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digital research methods
CC image courtesy of Duncan Hill on Flickr

Since moving back into academia a couple of years ago, I've been thinking about digital marketing research and in particular, digital research methods.  My belief is that the digital age requires a rethink on how we approach and treat data, and that there's a need to develop a new and innovative research methodology.

I advise my dissertation students (of social sciences, digital media, and marketing) to expand their literature search to include grey literature (particularly, reputable industry surveys, research reports, and blog posts). These sources are often more current than academic literature, and complement theories with for example latest social media usage statistics, mobile adoption, changing digital consumer behaviour (such as conversational search) or the effect of Google's and Facebook's algorithm updates on small businesses' ability to compete effectively online.

When it comes to Methodology, I favour an experimental approach largely driven by the nature of the business or research problem. In my PhD (Webfilm Theory), I used a mixture of Actor-Network theory and Discourse Analysis, and the beauty of ANT was that it allows you to pretty much follow any nodes. It's a meta-methodology!

For researching social media communications and online communities, I recommend to my students Kozinet's Netnography as a good starting point. And in terms of methods of data collection, I teach them how to use real-time data (e.g. from Facebook / YouTube analytics, search data, or Google Analytics).

Let's demonstrate this novel approach to research with an example involving the analysis and evaluation of search data!

Digital Research Methods - Search Data

Non-traditional data can be collected from search engines, for example, the terms people use to find information using Google.

This could also involve analysing and evaluating the html markup, content and link profile of other sites, to understand how they perform in the search engines (essential for competitor analysis, if you're a business using digital to sell online).

Below are two methods from search engine marketing that demonstrate why search data can be highly relevant to academic or business research.

1. Customer search analysis


Knowledge of consumer behaviour in relation to online search is essential to developing content and strategy that meets customer needs.

This isn't just relevant for market research - I've recently conducted an analysis into consumer search behaviour around suicide (in a post titled How to Kill Yourself). Try using this type of data instead of a focus group to uncover consumer behaviour around your research topic.

Data type

Primary, e.g. search volumes / related search / auto-complete (Google suggest), etc.


Google Keyword planner, Webmaster Tools, related search / auto-complete,, ubersuggest

Further reading

2. Competitor SEO Analysis


Knowledge of a competitor’s SEO strategy and profile is essential to discovering competitive advantage.

This applies primarily to business and marketing research, not so much social sciences. A while ago, I conducted a (light-hearted) competitor analysis of London's first Cat Cafe vs. the UK's first Cat Cafe (in Totnes) and discovered that the former's success had largely been driven by digital PR / use of social and the resulting earned links.

Of course you could extend the competitor analysis to social and online community research - just supplement the search analysis with Netnography on their Facebook / Twitter / any other social network pages.


Primary, i.e. html / meta data; Domain authority / backlink profile


Screaming Frog SEO spider, Open Site Explorer,  Majestic SEO

Further reading

Digital Research Methodology - Conclusion

CC image courtesy of PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE on Flickr
CC image courtesy of PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE on Flickr

The digital age has resulted in an explosion of 'big data'. Large-scale real-time customer data is now readily available for free, and search and social media data are excellent primary sources to conduct research, both in the social sciences and business and marketing (e.g. consumer behaviour).

For academic researchers at all levels (including student dissertations, PhDs and post-docs), a comprehensive search of sources must increasingly include grey literature and real-time sources such as industry-specific blog posts and other content available in the public domain. The risk of ignoring grey literature is that the resulting research will be at best out of date, and at worst, simply wrong.

Last but not least, a modern digital researcher must have a digitally native mindset. S/he must be able to master digital research and survey tools (such as Google forms / Google apps), collect and evaluate digital and social analytics data (such as Facebook Insights, Google Analytics), and overall be very comfortable with technology.

Above all, s/he must be a citizen of the Internet!


When working with agency partners as part of our MSc Digital Marketing, the subject of soft skills comes up quite frequently. But what are they, and why are they so important to employers?

