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How to Use Social Media for Research and Development Consider this advice for getting customer feedback over Facebook and Twitter.

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How to Use Social Media for Research and DevelopmentHave you ever wished you could use social media to conduct a focus group on your product or service offerings? No, you can't just open a Twitter account and say, "Hey, what do you think of our new recipe for pie?" But you can approach social media and use it for research and development two different ways: social media monitoring and directly seeking customer feedback. This is feasible even for a small business or one without a research-and-development budget.

The first approach is to use social media monitoring to gather intelligence about your company, product or service, competitors or industry. By listening to online conversations about certain topics your customers might be talking about, you can gather competitive intelligence that can inform your decision making and produce a better offering.

Let's say you make custom handbags and sell them from your brick-and-mortar location in San Francisco that and they sell fairly well. But you need some R&D or at least some market research to know if what you're planning to produce makes sense for the new spring line you intend to roll out in the coming weeks.

So you go to a free monitoring service like SocialMention.com or even invest in something a bit more sophisticated, like uberVu, for about $40 per month. You enter some keywords and tinker with a search until you start to see some relevant results for conversations occurring from users in or around Northern California. For instance, "My handbag needs more dividers. I can't keep my stuff organized," is a phrase you might see pop up a couple of times.

Related: Six Steps for Dealing with Social Media Detractors

Then you might notice that when people are talking about what their handbag or purse needs, they say the purse needs to be big enough to hold an iPad inconspicuously. And there's your new product idea harvested from raw data on the Web.

A second approach is to openly participate in social media and build purposeful relationships and connection with your actual customers so you can turn to them into your focus group. As an active social media participant -- building followers on Twitter, fans and likes on Facebook, readers of your blog or even subscribers to your email newsletter -- you're essentially growing your potential focus group every day.

There are four general steps to conducting research:

  1. Set the goals for the research.
  2. Establish the important questions to ask.
  3. Research and collect answers to the important questions.
  4. Analyze the answers to make decisions.

Related: Understanding the Value of a Facebook Fan

How does that translate to practical application? Make a list of the product or service feedback items you might want to ask customers about. Then make a list of the information you'd like to know about your customers or prospective customers. Look at that list and pick the one or two major areas you wish you could solve with a little customer input or feedback.

Let's say your top priority is to get new product feature suggestions. Start identifying the important questions that you need to ask your customers. Is the handle sturdy enough? Would you change anything about the colors?

You don't need to be a market researcher to ask questions, but you should probably try to ask questions that allow your audience to give the most unaided feedback. For example, asking "Is the handle sturdy enough?" might be better asked by saying, "On a scale of 1–10 with 10 being most sturdy and 1 being least sturdy, how sturdy would you rate the handle?"

After you've listed the questions you want to ask, you just need to deliver them to an audience to answer. For instance, when it's time to find out what folks like or dislike about last year's line of handbags, or what they'd find useful in new versions for the spring season, you might post this question on your Facebook page: "What about your handbag could be better? Any need for more/bigger/smaller pockets? Are you carrying more accessories that we should account for?"

Related: Why Your Small Business's Google+ Efforts Must Be Unique and Visual

Chances are, you won't get a lot of responses the first time you ask, but you can keep asking. Also, you can ask fans to subscribe to an email list specifically for "New Product Ideas & Feedback," or even offer incentives for participation with discounts to anyone who answers.

These two scenarios don't require big budgets, lots of scientific testing, or even geeks in lab coats. But they are legitimate research-and-development practices any business can use by implementing social media for R&D purposes.

This article is an edited excerpt from No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing (Que Publishing, 2011) by Jason Falls and Erik Deckers.

Jason Falls is principal of Louisville, Ky.-based Social Media Explorer, a social media marketing, digital marketing and public relations consulting service. Erik Deckers is owner and vice president of creative services at Indianapolis-based Professional Blog Service, a ghost blogging and social media agency.

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