The leaders of the trend cite the fact that in today's world we can have a lot more interaction with the consumer and vice versa. Today we don't have to dial out and hope to catch someone at home, wait for a mail in survey to be returned, or have the respondents show up at a conference to find out what they feel about any product or brand.
The ease of finding 'fans' of your product on your fan page or building panels from the large Facebook community gives any product manager lots of opportunity to easily do polls, review product comments, track marketing impressions, and catch the level of engagement. You also can collect tons of rather open ended responses without dealing with as many group dynamics as you can have in focus groups or group studies. The research mavens here claim that they get a lot more from the social network's two way communication. The opportunity is there to easily get away from counting impressions to looking at the consumer's real 'expressions' on the brand - more feelings than just market shares.
The other side of the coin here - is this social network sample reflective of the total consumer picture? In traditional sample research a lot of science and math goes into building a representative sample with measured margins of reliability. In the social network world you are likely to be talking mostly to P1 fans in your sample and have less opportunity to see what the non fan is thinking. But, when you look at most products it's more about building a fan base to a fever pitch and keeping it excited as the brand spreads from the early to late adapters.
We already have a new start up service that specializes in building panels and doing research off of social media samples. It's called CrowdTap you can see how they approach the consumers on this site. And also see how they approach marketing and research teams here. It looks like they just launched at SXSW at the music fest just week or so ago. I bet this will be a HOT company real soon.
How will this affect radio brand research? This could be the next BIG trend in radio product research. It will take a whole new system of interaction with the audience and a whole new world of analysis for all of us. Extracting the real potential tools to building our brands from this new frontier of research will not come from using the same analysis angles we've been using since we started researching the audience.
You can read more in the Ad Age article here. You should also take a look at the comments from many of the advertising industry people who had a lot of very interesting reactions to this development. You almost learn more from their comments than the article.