The appeal of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for qualitative researchers is often only as certain as its challenges. Digital social platforms are undeniably fascinating resources for anyone seeking to know What Consumers Want — but the questions they raise are manifold. For one, does social media really represent consumers as they live and breathe, or does it represent a cohort of curated fantasies? (There’s a pretty mesmerising Instagram account dedicated to debunking the latter: see @youdidnoteatthat)

Social media pits reality against contrivance, begging the question of how far social media insight can be ‘true’ to researchers, when it’s often untrue to consumers themselves. And how can researchers gain long-term, actionable takeaways from posts that rack up ‘likes’ in the thousands, when culture moves forward in milliseconds?

What we share vs how we live

Semiotics is the study of how signs and symbols create meaning. Given its background in academia, the method is often seen as a kind of ‘black box’, although its recognition as a commercial insight tool is steadily growing. The truth is, we’re all semioticians, in that we all rely on decoding signs and symbols (be they advertisements, traffic lights, text messages, etc.) to understand meanings and narratives in our everyday lives.

What I’ve learned from working with in this area is that some of social media’s biggest challenges to researchers are equally its biggest opportunities. Authenticity becomes highly precarious in a digitally ‘filtered’ world in which posters selfregulate their images. As such, the material shared on digital platforms unlocks two equally important dimensions of behaviour: the ‘real’ self, and the aspirational self.

Semiotic thinking works to interpret the differences and intersections between the two, teasing out insights and cultural narratives from social media that consumers and quantitative measures can’t necessarily articulate — whether the content found on social media is ‘real’ or otherwise.

Semiotics: from tracking data to telling stories

Commercial semiotics takes a deliberative, meticulous analytic approach — but ironically, the method might have been made for the hyper-accelerated social media sphere. Rather than monitoring data and online conversations, semiotics pulls apart the ways social media ‘speaks’ to both consumers and researchers. Drawing on a background in social sciences and linguistics (from anthropology to philosophy), semiotics identifies the messages consumers are receiving and processing at an unconscious level, and the ways those messages are communicated through signs. It’s a method particularly relevant to social media, with which users — posting content, crafting captions, curating profiles — are constantly creating and re-creating their own sign-meaning connections.

In practice

Last year, my colleagues and I worked on a project for an international breakfast foods company, whose interactions with foodies and bloggers gaining traction in the social media landscape made them acutely aware of changing expectations around healthy living. Bountiful brunches, once well-established hangover remedies, were now more aligned with clean eating trends and ‘remedies for the soul’, overturning conventional, caloriecontrolled notions of a healthy diet.

The client knew they needed to gain something these Instagram-worthy breakfasts had (or, #avo and #sourdough had). Using semiotic and cultural insight, we were able to uncover the underlying, emotional appeal of images racking up likes in the hundreds of thousands — and translate that appeal into codes and cues that ‘fed’ into both brand DNA and product design.

Across the client’s key global markets, our team looked closely at how comparator breakfasts were being crafted and plated in emergent spaces, drawing out the deeper meanings of each element. These ranged from serving sizes to cutlery usage, and to filter vs #nofilter.

Travelling across markets physically as well as online, our teams analysed the multisensory experience of healthy living/food in full, using semiotic investigation to identify the deeper cultural codes and narratives at work. Turning this into actionable insight, we applied the same analytical thinking to the brand’s own identity, generating spaces of opportunity around the most meaningful narratives driving the healthy breakfast space forward. By extracting the cultural ‘ingredients’ of #brunch, we used social media to build an actionable lexicon around which deeper codes the aforementioned brand should use — as opposed to ‘more avocado in your comms’ — in order to stay relevant and distinctive.

Social Media: ‘Feeding’ the Future

The meanings and relevance of cultural signs is constantly evolving. We know well that a certain image, typography, or turn of phrase will be perceived very differently depending on context. But in the age of social media and live sharing, signs’ meanings are changing at light speed. To stay ahead, brands and market researchers alike must move at the speed of culture, knowing that once a sign is over-exposed, its meaning changes.

Take the Instagram landscape — it’s rapidly saturated by a certain trend (think rainbow lattes), and before you can respond, culture has moved on. A brand that picks up on these trends too late risks appearing ‘out of touch’. This is a risk heightened by the social media-savvy millennial generation, who won’t be fooled by pseudoparticipation in online trends and irrelevant hashtags. Brands that have understood the semiotic narratives and meanings articulated by social media content, however, will be equipped to innovate in a way that outlives that same content.

Piecing together the jigsaw

Instagram, Facebook and so on are not straightforward sources of insight — they are jigsaw puzzles, waiting to be turned into insight by researchers. Semiotics puts cultural fragments together. Social media conversations have unlocked new potential for semiotic analysis, which has been tailor-made to reveal the unconscious messages people receive from cultural resources. The rise of digital sharing means semioticians are now able to examine not only the messages brands are subliminally communicating to consumers, but also the message consumers are sending out to us, by carving out their own ‘brand identities’ via curated profiles and online content.

Understanding the cultural narratives implicit in social media’s semiotic cues means brands can acquire their own social media literacy, seamlessly aligning their core values with their social content, and thereby enhancing relevance and owned distinction in an often oversaturated market of fleeting messages.

We can embrace this accelerated world with open, deconstructive arms. To analyse the imagery is to outlast it.