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Published November 20th 2014

The Silent Majority: Social Data isn’t Representative of Everyone

This post by our Community Manager, Phill, got me thinking about big numbers.

The idea that there are half a billion people lurking on Twitter, viewing tweets but not logging on and actually engaging actively on the platform, made me consider how we in the industry talk about numbers, and the people behind them. As an example, take Twitter’s claim that 4.2 billion people saw Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar pic. 4.2 billion.

We fall over ourselves for big numbers. Tongue twisters. We love a big, punchy stat that screams authority. “Look at this massive number! How BIG IT IS! How full-bodied!” Maybe not full-bodied. But you get my point.

We love to back ourselves up with data sandwiched nicely between quotation marks.

“67% of people in this area are saying this about your brand.”

“87% of people want to buy your product”

Statements we, and our competitors, often present as fact – and sure, people are saying those things about brands. But sometimes we forget the bigger picture. That those online aren’t the whole deal.

Let’s break it down

So. We’ve gone from 7.2 billion people to less than one billion in a matter of seconds. And within that 860 million, who do we actually get to listen to?

Those who shout loudest

The loudest people are the people who will likely get their own way in the end.

They don’t just want a quiet life. They’re the ones who, instead of accepting that a doctor’s appointment is in a week, will phone up and argue their way into the surgery that same day. They’re the ones who, when the heel of a reasonably new shoe breaks, don’t just sadly accept their new, shoeless, fate.

They’ll march straight back to the store, broken shoes in-hand, and argue the toss that the shoe was manufactured poorly.

I have a friend who, at nearly restaurant he goes to, makes a complaint. He might not like the way the meat was cooked. He might think there was a little too much ice in his gin and tonic. GOD FORBID that someone else gets given one more potato than him. But every time, he makes sure his complaint is heard, and he makes sure he gets something back for it. A dessert, perhaps. A bit of money knocked off the bill.

Fly in soup

But then there’s the person next to him, who – perhaps despite having a sub-par experience – quietly gets on with it, eats their dinner and leaves without complaining. Just because they didn’t complain, doesn’t meant that they enjoyed their dinner. It doesn’t mean that they’ll return.

We’re often guilty of concentrating our efforts on those making the most noise.

Because out of even that 860 million figure we came to earlier, there are still a massive proportion of those who are shouting louder, making their voices heard more often and more clearly, than many others. Those people don’t represent everyone.

A clear example of social media’s shortcomings as a reflection of wider society can be see from a Pew Research Center study:

“At times the Twitter conversation is more liberal than survey responses, while at other times it is more conservative. Often it is the overall negativity that stands out. Much of the difference may have to do with both the narrow sliver of the public represented on Twitter as well as who among that slice chose to take part in any one conversation.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 3.03.50 PM

Understand what social data is, and isn’t

Most marketers and analysts have moved beyond taking raw numbers from online conversation as representative of the general public. Indeed, in much of the research we publish, such as our look at the recent Scottish Referendum, a large pinch of salt must be taken with any universal conclusions made with social data.


As those who have oceans of social data at our grasp, we must be mindful to not solely focus on the big data, and to try to consider the societal factors behind the data we are analysing.

Each social media platform carries with it certain affordances which structure its social norms and interactions and may not be representative of other social media platforms, or general human social behavior …


Twitter is used by about 10% of the U.S. population, which is certainly far, far from a representative sample. While Facebook has a wider diffusion rate, its rates of use are structured by race, gender, class and other factors and are not representative. Using these sources as “big data” model organisms raises important questions of representation and visibility as demographic or social groups may have different behavior — online and offline — and may not be fully represented or even sampled via current methods.”


– UNC professor and Princeton CITP fellow Zeynep Tufekci

However, the knowledge that this social data isn’t fully representative of society as a whole, or of a brand’s customers as a whole, doesn’t negate the validity of that data.


We know that recommendations from peers, advice imparted online and other conversation means have a more powerful influence on consumer buying patterns than traditional marketing.

Understanding this discussion is the first step to being able to influence it. Just because a silent minority aren’t contributing with their own voices, you can bet that they’re sticking around to see what the others have to say.

Going back to that restaurant analogy – the fact that the guy kicking up a fuss about his meat is so vocal is making a positive impact on the other diners. The restaurant knows the issue and can address it. They can make sure all the steaks are being cooked to order properly.

The restaurant wants to know what’s being said by the most vocal, as the most vocal are often their key demographic. They are shaping the feelings and thoughts of those around them; the other diners at the table. By influencing these vocal people, the restaurant is able to influence the group as a whole.

Applying this to brands, it is still important to remember that although social data may not be wholly representative of 7.2 billion people, the percentage of people who are online are often those who are most important to them. Sure, social listening data may not be able to tell American Apparel whether someone in the Australian outback with no internet is a massive fan of their disco pants, but it can tell them that there are a truckload of women in their ’20s in particular towns who are begging for new stock, ready for the weekend.

Social listening data can add incredible value to a brand’s marketing strategy. Let’s just not forget those voices we may not be able to hear.



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