Soft skills - definition

A quick google search brings up the following definition of soft skills:

Soft skills definition

I would say that's quite a broad and general definition and actually sounds near impossible, seeing that it appears to imply that you have to interact harmoniously with anyone and everyone. What if the person is just really unpleasant, mean, or nasty? Can you be 'harmonious' then?

Actually, I think we need to be more specific, and look at it from an employer's angle.

Soft skills in the workplace

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) talks about five core skills that are key to working in today's world.

social skills - feedback
CC image courtesy of Tanja Föhr on Flickr

The website states that

Employers have identified these skills as those that are most likely to be needed in any work environment.

The five Core Skills are: Communication, Numeracy, Information and Communication Technology, Problem Solving and Working with Others.

Out of those 5, Communication (written and oral) and Working with Others are social and therefore soft skills. Let's look at some examples to understand why they are relevant in a professional environment.

Soft skills examples

Examples of soft skills in the workplace could be:

  • giving effective presentations (public speaking, oral communication, confidence, etc.)
  • writing clear emails (succinct, persuasive)
  • cooperating with others (putting aside differences in the interest of a common, greater goal)
  • adapting oral / written communications to needs of others / audience (e.g. more formal / less formal)
  • listening to others' viewpoints and being respectful even in disagreement (it's ok to disagree)
  • anything else focused on relationship building with others - the emotional side (Wikipedia associates soft skills with EQ - Emotional Intelligence)
innovators need empathy
CC image courtesy of Tanja Föhr on Flickr

This list is by no means complete - what all examples share is that these skills can be learned, and improved upon. Since they are social, you must learn them not through theory but through practice  - when interacting and communicating with other people in a professional environment.

It's hard (impossible ?) to teach this stuff from a book, but you can create an environment that allows social skills to develop (e.g. supportive, encouraging autonomy and 'self-management').

But this blog post started with a question: Why are soft skills important in the digital marketing industry?

We already know that digital marketers need broad and vertical skills - what Rand Fishkin of Moz calls T-shaped, that is, having broad knowledge across many disciplines, with 1-2 areas of deep knowledge (e.g. search and social). But soft skills, as it transpires, are equally as important.


Modern Marketers and soft skills

Our agency partners aren't the only ones emphasising soft skills as a key requirement for digital marketers. Earlier in the year, econsultancy published a list of 15 essential skills for modern marketers. The data is based on a survey of senior level marketers, and an unexpected outcome was the emphasis respondents placed on 5 soft skills:

essential skills for marketers


It appears that you can't just have an idea, you also need to be able to sell your idea:

So in addition to the usual broad knowledge areas and vertical skills areas, marketers need the right soft skills to be able to work across the organisation. The best ideas will founder without buy-in across the organisation and support from multiple teams.

It's all about persuasive communication, and being able to relate to people - to ensure you get heard.

Another observation from the report was an emphasis on self-motivated learning. That's not surprising, given the incredible pace of change in digital.

CC image courtesy of Anthony Easton on Flickr

But is there really a soft skills revolution? I think it's about a balanced approach- you can't just have soft skills without subject knowledge; equally, hard skills without soft skills will only get you so far.

As for digital marketing education, we can teach broad and vertical skills. And soft skills need to be embedded in the learning environment (see my post on teaching digital marketing for further exploration of the topic).

Finally, I think that soft skills can improve through passion. If you have passion, or love for a subject, then you're more likely to want to connect with people who too are passionate, which makes communication and relating to people much easier, and more effective.





PhD gown
CC image courtesy of Sarah Cady on Flickr

I (loosely) keep an eye on funded PhD opportunities in digital marketing, social media, and so on. My own PhD (researching webfilms before the advent of YouTube) was funded through a studentship (thanks, Queen Margaret University!) and I don't think I would have been able to do it otherwise.

I'd love for other capable, smart students to have the same opportunity and hence keep a look out for any digital / social related PhD studentships in Scotland. Below is one I discovered offered by Edinburgh's Napier University (at their excellent Institute for Informatics & Digital Innovation) - here's why I think it looks great and is very timely!

