In light of the recent tragic events in the US it struck me how the way I receive and search for the latest news has changed and that social media is being used more and more as a real-time news network.
As I cultivated my Twitter account I began following the BBC and various other news accounts including industry specific tweeters. The more I did this the less I searched the news websites and only use these to get the full story if something in twitter grabs my attention.
I find that Twitter is the ideal place for breaking news. Usually when a story first breaks there may only be 140 characters worth of information anyway. The instant reaction to a story is what makes this process feel more human to me. The outpouring of public support and solidarity over Twitter that followed the Boston Marathon bombing was heart-warming and reassuring. It helped restore some faith in humanity and the hashtagging brings together an instant community which can offer support and information and critical times.
It brings another dimension to events when you hear about it first-hand. Witnesses to the marathon were tweeting and a Vine video of the first blast quickly engulfed social media. During the Texas factory fire a spectator took the time to film the explosions between running for safety and streamed it online. This type of coverage gives everyone access to instant reaction, true and immediate feelings and receiving the news as it happens (often while reporters are still rushing to the scene).
Social media also gave practical support to the Marathon bombings as Google launched a person finder and the FBI used crowdsourcing technologies to trawl spectators' cellphone photos, Vine videos, and Instagram feeds to look for potential suspects.
There is, of course, a downside to this unfiltered news format. Wrong information is often posted in haste leading to innocent people becoming suspects or inaccurate death tolls circulating. The New York Times posted that the death toll was at 12 when in fact, at that time, it was only two, having been retweeted, this incorrect information reached an astounding number of people who often read it as fact. A rumour also began that the son of actress Denise Richards was one of the victims when actually the real victim's mother just has a similar name. After the Texas explosion a photo was widely circulated showing a huge mushroom of smoke but was actually of a 2008 oil refinery explosion in Big Spring, Texas.
Although it is useful to have breaking news flagged up via social media, it should probably be seen as just that; 'flagging up'. The standard online news platforms still hold their prominent positions in bringing up to date, accurate news but social media is fast becoming the initial point of information for many as this infographic from SocialMediaToday.com shows.
British consumers are increasingly turning to social media sites to 'hashtag' and 'bashtag' brands, rather than calling their customer service centres.
Brands also feel the change, and are starting to work out the best ways to engage and tackle the social media customer.
Echo Research and Fishburn Hedges identified six actionable insights that well-known brands, such as Barclaycard, BT and Sainsbury's often practice, such as 'choosing the right battle - but entering it fast' and 'not letting social media define you'.
But how did we reach this conclusion? To start with, Fishburn Hedges ran an online poll with 2,000 consumers nationwide, followed by in-depth interviews, conducted by Echo Research, with several blue-chip companies, including PepsiCo, HSBC and Oasis.
The social media savvy brands were more than happy to speak to us about topics including: their use of social media, who is responsible for their social media sites, whether they've ever experienced a customer backlash and how they dealt with it, and how they publicise their use of social media sites.
At Echo Research, we often conduct qualitative interviews to get to the heart of an issue, while probing and prompting our way through a series of questions and answers. We find that this traditional - analogue! - method is still one of the best for understanding a customer, stakeholder or opinion former, to ensure that an opportunity or threat is understood in depth, so that clear recommendations can be accurately passed to a client.
However, as our research shows, qualitative research works exceptionally well when hand-in-hand with quantitative research. The findings are more substantive and robust, yet also are rich with ideas and opinions. On this occasion, merging the insights from customers and brands offered a truly holistic picture of the current situation from both sides of the cash till to ensure that the findings are more insightful, powerful and genuinely actionable. We also have the technology to make sense of social media through our Echo Sonar platform, sorting the digital wheat from the chaff, enabling brands and companies to understand whether there is genuinely a storm brewing or whether it's just in a teacup.