Harvard and Wharton seem to think so, as do a growing number of leading consumer brands.

Harvard Business Review recently published a ‘Management Tip’ entitled ‘Don’t Listen to Customers – Observe Them.’ In the ‘Tip’ they state:

“There’s a fundamental problem with asking people what will persuade them to change: Most of the time they won’t know the answer. It’s not that they won’t give one. They’ll give you plenty. But those answers are likely wrong.”

As Jerry Wind, The Lauder Professor, Marketing, from The Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania explains, “The bias of surveys causes a tremendous challenges for businesses and often points to the wrong answer. To get to the right answer – the truth – you need observation. But having the ability to observe millions at once changes the game. You can gain understanding on a wide and deep level like never before.”

One of largest and fastest growing business waves is brands observing their customers’ natural, unsolicited discussions, activities and opinions instead of traditional, manufactured responses by asking them what they would intend to do via traditional surveys. In fact, some of the largest consumer brands today are relying on the ‘big data’ of open social media to observe millions upon millions of consumers “all at once,” free from distraction or bias.

Questionable Questions

For decades, businesses have relied on surveys to generate understanding of consumer behaviors and attitudes, however, given the manufactured nature of the information and the inherent bias related to question structure, survey approach and selected respondents, among other factors, many brands are leery when it comes to trusting the resulting information. As Steve Martin of Harvard Business Review wrote earlier this year in his piece entitled ‘Stop Listening to Your Customers’:

The great majority of the decisions we make in our information-overloaded, distraction-heavy lives are made outside our conscious awareness, driven more by contexts than cognitions. As a result, asking someone to pinpoint what will influence them in the future is a bit like saying, “tell me how you will behave in the future when you are not thinking about what I have just asked you about?”

A Social Shift

When it comes to measuring consumer reactions, many large consumer brands are discovering the value of the immediate insight social business intelligence provides. Traditionally, consumer brands have relied on shopper surveys which can take upwards of six months to receive results on.  As one senior market research with a leading food company explained, “You’ve missed the market and any opportunity to adapt waiting (upwards of) 26 weeks for consumer reactions.”

With social business intelligence, genuine, unbiased responses from shoppers, consumers and influencers can be delivered in a fraction of that time, often a mere few days. Brands are able to take action on this deep intelligence related to the likes, dislikes, attitudes, behaviors, decisions and actions of these individuals.

From here, robust, multidimensional views of shoppers, consumers and influencers can be constructed related to personas, decision drivers, demand moments, path-to-purchase, and a wide array of other actionable insights.

A Deep Impact

Social Business Intelligence is the solution more and more brands are relying on to gain genuine consumer insight, free from the bias found in manufactured surveys. This basically delivers ‘market truth’ to companies based on digital ethnography.

Brands turning to unsolicited social business intelligence as a foundation of their understanding of shoppers, consumers, influencers and competitors are gaining actionable insight into their own businesses, but also understanding the competition like never before.

So, what say you, are traditional surveys a valuable business tool today?