PhD Studentship in Social Networking and Career Management Skills

Napier University's research project investigates social media / social networking in the context of job search and career development. We all know how important LinkedIn is these days - I always insist that any student of mine who wants a career in Marketing join it (if you want to work in Marketing and you're not on LinkedIn, you're not a Marketer). It's good to put some research behind what we already know, or suspect to be true.

What I'm particularly interested in however is this:

As part of the study, the research will test and develop Social Network Analysis (SNA) as a research approach of value to the study of social media adoption.

This struck a chord because my professional experience has largely been that in social, there is little actual evaluation and analysis of the data. Tools like Radian 6  are good at churning out plenty of data noise but I've yet to be convinced of their value in creating actionable business insights from social media (I've used 3 paid tools and a good number of free ones).

Social Network Analysis
CC image courtesy of Andy Lamb on Flickr

I've also been at the receiving end of plenty of sales calls by social media monitoring / analysis companies that try to persuade me that we should spend e.g. £20k / month (yes, really) on a tool that promises to collect all conversations about a client on social. Their sales pitch is that ongoing, real-time monitoring is absolutely essential for effective digital marketing and reputation management of a company. In my experience, it isn't, and many clients (especially SMEs) can't afford to spend £££ / month just to see what the Twitterverse talks about for 2 seconds.

A valuable, effective research approach and framework to analyse social networks, that is not commercially biased, is therefore needed.

Another strong point of the research project and its studentship is that it's not just theory-based, with little relevance to real life. Existing academic research in social media is unfortunately often conceptual, out of touch, and sometimes simply wrong, as I have discovered in my (admittedly short) time as a lecturer.

I believe that we need more research that is useful and has a real-life impact, and this PhD research promises to

 make practical recommendations on the use of social networking in the development of CM [career management] skills, and in the operation of career information and advice services

It'll help people and organisations use social media effectively, and align their activity with business objectives. That's exactly what's needed and as such it certainly sounds like an exciting, worthy project.

For more info, read Professor Hazel Hall's blog post inviting applications, or go to Napier University's Vacancies page. The deadline is 31/07/14.

What's the average Digital Marketing salary in 2014?  Thanks to Propel London, a digital recruitment agency, we have the answer. Based on data of over 4,500 individual records (both from an online survey and their own internal i.e. job spec data), Propel's research shows that an entry level type job in digital can attract just under £25k overall, though if you're client-side, you can earn over £26k even while a junior!

To quote from the report:

The UK national average wage is estimated at around £26,500, meaning that juniors working in digital can command near the average wage, let alone aim well beyond it.

Digital Marketing Salary UK
All screenshots from: Propel (2014) ‘ Digital Salary & Industry Insights, 5th Edition’ [Report].
A small caveat to these figures is that 61% of the respondents are from Central and Greater London, which will skew the data and probably inflate it somewhat.

Propel's report, called Digital Salary & Industry Insights, has many interesting nuggets on attitudes towards job satisfaction and so on. The really useful bit is that it contains actual salary figures - how much you can expect to earn in a career in Digital Marketing. That's important for us because our MSc in Digital Marketing prepares graduates exactly for the types of jobs described in the report!

I love it that it breaks down digital marketing salary by discipline - i.e. search, social, and so on. It also corresponds to the way we're teaching the course (lots of practice, skills-based teaching in exactly these areas).

Here, then, the breakdowns of Propel's report that relate directly to the types of jobs that graduates of our MSc in Digital Marketing will be able to command. I've left out related areas such as ecommerce and digital project management salaries - these terms are less discipline specific and not as relevant. I would however encourage you to check out the full report (PDF) to get the complete picture.


