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Boaty McBoatface: Social Media Meets Market Research on the Cyber Seas

Posted by Brian Jones on Mon, May 02, 2016

Boaty_McBoatface.pngIn case you missed it, the UK’s Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) asked a silly question on a serious topic, and the cyber seas responded in kind. News media and bloggers converged in viral fashion and grabbed the opportunity to steer the campaign on their own course. I put my market research cap on and joined the flotilla. 

Background on the Buzz

On March 17th, the NERC agency launched a campaign to promote the future launch of their newest and largest research ship, designed to carry scientists and their equipment to the earth’s Polar Regions. Their #NameOurShip campaign invited the public to submit name ideas, and it quickly caught on as an opinion poll. The cyber buzz really unfolded after a public relations professional suggested the name “Boaty McBoatface” upon seeing other silly names people had posted, and the name sailed to the top of the boards. On April 16th, NERC pulled the plug on collecting votes, and a NERC spokesperson stressed that there is no guarantee the ship would be named after the winning entry because the final decision will be made by the chief executive of the organization.    

What I Learned from Those Influenced by the Campaign

The #NameOurShip campaign was hugely successful in emotionally engaging the public, despite the backlash to NERC scuttling the winning name. People left waves of comments for NERC’s leadership to surf through.  

“The only reason I ever heard of this is because of the name controversy. Far more people are likely to stay interested in Boaty McBoatface than some humdrum 'sensible' name, because it has already been adopted as a kind of maritime national pet.” (Comment posted on one of the many Boaty Blogs)

 The comments made for an interesting read, and I came up with a few takeaways. 

  1. There is a deserving national identity with heroic British polar explorers that would look great in large letters on the transom of a $300 million research ship, e.g., the “RRS Henry Worsely” (15,774 votes). Henry Worsely died in January while attempting to complete the first solo and unaided crossing of the Antarctic—just 30 miles short after crossing 900 miles in 71 days. 
  1. Beneath the veneer of the online pranksters and goofballs who posted votes for names like “Ice, Ice Baby” (3,673 votes) and “Boatimus Prime” (8,365 votes), the public clearly wants a memorable name that makes a global statement about British identity, and for some, that’s a whimsical endeavor. 
  1. For some, “Boaty McBoatface” (124,109 votes) presents an opportunity to do public good on the behalf of NERC’s commitment to the pursuit in education in science. The “RRS Dora the Polar Explorer” (983 votes) might not get smirks from scientists performing serious research, but mom and dad might have a more favorable impression of NERC if their child’s bath toy had “NERC” and “Boaty” logos on it. 
  1. Interestingly, very few online posts revealed interest or concern with NERC’s mission to explore issues such as environmental hazards, natural resources, and environmental change. Instead, the names “Steve Prescott” (1,413) and “Poppy-Mai”/”Princess PoppyMai” (40,384 votes) received buzz; both individuals were struck down with rare forms of cancer. If NERC more clearly links their mission to staving off visible human or ecological tragedy, they might make good use of the awareness equity that their campaign has generated. 
  1. For others, the campaign was a pretended attempt of government to give citizens a voice when the final decision rests with privileged few. This is compounded by anxiety over the upcoming European Union membership referendum. NERC must navigate public sentiment in an environment where people are a bit on edge. This is expressly dangerous when a social media campaign is presented as crowdvoting. While crowdvoting or crowdsourcing can be a legitimate form of research, when public perception can’t differentiate a PR campaign masked as a public opinion poll from serious market research, it erodes researcher’s ability to get reliable market insights. 

For market research to work, we need the public to be smart—not silly. There is research value in capturing emotional response, but we need to strive to capture unbiased rational opinion. Social media marketing can taint the waters for research if the public perceives a campaign as being less than honest and truthful. 

The Australian Government is now pirating the #NameOurShip approach for their own new Antarctic scientific research vessel, vowing to avoid the ballast that seemingly sank public opinion of the UK’s campaign. I can’t wait to see what the Aussies come up with. 

Brian is a Senior Project Manager at Chadwick Martin Bailey. Given his Navy background, he feels compelled to point out that the vessel-who-must-be-named is not actually a “boat” and should be called “Shippy McShipface.” 

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Topics: consumer insights, social media, brand health and positioning