Online data collection for good? how shared online data can be used to understand human behaviors, preferences, and industry trends

An update on big data analytics made more relevant by society’s increasing online presence. What this means for researchers and consumers.

It’s no secret that the information shared online through social networks or other forms of online interaction (like product reviews and comments on media sites) can be correlated, quantitated, and used in a variety of ways. While much of the focus is on the negatives, what’s more intriguing is how this data is being used by researchers to better understand how we perceive our world.

Widmar presenting at the 2018 Dawn or Doom Conference

This was something, Nicole Olynk Widmar, a Professor of Agricultural Economics, discussed at Purdue’s Dawn or Doom technology conference in 2018 (pictured above). At the time, Widmar was just beginning to dive into online sentiment related to the utterly controversial topic of “dairy.”

“Dairy markets and understanding consumer demand for dairy products is where my career started,” said Widmar. “I was and still use many traditional research methods like surveys and purchase data. However, when I added online media listening, I found that it offered a chance for monitoring up-to-the-minute movements in sentiment about products or even perceptions of the dairy farms themselves.”

Her research team also looked at #eggs. In this study, Widmar, Courtney Bir (Ph.D. student, now professor at Oklahoma State) and others set out to not only understand whether consumers prefer “cage-free” or “free-range,” they chose the former, but determine if the process of using social media and online listening approaches can enrich and in fact provide additional insight to traditional data gathering methods (see Widmar et al., 2020).

Since that time, the team has been using the social listening data driven approach to investigate some less obvious topics (well for an agricultural economist anyway) like online discussions about mosquitoes and the Zika virus. Their 2020 publication in Pathogens and Global Health Journal tracked the waning conversations about Zika virus and how it could be used to potentially inform public health communications.

Her team is also looking at social media posts related to pre, during, and post catastrophic events like hurricanes and recent wildfires. They used geographical filters to collect information from people within versus outside the impact zones and then watch the conversation volume change geographically ahead, during, and after disasters occurred. Their purpose was trying to understand if these online communications can make a difference in economic response and recovery spending.

So where are we going with all of this …

Well the obvious answer is that a lot of online data can be and is used to inform companies looking to improve their marketing approach, increase sales, track industry trends, or learn about societal topics of interest. However, what Widmar has been doing is a little less obvious, like using these data points on consumer preferences and sentiment and applying them across multiple disciplines to understand things like human behavior.

Take Widmar’s studies on the Zika virus and natural disasters. In both of these examples, her team was able to glean real-time understanding of human behaviors in response to natural disasters and public health emergencies. One could use these same techniques to track U.S. locations where conversations about mask wearing or COVID precautions are waxing and waning. Her team is already tracking conversations about food shopping and meat/milk availability since last spring.

So, at least in the short term, being online is here to stay. And thanks to COVID, our online lives are growing and adapting, meaning online social sharing won’t be slowing down any time soon. Thus, opening the door for researchers like Widmar and her colleagues to apply new research techniques and garner more insightful data in potentially helpful ways.

To learn more about these efforts and this still-evolving research program, as well as some of the unique ways that this online media data is being analyzed and used, visit Widmar’s Consumer Corner. A collection of articles, published weekly, on consumer-derived lessons drawn from non-traditional places to garner understanding and insights for those in agricultural business.

Written by: Kami Goodwin