Digital Marketing Salary (broad skill set)

Key insights:

  • Marketers with mixed skills across the disciplines earn more than those with specialist skills
  • At senior level, client-side roles pay on average 8.25% more than agency roles

Digital Marketing Salary


Analytics Salary

Key insight:

  • Senior Analytics specialists are in demand across the board
  • At junior / mid-levels, client-side roles pay more

Analytics Salary

Social Media Salary

Key insight:

  • Salaries for social media professionals have consistently increased
  • At senior / C-level, pay is below the norm, compared to the other disciplines

Social Media Salary

Search Salary

Key insight:

  • High, wide-ranging salaries at top levels with good opportunity for progression
  • Highest band of salary going up to £200k

SEO Salary

Key takeaways

While it's hard to generalise and give a recommendation of what areas and digital marketing disciplines you should specialise in for the best career, two findings emerge:

  • Develop a broad skill set across Digital Marketing - this will help you early on and ease progression
  • Acquire deep knowledge of the more technical skills (Search, Analytics) - this will give you the cutting edge at more senior / C-suite levels (there aren't that many high-paid jobs in social and content, for example)

Also, while working in a good agency is more likely to expose you to cutting edge digital practice, and you'll be able to work on many clients thus quickly developing expertise, it pays more on average to work client-side.

My final and most important piece of advice is to do what you enjoy the most. Develop and specialise in the disciplines that you love - be it social, search, or any other area of digital marketing.

That's because you'll be the best at any job if you LOVE what you're doing. And if you're the best, your career will take care of itself!


Napier University is developing blogging guidelines for festivals and events in Scotland, and is looking for a research assistant to help them do it. It's a 6 weeks (full-time) or 3 months (part-time) job, and you'll be working in the School of Marketing, Tourism and Languages (full details on Napier's vacancies page). Closing date 22/05/14.

Blogging Guidelines
CC image courtesy of Sacha Chua on Flickr

I've actually just supervised a dissertation that investigated the use of apps by festivals in Scotland, and the student was very capable! I thought if only she had focused on the use of blogs instead of apps (which aren't used by that many festivals anyway), she would have been in a great position for this and use her research towards helping this knowledge transfer project to establish blogging guidelines.

One thing of note though - the job description for this role does not mention any requirement for digital marketing skills (such as SEO).

This is surprising, seeing that these skills are highly relevant, in my view, for a project that aims to establish blogging guidelines! Instead, the focus of the role appears to be on mapping the existing use of blogs and then do a narrative analysis of the content, perhaps to find out about tone of voice, style, and general copywriting best practice.

Fair enough, this will produce an overview over the use of blogs by festivals and events in Scotland, but it won't necessarily deliver best practice, let alone blogging guidelines - seeing that it appears to omit the crucial technical analysis - SEO (to achieve search engine visibility) and digital analytics (to evaluate and measure blogging success).


 Blogging Guidelines - A Digital Perspective

Luckily, Rand Fishkin of Digital Marketing software firm and community Moz is here to help us out (again 🙂 ). Only last week he posted an excellent video (under the Whiteboard Friday series) that looks at blogging from a strategic digital marketing perspective, and I've included it below.

I'd suggest that this video is an excellent starting point for a  project titled ‘Developing a framework/guidelines for organisations to use ‘blogs’ as an effective communication channel for festival and events in Scotland’!

I'll be keeping an eye on Napier's research project and its eventual publication and dissemination, to assess its value and usefulness not just for my own teaching but also for future project work with SMEs from the tourism / events industry in Scotland.

After all, most of these could do with blogging guidelines based on best practice (and by that I mean both technical and narrative!), to assess whether or not they should start a blog.



There is a new PhD studentship in Social Media / Big Data Analytics offered by The IÉSEG School of Management (in Lille & Paris, France).

This is the research area:

The content of the PhDs will be defined in the field of social media analytics and its influence on companies’ communication strategies and their relationships with their customers.

Cheese shop in Lille, FranceA focus is on Big Data - so they're actually looking for people who can program (e.g. Computer Science graduates, and ideally with a degree in marketing or business too). The person spec lists as essential (among other things) "Programming skills of at least one statistical software language such as SAS/Base, SAS/Macro, SAS/Stat, SAS/IML, R and/or SQL". Not for me then (but then I don't really need a PhD Studentship in Social Media ..).

Great opportunity for someone though - in fact there are not one but TWO studentships available. You'll get a three years salaried research contract and you'd have to move to France- check out the photo of the Lille cheese shop to whet your appetite 😀

To find out more and apply, read the further particulars of the PhD studentship in Social Media / Big Data on It all starts in September 2014 - good luck!



