Having been recommended to try this restaurant several times, you step up to the counter, money in hand, and smile at the bright-eyed sales clerk. Are you ready to order, she inquires? You nod your head and instead of ordering a bacon cheeseburger hold the onions and sweet potato fries, and instead of ordering combo #2, you announce.... “I’d like an order of food please.”

In just the last year, a new tool crash landed in the market research toolbox, a tool which, for some reason, has caused people to step up to the market research order counter and announce “I’d like an order of research please.”

On countless occasions, I’ve listened to people who are struggling after having received instructions along the lines of “do something with social media.” They’ve not been given research goals, objectives, any sense of why they are to conduct research, or what problems are meant to be solved with the research.

As a researcher, I can almost guarantee that a project with no goals or objectives will fail. It’s impossible to determine what variables need to be created and measured, and it’s impossible to know where to focus the analysis. With no problem to solve, there is no way to judge the success of the research and there is no sense of how to prioritize any recommended actions that will arise from the analysis.

Research without goals is money in the toilet. It’s money that could have gone towards meeting the goals and strategies that a brand has carefully prioritized for the coming fiscal year.

So what kind of research can be done with social media research? As with most questions I answer regarding social media research, I’ll answer it like this: What kinds of research can you do with survey research? What follows is just a few of the research options that are available with social media research.

Most obviously, social media research has great potential for brand tracking. Because social media data is stored (relatively) permanently along with the date that the information was created, you can measure attitudes and behaviors from today, yesterday, last month and last year. Consumer brands that are highly visible have the option to gather thousands of records per time period, whether daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly.

Usage and attitudes studies are another excellent option for social media research. Rather than focusing data analysis efforts on a few variables across a long time period, users can instead concentrate on many variables within a single time frame. In this case, the focus is a deep understanding of the whole brand. Who are the people communicating about the brand? How are they talking about the brand? What innovative ideas do they bring to the brand? What serendipitous results will arise?

Competitive brand studies also work well within social media research. Just as with traditional research, users might choose to focus on the category leaders or the brands that are most competitive with their own. And, there is a new option. Users might want to focus on the brands which are leaders in the social media space - for those leaders are not necessarily the same leaders as in the offline world.

Segmentation studies are yet another option available within social media research. Just as with other types of research, segmentation studies require an in-depth review of the data to tease out the different types of people who are talking about a product in the online space. Don’t be surprised if your work leads you to a place that traditional research did not. With new methods and new research contributors come new discoveries.

Like any fast food restaurant with a well planned menu, and like any market research firm with a range of tools to meet specific objectives, market research using social media data also has a menu to choose from. And when you’ve finished perusing that menu, I’d be happy to place your order.