I'm doing a bit of research of late about using online tools to find out what people think about your organization. It's an interesting area - there's a vast number of tools (many very similar to each other) that can help you monitor and listen to what people have to say online and a big body of useful best practices and case studies about how to use them. (By the way, Beth Kanter's information in this area
is even more useful than her usually very useful stuff!)
I have a substantial background in research - traditional ways to find out what people think, like surveys and interviews - and I can't help but notice that there's almost nothing that I can find connecting the "online listening" area to more formal research techniques. There's got to be overlap there, right? There's likely good lessons to be shared between them in both directions.
A couple that jump to mind: I think that often formal research overlooks the idea of listening to what people say on their own without the presence of a researcher (the online world makes this so much easier), which is certainly a useful thing to do. In the other direction, I think there's too little discussion in the writings and posts in the "online listening" world of what it means that people are saying things without being asked. The stuff that they say is certainly worth hearing (and you certainly can't ignore it), but you also need to keep in mind that you're likely not getting the full picture that way. The people talking on their own are going to be the ones with strong opinions, so they're unlikely to be typical of your average constituent... if that's what you want to know.
I think this spectrum of "listening" to "asking" is a pretty useful one to consider. Both are important to find out what people think about you. In fact, add in an "informal" to "formal" axis, and you've got a nifty chart:
(By the way, this is not intended to imply that research is "best" because it sits in the typically best upper right quadrant.... this is simply the order that makes the most conceptual sense, I think)