A new infographic by Browser Media shows the use and frustrations of Digital Marketing by SMEs - that's small to medium size businesses.

Key insights:

  • Eight out of ten (79%) small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) say their website is critical or very important to their business
  • but only four in ten (43%) of them are actively investing in marketing their website


  • SMEs: Optimise your website using digital marketing strategies to align it with your business objectives!


Digital Marketing by SMEs



Napier University
CC image courtesy of <p&p> on Flickr

PhD Studentships are hard to come by these days, so I was excited to find out about one in Information Science offered by Napier University in Edinburgh. While it's not specifically a Digital Marketing PhD Studentship, Napier's Institute for Informatics and Digital Innovation does explore related research areas including digital economies and the information society. Current PhD research includes topics such as personal online reputation management as well as online communities - sounds exciting!

The application deadline isn't until Monday 3rd Feb, 12 noon - however Prof. Hazel Hall on her blog asks that candidates make initial contact with her directly no later than Mon 20th January.

So, if you’ve always wanted to stay on in higher education and have been dreaming of doing a PhD, but you don't have the funds for it, this PhD studentship could be for you! Good luck!




Since re-entering academia, my thoughts have turned to digital marketing research - partly, because that's what you're supposed to do as a University lecturer, and partly because I have been (and continue to be) genuinely interested in it!

Digital Marketing Research After all, your marketing activity ought to be underpinned by research and data rather than just stabbing around randomly in the dark or basing it on your opinions.

But there's a problem with digital marketing research - and I haven't yet satisfactorily resolved it.  From my current observations, there seem to be two strands of research in digital:

On the one hand, you have academic research (e.g. digital marketing research papers in books, peer-reviewed journals, etc.). On the other hand, there is industry research, which tends to consist of surveys or reports undertaken by digital marketing companies, service providers and agencies e.g. Adobe, Google, etc.

The question is: Which of these is more valid, important, relevant, useful, in regard to effective digital marketing in the real world? Which will make you thrive in the digital economy, and what research should you draw on and engage with for maximum digital marketing success?

Over the last few months, I have been trying to walk what I have sometimes felt is a tightrope between ivory towers (i.e. academic digital marketing research) and the real world of industry data-driven insight and research. I'm lucky in that my employer, RGU Aberdeen, is definitely NOT an ivory tower type institution, and instead rates practical applicability highly!

Yet, being exposed to the professional context of academia has led me to questioning the efficacy of the current academic approach. It's left me wondering about the relevance and purpose of digital marketing research at Universities and in Higher Education - especially when compared to the approach taken and research published by industry.

Digital Marketing research in Higher Education

There isn't much, and much of what I've found so far is out of date. I've seen textbooks still using Friends Reunited as an example of a success story and using terms such as netizen or referring to 'web 2.0' (seriously, is ANYONE still using the term web 2.0?). Another example is a very recent journal article talking about how to grow and engage fans on Facebook (really? That stuff was cutting edge about 3 years ago).

told you - Research memeI'm not completely criticising academia here - some of these issues are due to the fast-paced change of digital. Take the example of how to create Facebook engagement above - the journal article is likely to be out of date already due to the recent Facebook algorithm update which means organic (free) reach and therefore brand visibility in the Facebook news feed is going to decline considerably - unless you pay.

The same could be said for articles about search engine marketing - imagine completing an academic paper on Google and SEO just before Panda and Penguin 😀 ! By the time it's being published, it's already out of date.

