People who post frequently on Facebook and Twitter are more than 3 times as likely to care about being the most fashionable person in the room, compared to more passive social media users.

That was one of the surprising findings that came out of a major social media study Emily Carr University undertook with Vision Critical, the Vancouver-based research and technology solutions company.  That study shed new light on the differences between active and passive social media users, and as a result, posed a challenge to the way social media professionals typically gather intelligence online.

And it led to a major change for one particular social media professional: me.

The survey itself engaged more than 80,000 people in the US, Canada and the UK, looking for answers to questions that social media professionals ask all the time:  Are Facebook users different from Twitter users? Do young people use social media differently from crusty over-40s like me? And most crucially, are there any fundamental differences between active and passive social media users?

This last question goes to the heart of how marketing, communications and web professionals work with the social web.  As social media usage has taken off, and social media monitoring tools have appeared to help us track all that online activity, we’ve come to rely on tweets, blog posts and Facebook updates as important sources of customer intelligence. We start our day by looking at the latest snippets of praise, criticism and insight, and we treat our social media audiences as key barometers of public sentiment about our businesses and organizations.

What we learn from those audiences is crucial to understanding how our customers, members or the general public think about our products, services and brands. But what if what we’re learning – what if what we’re gleaning from all those updates – is only a partial view? What if the voices that dominate our social media dashboards don’t represent the public at large – or even the vast majority of social media users?

The results of our survey, which was the biggest survey of social media users ever undertaken, suggest that social media monitoring provides only a very partial view.  The most active social media users – those who are tweeting or updating Facebook more than 10 times a week – have preferences that look very different from people who post only a little, even though those “lurkers” include many people who log into Facebook or Twitter multiple times each day.

What allowed us to identify that gap wasn’t an analysis of social media updates: it was the long-term survey data Vision Critical gathered from hundreds of thousands of people who have agreed to take multiple online surveys over a period of months or even years.  That survey data provided a depth of insight into shopping habits, demographic patterns and media consumption which cast a new light not only on social media usage itself, but also on the extent to which social media updates can and can’t act as a proxy measure of overall consumer sentiment.

Digging into the results of our study demonstrated both the opportunities and challenges for using social media to generate customer insight. As someone who has spent the past 7 years exploring the power of social media as a catalyst for tightening the relationship between companies and customers, and between organizations and members, that research left me newly inspired with the possibilities for harnessing online conversation. Social media can not only help us hear what customers, members and citizens have to say; it can help us understand why they are saying it.

But we can only achieve that understanding if we take a rigorous approach to analyzing what we see on Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere; if we have the context that connects all those tweets and updates to who these social media users actually are, what they think, and how they spend their money. That’s the context we got from hearing directly from the tens of thousands of social media users who responded to our survey.

And that’s the context I hope to provide to even more of the companies and professionals who rely on social media intelligence, in my new role as VP, Social Media at Vision Critical. After a fascinating research collaboration with the company this year – which grew out of a longstanding working relationship – I’m delighted to be rejoining the Vision Critical team.

Vision Critical has grown tremendously since I worked with them in 2005: it’s now the world’s number one provider of market research solutions, with operations on six continents and clients like Banana Republic, NASCAR and Yahoo! Their growth mirrors the explosion of the social web, as online conversation – which at Vision Critical includes not only panels and surveys but also customer communities – has emerged as a key source of customer insight.

We now have the opportunity to unite these threads of business intelligence: to combine the authenticity of social media feedback with the rigor of customer panels. As our research this spring uncovered, combining social media with panel research gives us new ways of incorporating the social web into the marketing toolbox; it also gives us fresh insight into social media itself.

In my new role at Vision Critical, I’ll lead the company’s efforts at integrating social media into the development of customer intelligence.  I will work with the company’s product development and marketing teams, led by the delightful Andrew Reid and Tyler Douglas.

Sadly, this means saying goodbye to another wonderful team: the brilliant and generous colleagues I have worked with for three years at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Led by Ron Burnett, a president who is as delightfully geeky as he is inspiring and visionary, it’s a community made up of remarkably innovative, dedicated and kind-hearted people. There is much more to say about what I’ve learned from my time at Emily Carr, and about the extraordinary artists and designers who work there, so that will come in a separate post.

As someone who has spent the past sixteen years delving into the implications of our online migration for the way business, organizations and government engage with the public, I’m excited to have a new vantage point on that transition.  What I’ve learned in the past year of working with Vision Critical has already changed my perspective on how to use social media as a source of feedback and insight. I look forward to learning – and sharing! – even more in the years ahead.