Beneath the Buzz: Mining Motivation From Social Media


ADOTAS – The most important discoveries to be uncovered in today’s social networks are buried, not in the data, but far beneath the online conversations that generate the buzz. The obsession with numbers that drives many marketers frequently becomes a barrier to recognizing the essential value behind social network conversations: motivations.

Mining motivations, in addition to data, as a way to understand consumers is an entirely new approach to social analysis, but it is one that is proving to be exceptionally powerful for companies in sectors ranging from automobiles to chewing gum.

Too often, marketers have relied only on the numbers surrounding social media to determine the success of their efforts—some aggregation of the number of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, the number of comments and retweets, the number of click-throughs and blog links. These can be shallow indicators, however; hundreds of comments will not persuade people to buy a product—more often than not, they’ll just generate more comments.

Detecting the motivations beneath the numbers allows marketers to discover the most expedient path to the consumer’s heart and mind. Marketers motivate consumers to make small decisions every day—choose a movie, pick a breakfast cereal, replace a battery.

These day-to-day choices, however, are made in the context of much more comprehensive, universal influences. Human motivations on a larger scale, in fact, are surprisingly similar all over the world. Our own research and studies by the academic community have identified the same 12 primal motivations that drive consumers in Columbus, buyers in Beirut and shoppers in Shanghai.

These desires have existed since humans began to interact with each other and their environment; and as man has evolved, his motivations have never changed. He has simply invented or discovered new ways to satisfy his needs to feel:

  • Accomplished
  • Adventurous
  • Connected
  • Creative
  • Important
  • Playful
  • Rebellious
  • Responsible
  • Sensual
  • Transformed
  • Wise
  • Youthful

These desires—to connect with others, to play and explore, to create and achieve—find an ideal outlet in social networks, where connections are the common currency, exploration is encouraged and creativity is applauded. The motivations that drive conversations in social networks are the real treasure to be mined by marketers,because the more we explore online conversations to reveal the motivations that are common to all of us, the more effectively we can position our brand and ourselves to be unique.

Knowing how many people are talking about a brand and what they are saying is not nearly enough to support the creation of a brand that stands out from competitors. We must understand why people are talking about products or services and why they are supportive, upset, confused or just inquisitive. In short, we must examine the specific motivations that drive online conversations.

For example, if Nike believes that its target market is motivated by the need to feel accomplished (i.e. “just do it”), the company can align its brand with that driver to create online advocates. Mercedes-Benz on the other hand might find that its prospective customers often want to feel important, and everything about the Mercedes brand could revolve around a sense of power and importance. Obviously a subtle executional touch is needed here.

Archetypes and Recommendations

Often, consumers gravitate toward an archetype of a particular motivation to gain emotional satisfaction. In fairy tales, TV shows, movies and comic books, the archetype may be a hero who possesses the characteristics that the consumer seeks. Marketers have helped their brands succeed by embracing heroes from Tony the Tiger and Luke Skywalker to the Marlboro Man and Spider-Man. In social networks, the archetype often is an expert with particular knowledge about a product category.

We must realize, however, that the archetype is not the motivator—it is only the expression of the motivation and a clue to what is really driving a set of consumers. In our work with Fortune 500 brands, we have verified that not only do people buy because of underlying motivations, but also, by understanding the motivations, we can understand why they buy.

Furthermore, we have determined that the single best indicator of support for a brand is the willingness of a consumer to recommend the brand to someone else. If we can follow the recommendations, we can correlate them with an increase in sales. Conversely, if we deconstruct the reasons that people are making those recommendations, we can understand their motivations.

Implicit in this approach is the fact that as many as 90% of online conversations are not about brands at all they are about categories of products and the motivations that drive people within those categories. The BMW-owned brand Mini realized this principle in seeking to identify a way to distinguish its tiny, iconic car from an emerging flock of competing small-size, fuel for people who loved not fuel efficiency or economic prudence, but creative self-expression.

With this understanding of Mini fans’ motivations, the brand devoted its marketing efforts to leading a movement and creating programming for existing Mini owners in the form of road rallies, games and venues that all show off their customized cars. The brand celebrated drivers’ creativity and uniqueness, rather than the technology of the vehicle.

The result was growth in advocacy (or recommendations) for the brand and this directly correlated with sales:


1. The R^2 is 54% and the p value of the coefficient is 3.7%, so we can be 96% certain that the positive relationship is not.

2. The bars are calculated by looking at the average magnitude of the monthly changes. The shortest bars are changes, the tallest bars represent the middle 80% of changes and the tallest bars (not visible in this date range are the to 10% of changes.

Shifting Our Thinking

In one business arena after another—packaged goods, many more—MotiveQuest’s approach to identifying motivations has helped clients transform their marketing efforts into highly successful campaigns. For each of these businesses, the behavior that has to change is the creation of advocates — brand and who recommend a product to others.

The daily motivations of these advocates are grounded in the larger motivations that move all human beings toward fulfilling their needs. As a result, these advocates invariably drive sales. This process is not just marketing theory consistently through its work for major global brands.

Marketers can gain a true competitive edge by shifting their relationship to social media in three ways:

1. Think outside of the conventional category. Online conversations may reveal that your product is competing in a much larger arena than you have initially considered. For example, in working with Wrigley, we discovered that its products were not so much competing with other gums than with other snacks, as a way to cope with stress. That revelation opened significant new opportunities to gain online advocates.

2. Listen closely not just to what people are saying in the broader category but also to why they are saying it. What are the needs they seek to fulfill, what is behind the buzz, what are the underlying motivations?

3. Take the time to tie motivations back to advocacy and sales. Shape your campaign or even your product development to capitalize on ways you can use motivations to drive advocacy for your brand.

The impact of listening in social networks, rather than broadcasting, cannot be overstated. The biggest gap in the marketplace currently is the capacity for really deep listening—listening to what people care about most. Successful marketing pursues those factors about which people already are passionate—whether it’s Barack Obama’s focus on change or Apple’s development of creative user interfaces and devices, evolved from its “Think Different” mantra.


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