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Outdoor evolution: Finding the message in social listening

In our second interview with OIA experts, we talk to Director of Consumer Insights Samantha Searles on the topic of social listening.

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This is the second of three Q&As SNEWS will bring you, interviewing experts at Outdoor Industry Association, who are working to help shepherd the future of outdoor retail. (Read the first article on consumer segmentation, here). It gets the conversation rolling, and next month, we’ll follow up with brand and retailer reaction on the changing landscape.

Information overload. That’s what many outdoor brands and retailers feel like as they delve deeper into the digital world.


It’s not just about selling products online, anymore, but using the web to listen to and engage consumers at all times, whether they use your products or not.

What are they saying about the outdoors? What activities are they chasing? How much money are they willing to spend? When do they shop at a store versus online? What’s hot, what’s not?

All the answers are there, but it’s nearly impossible to dissect and analyze billions of voices from millions of sources — there’s more than just Facebook and Twitter.

We turned to OIA Director of Consumer Insight Samantha Searles to see how the organization is tackling the topic of social listening. Her team is helping filter out the noise to generate information that is not only indicative of what outdoor consumers are talking about, but also applicable to future business and product decisions.

There is a lot of valuable information out there. How do you sift through it all?
We build complex queries around a particular topic to narrow in on the conversation that is relevant to our research needs. Once the initial set of data is defined, we filter it and disambiguate by removing spam, duplicates, etc. to ensure we are analyzing from an accurate data set. When most people think of social media, Facebook and Twitter usually come to mind, but we look at conversations across millions of social sources globally. We look at not only the quantitative scope of conversation (trending volume, impressions, gender, sentiment, geography, source, etc.) but the qualitative nature of the discussion around key themes, consumer preferences, needs and behaviors as well.

When you start to drill down to some more specifics — let’s say a conversation on a blog — how do you distinguish what’s genuine from the noise?
As an analyst, it is important to look at data from many different angles. Not just what the consumers are saying, but who’s saying it, in what context and where. A key benefit to social media listening is that consumers are typically more honest and unbiased than in a controlled environment like a survey or focus group. We never rely on a single source to draw conclusions. An individual comment can sometimes be a guide to areas to dig into deeper, but we are very careful about making sure the insight is shared by a larger segment of the population.

What are some potential pitfalls of social listening?
It’s unpredictable. You are at the mercy of the conversation. Not every topic, brand and/or product can benefit from social media listening; it’s all based on the depth and nature of the conversation. In other words, consumers need to be talking about it online in order to have something to analyze.

It’s messy and something that requires skill to get to a clean data set that will give you an accurate picture. It’s become “cool” to include quotes in news stories to support a point that is being made. The danger in that is it’s one point of view, taken out of context, and may not be representative of a sentiment of the general population.

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen companies make when using social data for research is not having a clearly defined objective upfront for what they were trying to understand.

How do you avoid those pitfalls?
We look at the social landscape as a piece of the puzzle and one of many lenses to look through in order to understand consumers. Social media listening is most valuable when it’s used in conjunction with other data or methodologies and something that can be leveraged in many different ways. Whether it’s used in the early phases of research to formulate a hypothesis, ongoing as a way to track or monitor perceptions, or as a means of validating a hypothesis or measuring success, social plays an integral role in getting that 360-degreeview that is essential to understanding today’s consumers.

Does that multi-faceted approach go beyond the digital realm? Shouldn’t researchers, brands and retailers head out into the real world to see how people are actually behaving and interacting with their gear, technology and the shopping experience?
Anyone who is interested in understanding consumers, across every industry, should pay close attention to what they are saying and how they are behaving. Part of the problem is so many companies wait for data to identify a trend or a business opportunity. This is a reactionary approach. On the other hand, if you observe what is happening out in the marketplace right now, you can use those clues to proactively probe and identify what might be coming. Social media listening research is a great tool for doing this.

Tell us about a topic you’re currently following with social listening and some preliminary take-aways you’ve gathered?
We will be providing insight around a variety of topics in our bi-weekly “Social Buzz” emails, as well as quarterly social media listening reports. All of the topics will build off of four key themes: technology, retail, diversity and lifestyle. For example, the first quarterly report coming out March 26th (click here to access) will focus on the topic of crowdfunding from a consumer perspective, its appeal to millennials, and how they are using the platform to challenge traditional business models, both in manufacturing and retail.

For more information and questions, email or feel free to comment below, or email SNEWS

–David Clucas