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FEATURE23 April 2010

The lowdown on social media monitoring

Features

Once upon a time, social media monitoring was a niche activity. Now, there are a host of social media monitoring tools available. But what are they like? And how do we put them to use effectively? FreshMinds’ James Turner takes a look.

Once upon a time, social media monitoring was a niche activity, often undertaken by PR agencies keen to make sure that a rant by a disgruntled customer on an obscure blog didn’t end up on the front pages of the national press. Any engagement that brands had with online conversations was entirely reactive and typically confined to damage limitation.

The likes of Twitter and Facebook, though, have been game-changing and we are now in a situation where all sorts of people all over the world are having conversations about brands online. We’ve seen a huge amplification of volume in the last couple of years and a clear network effect developing – everyone from blue chip FMCG companies to the Prime Minister wants to know exactly what’s being said about their brand online, who’s saying it and, more importantly, what they should do about it.

“Everyone from blue chip FMCG companies to the Prime Minister wants to know exactly what’s being said about their brand online”

As the amount of online conversations has increased, so has their significance to brands. Instead of just revealing the extremes of opinion of a small but vocal minority, online conversations now offer a wealth of rich data that can be mined for insights. Given the right tools (and more importantly, the right expertise) online conversations can be a continuous source of information for brands and a daily touchpoint with their customers.

The possibilities from both a qualitative and quantitative perspective are huge: you can use social media monitoring to help understand everything from category choices to the lifestyles of different segments and look at data on either an individual or aggregate basis. Many brands have been surprised at the insights that are just waiting to be uncovered. In a recent project for a mobile phone manufacturer we were able to give fresh insights into a range of social and cultural minutiae of daily life on and offline.

As social media has moved from being an activity for early-adopter bloggers to something many people participate in many times a day via their iPhones and BlackBerries, an array of tools has sprung up to help brands manage their reputations online. First there was NetRatings, then the big research firms followed, and now there are more than 200 monitoring tools on the market. In the last two years there have been two major evolutions in the market that have contributed to this explosion.

First, numerous free tools such as Klout and Google Analytics have become available, and secondly software-focused vendors have created tools that trawl the internet for consumer conversations. While neither are research tools per se, they have a clear application for businesses looking to understand their online profiles. Tools within the second category fall into two camps – data-heavy tools that allow you to analyse pretty much anything and those that seek to win points for whizzy interfaces and pretty dashboards. We recently conducted a review of the available tools for social media monitoring, and the chart below compares their depth of analysis and user-friendliness.

One size fits none
While there are tools out there promising to reveal everything from online sentiment to the effect of ‘influencers’, the challenge for researchers is how to pick the right tools for the job. It’s not realistic to think that one tool can meet the entire business’ objectives – some are designed more for reactive, PR use, others are better for insight and research. As so many products have flooded on to the market and everyone from the marketing department to corporate risk has got excited about it, we are in danger of social media monitoring tools being used as an extremely blunt instrument.

While some departments do need to receive a quick snapshot of key data and might benefit from a well put together dashboard tool such as Brandwatch, colleagues in other roles such as customer analytics would be better suited to data heavy tools such as Radian 6 which is more extensive in the amount of data it gathers and offers scope for greater analysis (providing, of course, that you have the expertise to manipulate the data and draw out the insights). The important thing here is to understand that while multiple departments within the business may have a need to monitor social media conversations, their proficiency at extracting insights from any given tool will vary enormously.

Working with an agency that offers access to the full range of tools, can advise on which ones are best suited for each project and can perform the necessary analysis is an effective way to ensure that everyone in the business can get maximum insight, irrespective of their ability to manipulate pivot tables.

“Just adding more conversations into the analysis doesn’t deepen the level of insight you may find”

There’s no substitute for good data management
One key thing to watch out for when selecting social media measurement tools is the provider’s approaches to data management. A worrying number of tools proudly launch updates at regular intervals and shout about the fact that they can now index even more conversations. But bragging that “my coverage is bigger than yours” rather misses the point – just adding more conversations into the analysis doesn’t deepen the level of insight you may find. As any researcher knows, upping the sample size doesn’t automatically lead to better research.

