March 7, 2013, by ICCSR

Social Media Research: Theory and Practice

As Facebook fan pages, corporate Twitter handles and branded Google+ hangouts flourish, CSR messaging is increasingly gaining prominence in mainstream social media platforms. Whilst these publically available virtual spaces present unique repositories of cultural information and attractive windows into the social construction of CSR meaning, they also present overwhelming sources of data and bring complex challenges to researchers and practitioners. Here I briefly reflect on social media research in both theory and in practice.

Social Media Research: Theory

Qualitative researchers looking to explore CSR communication focussed around a particular brand, company or industry, are faced with a vast data pool to select from. Social media channels offer sites ripe with linguistic, pictorial and video-focused content and real-time contemporary interaction. However, case selection can be time consuming given that researchers increasingly immerse themselves in social fora (akin with ethnographical methodologies) in order to really get to grips with the social and cultural milieu prior to undertaking analysis. Ensuring close alignment between research objectives and theoretical orientation can be problematic in this dynamic space where social media metrics are fluid and contextualised. Indeed, social media platforms evolve so rapidly that the acid tests for success in CSR communications are variable, and continuous methodological innovation is enhancing the lenses through which we view and interrogate social media data. The challenge for researchers in this social space is to stay true to sustained conceptual development, whilst adequately reflecting the volatile and nuanced reality of CSR meaning. 

Social Media Research: Practice

Practitioners often focus on the scale of their CSR communications, tracing cross-platform consumer sentiment through complex algorithms or semantic analysis software. Given the resource-intense nature of social media tracking, only the most contentious or congratulatory posts tend to receive internal scrutiny. Yet, it is often the most mundane, day-to-day and organic discussions that provide the richest information and afford valuable barometers of consumer feeling towards CSR initiatives. Selecting just a fraction of discourse taking place in a particular social media platform can yield fascinating insights into interaction styles, key themes, significant actors, prevalent tones, and importantly, the process of meaning construction through both language and imagery. Taking time to conduct deep analysis into the level of interactivity between a company/ brand and its consumers, as well as between the consumers themselves, also allows companies to position themselves somewhere on the CSR communications continuum: from monologue to dialogue. And in developing the synchronicity of interactions, companies can begin to play more pivotal roles in collaborating and co-creating CSR meaning with their consumer constituents.

By Sarah Singleton (@Sarah_CSR), Doctoral Researcher at the ICCSR, Nottingham University Business School.

Image – by the next web reproduced under Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 2.0) source:

Posted in Academic ACTIVITYTHEMES in Better Business