding both is essential in order to develop effective interventions.


While some behaviours may be effectively explained by simple economic-type models such as expected utility, others require the consideration of factors such as group norms, habits, or the person’s belief that they can achieve their goal. So, this report works both as an eye-opener to the extent of work done, and a great starting point for students / managers / researchers wanting to understand consumer behaviour in a particular setting.


You can access the report here. Let me know if you find it useful.

Report: Digitalisation of SMEs

I have mentioned, several times, here in the blog, a project that I have been working on, with Drs. Sarah Quinton, Rebecca Pera, Tribikram Budhathoki and Sebastian Molinillo. The project looks at the preparedness levels of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) for the digital economy.

Among other initiatives, the study included a survey, which ran in four different countries (Ireland, Italy, Spain and the UK), and across five different industry sectors (agriculture, manufacturing, tourism/leisure, retail, and professional services), over the Spring and Summer of 2016.

Well, I am delighted to tell you that the report with the findings from that survey is now available here.



On irony and sentiment analysis: Samsung Galaxy is A-OK

Samsung is living a marketing nightmare with its Galaxy Note 7 phone. After several reports of the phone overheating and catching fire, the company had to issue a global recall. And, as if that was not enough, the phone’s replacements have reportedly been catching fire, too. So much so, that the company has, now, stopped sales of the phone, and urged users to turn off their devices.


I think we can all agree that the situation is pretty dire. Though, you would not know that, based on some sentiment analysis tools. Here is one example:



Admittedly, this is a FREE tool, and there are others in the market which will have higher accuracy rates than this one. However, even those alternatives will struggle to accurately classify  the present Twitter conversations about the phone. And one of the key reasons for that is that many of the conversations, such as this one that I spotted yesterday, are heavy with humour and irony:



Here are a couple of examples of humorous tweets being classified as positive by this particular tool:


The other source of errors is the use of terms such as ‘love’ and ‘friends’ which are undoubtedly positive, except that they are not being applied to the object of analysis (i.e., the brand):


I am not picking on this particular tool! Sentiment analysis is complicated, particularly for short segments of text such as Twitter messages. So, what can we do, if we want to know what consumers think about our brand.

The first thing to do, is to carefully test the tool that we are planning to use, specially around its ability to discern irony and identify the object of the conversation. Then, we need to look beyond the scores and heat maps, and see what is it that people are actually saying about us.  In particular, we want to look for messages that talk about core reputation elements (e.g., food safety for restaurants, user privacy for health or financial service providers, and so on), or containing emotional responses (e.g., fear). Furthermore, we need to consider the context within which the conversation takes place, such as surges in activity, or what’s happening in the news. And last but not least we need to keep adjusting the dictionaries used to classify the tweets, so that they reflect the specific syntax and style used in social media conversations. In Samsung’s case, the words ‘alert’ and ‘power’ need to be given a negative score.

[You can read more about the challenges of studying sentiment on Twitter here or here; and about handling a social media crisis here.]



Consumer segments vs. tribes, and what it means for marketing strategy

In recent (or not so recent years) we have seen the rise of individualism, and the loss of traditional forms of social coherence such as family values, or geographical location. In its place, we have seen the emergence of alternative social arrangements and sub-cultures.


For marketers, this social change has led to the popularisation of tribes and symbolic consumption. Engaging with tribes is very different from engaging with a consumer segment, because group membership and the role of brands are very different for each.


Here is a brief overview of the differences between consumer segments and tribes, and what those differences mean for marketing strategy.


I am thinking of adding this slide to my teaching materials. Do you find this helpful? What should I add to this overview?