Beware of the urge for ‘instant’ results
In all things, a clear danger of the internet and our ‘always on’ society is a desire for immediate gratification. While social media monitoring can give rapid results and accelerate the traditional research process, a common misconception is that it can give real-time feedback on virtually any question. Some processes (such as notification on new negative sentiment) can be automated, but the usual trade-offs between speed and quality still apply.

We were recently asked to mine everything that had been said about the announcement of a new electronic product within 24 hours, a job which can’t be done with the click of a few buttons. The tools do trawl the internet 24/7, but they can’t be everywhere all the time, and the data cleansing (de-duplicating, recoding of sentiment) also takes time. In reality what was needed was a painstaking analysis done by hand as no tool could actually do such a thorough job within the time available.

Perfecting the art
As with most new techniques, social media monitoring brings a great deal of buzz and excitement but it also brings its challenges. The most crucial learning for any agency or clientside researchers to remember is that social media monitoring is an art, not a science. While we all look forward to tools that can automate time-consuming (and frankly, often dull processes) and give us ready access to millions of respondents, we must be careful not to leave the researcher out of the equation.

Yes, the possibilities afforded by social media monitoring tools are huge, but the art is in knowing what to use, how to use it and when. Choosing the right tools is just a small part of the equation – unless you have the expertise to actually look at the data generated by social media monitoring tools and analyse it properly, you could buy every single social media monitoring tool going and be none the wiser for it. Unless we get this bit right, there will be no real insights from social media monitoring, just a meaningless sea of statistics.

I look forward to the time when metrics from social media monitoring studies become as important to boardrooms as customer satisfaction and Net Promoter scores, but before that can happen we need to see the same consistent definitions, accuracy and rigour that you would expect from any of the more established methodologies.

James Turner is research director at FreshMinds Research

9 Comments

10 years ago

James, I like the point you made about "online conversations now offer a wealth of rich data that can be mined for insights." Indeed the the voice of the customer can now be heard by anyone in the enterprise where it might have been more focused on customer service and sales in the past. Knowing the opinion of the customer right now or seeing where the trends are going in the marketplace can give a brand an edge vs. its competitors. Of course at the same time mentions in social media are from real people expressing real opinions. So the invitation for a brand to engage, build relationships, live amongst its community is a wonderful opportunity I hope more take advantage of. Thanks also for including us in your analysis James. We love listening to and learning from the feedback. Cheers. @davidalston Radian6

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10 years ago

James, Thanks for including us within the graph. One thing I should point out is that Sysomos offer two social media services, Heartbeat and MAP. MAP is a powerful and feature-rich analytics service that comes with a huge database that includes traditional and social media. If you'd like a demo of MAP or Heartbeat, please let me know. Mark Mark Evans Director of Communications Sysomos Inc. @sysomos

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10 years ago

Completely agree that quantity does not mean better results nor does speedier mean better results. A solid foundation of research skills is what brings social media monitoring into the realm of social media research. The ability to pick out the data that is relevant means that you aren't looking for millions of records, but rather relevant records. And the ability to measure results instantly means that quality must be compromised. It's a balancing act that researchers understand well and have developed as a unique skill. By the way James, I see that Conversition's product evolisten isn't on the map. Happy to take you on a test drive if you're interested. :) Annie Pettit, PhD, @LoveStats Chief Research Officer www.conversition.com

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10 years ago

Thanks for bringing to the fore the wealth of insight for action that can be extracted from opinion mobilising around brands, products, organisations and people. You really need to think through who is going to use this insight, how they are going to do this and the resources and changes in mindset required. Do you want someone within your organization to trawl through the data and dig out the nuggets or would you rather work with the people who are in your web space analyzing the conversations day in day out? More on this in an excellent post and debate from Jason Falls at Social Media Explorer: http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com/2010/04/26/trusting-automated-sentiment-scoring/#comment-46767396 Jon Moody @asomouk Community Manager ASOMO (About Social Movements)

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10 years ago

Agree violently on the 'good data management' part. We at Serendio rely on focused harvesting, a detailed domain specific taxonomy and a robust statistical/linguistic suite of algorithms for deep insights. While this may sound like a Enterprise deployment, we do all this through a SaaS portal. We recently made some waves in the Sentiment Analysis Symposium in NY by opening up our ontologies to partners/customers..and of course, competitors too. Check out http://serendio.com/tl_files/serendio/sentiment_symposium_final.pdf Ravi Condamoor CEO, