The recent Russian spy ring was breathtaking in the sheer mundaneness of the resulting espionage. It was long term, deep cover, and most of the spies lived quiet domestic lives in the suburbs. Some had even married. Their reports were on everyday American life.

To me, those Russian spies were just like those of us who conduct social media market research. Unlike any other research method we conduct, with social media market research we don’t have permission to study our “participants.” We are watching, observing, spying. What are people saying about different brands to their friends and coworkers? How do they talk about the products and services they use? What’s hot right this instant? Like those Russian spies, our social media reports are on everyday American life.

We’re clearly not ready for our life as secret agents. We still talk as if we are old-school market researchers. I’ve read social media research reports that talk about participants and respondents. What were these “respondents” responding to? Twitter’s insistent request for “What’s happening?” If you ask social media users, they certainly wouldn’t say that they are participants in market research. They’re socializing online. Like spies, we should be calling them subjects or targets, not respondents.

Another reason we’re not ready to be spies is we’ve gotten lazy about doing our detective work. We rely on the focus group facility to weed out the professional attendees. We trust our panel company to delete the speeders and the cheaters from our online survey. And now we trust our social media monitoring tools to provide us appropriate sample.

Sample is awful for social media research: let’s look at some of our respondents–er, subjects. You have the shills trumpeting their employer’s wares. You have the bots pretending to be consumers. You have the real-life humans pretending to be someone else (the Fake Steve Jobs, @BPGlobalPR, Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, even Jesus Christ). Figuring out which content you should exclude from your sample can be as hard as identifying double agents.

And those conversations you are eavesdropping on can seem like code. True story: I included in one analysis a tweet about McDonalds, not realizing that it was a joke at the expense of a celebrity. I was sadly unaware of the celebrity; it’s hard to keep up with all these people famous for being famous – maybe the Russian spies could help me out there.

But, wait, I hear my friends the mystery shoppers saying they are spies. Hardly. They’re rats, spying on their comrades to see if they are toeing the party line: watching employees of the company that hired them to make sure they are following service guidelines. That’s not spying. That’s secret police work.

I for one am ready to embrace my life as a social media spy. After all, we do have an industry association that sounds like a secret agency: the MRA. Now, when will the MRA be supplying us cool spy gadgets? I’m not renewing my membership until I get a car that turns into a boat and an umbrella that can be used as a satellite dish…Just kidding.

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.