I've summed up below what I consider the current advantages and disadvantages of academic digital marketing research:


  • unbiased / objective (due to academic rigour i.e. the peer-review system and so on)
  • authoritative (the academic discourse / context ought to have weighting in terms of e.g. influencing policy government, business etc.)
  • contribution to knowledge (Universities generate, create, and guard knowledge and research - and that's a good thing)


  • quickly outdated
  • considerable time delay between research and publishing (due to systems of peer-review, book publishing timelines, etc.)
  • inaccessible (journal articles, books etc. are mostly not freely available)
  • quality of knowledge can vary - risk of applying marketing theories to digital without living a digital life
  • researchers stuck in the past (example: a famous University's Marketing lecturers with no or very poor Linkedin profiles. This is more common than you might think! How can a professor of Marketing at a prestigious University have no Linkedin profile? This really doesn't make him or her look credible in 2013! As William Gibson puts it: "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed.").

Overall, I feel that Universities haven't been very successful at addressing the challenges of how to do digital marketing research - including how to deal with the fast-paced nature of change, and how to counter the (comparatively) slow nature of academic or peer-reviewed publishing.

It also looks like much of the research is inaccessible and hidden behind the equivalent of paywalls - again not the best idea in the digital economy and our knowledge society. Last but not least, there is the simple issue of lack of knowledge, skills and understanding.

Digital Marketing research by the industry

Social Media research
CC image courtesy of birgerking on Flickr

Much of what I know I know through free resources, and this includes digital marketing papers and articles by companies, software and service providers.

There is excellent work out there such as the recent big content piece by distilled, Brandopolis. This stuff is good and highly relevant to digital marketing research and practice, and shouldn't be disregarded or rated less highly, just because it didn't appear in an academic journal or book.

I'm perhaps more open that most in my acceptance of 'non-academic' sources in that my PhD focused on online video (before the advent of YouTube), and back then there was hardly any digital research out there. As a consequence I drew considerably on what I could find online i.e. outwith actual established academic discourse - I WAS the academic discourse or at least helped create it.

This experience and my subsequent professional career made me believe that it's vital to be part and parcel of what it is you're talking about if you want to talk about it authoritatively - you can't be outside looking in, as you just won't 'get it'.

Anchorman memeIt reminds me of the anthropological research method of 'participatory interaction' first deployed by cultural anthropologists such as Margaret Mead and Claude Lévi-Strauss in the first half of the 20th century, who went to live with 'primitive' cultures in order to research them. In the same vein, I'd argue there is a 'digitally native' culture out there and if you want to understand it or research it, you have to be part of it, otherwise you'll be forever on the outside looking in. Like the Marketing professors of the famous research University mentioned earlier.

My point is: You can't just learn about digital marketing by reading about it, and why would you?

You can't learn how to be a car mechanic by reading about cars either! Or indeed how to operate on a human being by reading a medicine textbook.

With that in mind, here are what I consider to be the advantages and disadvantages of digital marketing research by the industry:


  • mostly free and easily accessible
  • practice-based (i.e. often from actual campaigns, drawing on real data, etc)
  • current, agile, and up-to-date
  • knowledge from the inside


  • not neutral / biased (since companies often have a vested interest in the research outcomes - similar to e.g. 'pharmaceutical research' by a big multinational pharmaceutical company whose interest is selling their latest medicine)
  • quality can vary considerably / little quality control
  • hard to verify accuracy

To conclude, my current thinking is that it shouldn't matter whether digital marketing research was conducted at University or not. The key consideration should be - does the research make us more effective and efficient, and more successful at marketing in the digital age?

If yes we should use it, draw on it, and write about it!

Another thought crossed my mind just as I'm reaching the end of this TL;DR blog post: maybe the reason why I haven't found any decent academic digital marketing research yet is because it's all hiding in expensive books and inaccessible journal articles or behind paywalls.

Digital marketing research is certainly a topic that I'll be revisiting in the future. I also hope to contribute either myself or via my students to the development of relevant, timely and freely available quality research in this area. Research that really makes a difference!

Personal BrandIt may well be that my students will turn out to be the key people here - after all, they are mostly digitally native these days, plus, they will be happy about building their brand and getting some exposure, sharing their knowledge and research on this blog (and YES, some of them are really SWITCHED ON!).

After all, personal branding is extremely important in this day and age - and what better way to kick-start your career in digital marketing than getting some decent exposure online, showing your ideas and digital marketing excellence, and getting some visibility in Google's search results for your personal brand!