Medill’s New Marketing Research Center Initially Focuses on Social Media and Purchase Behavior

By May 25, 2012

There are more behavioral data available to marketers today than ever before, and a new thought leadership program from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University seeks to mine as much information as possible from them.

The initial explorations of the program, The Medill IMC Spiegel Digital & Database Research Initiative, cover the influence of social media activity with consumer spending. Specific areas of exploration include the influence of user-generated content on spending, the causes of these influences and the length of time the effects last.

Upcoming research topics include the impact of negative word of mouth content in social media on purchase behavior, and methodologies for evaluating the return on investment of social media contests created by companies.

Initially, research will be based on demonstrated behavior such as transactions, as opposed to attitudinal or self-reported intent behavior, according to Tom Collinger, the Initiative’s executive director. And it will draw on a wide spectrum of academic disciplines, including math, sociology, economics, and organizational behavior science.

“Research that seeks intention or even self-reported behavior, we believe, is useful to provide context, but in the absence of hard behavioral data it is perhaps necessary but insufficient,” Collinger tells Chief Marketer. “Consider if I hate my bank but I keep banking with it. It’s useful to know I hate my bank, but if you don’t know why I continue to do business with it, we think you have valuable information, but [information which] is insufficient.”

There are other guidelines for what constitutes appropriate courses of inquiry. Questions have to be answerable – the data for researching and resolving them has to be available, even if it is not readily accessible. “I don’t think any set of data is impossible to get – just impossible to get today,” Collinger says, noting that his biggest headache is aligning a consumer’s transaction behavior with that individual’s total media consumption.

Other criteria include the findings being able to be validated. And any research conducted has to have applicability to a reasonably wide spectrum of marketing practitioners.

The initial endeavors have a consumer-marketing focus, but Collinger expects to branch out into business-to-business marketing research. “We have a keen interest in applying our efforts against B2B as well, but we see those as being perhaps subsequent veins” of research, he says. “Our aim is to prove perfectly financial impact, and you can only do that if you have perfect purchase data. Sometimes B2B environments are a bit more challenged, although this isn’t true across the board.”

While Collinger didn’t mention specific reasons for the less-than-perfect B2B data, the longer sales cycle, the wider use of sales personnel and the presence of multiple individuals on the purchase side make tracing impact of stimuli on purchases more complicated.

Similar to the loyalty marketing programs it includes among its research, the Institute offers three tiers of corporate sponsorship: Silver, gold and platinum. Marketers can select silver status by underwriting shared learning, such as conferences and forums. Gold status is conferred upon those supporting specific research initiatives, and platinum status is bestowed upon those who made endowment-sized gifts in support of all research initiatives. Corporations can also provide access to their data for research purposes.

Does Collinger have a dream research project? Several, he says. Pressed for an example, he mentions changes in product loyalty. There are consumers, he says, who repeatedly purchase a brand for decades and then – seemingly without warning – change their loyalty seemingly without warning. “I would like to understand, for people who have those kinds of true passions, why one day something presents itself and they change.”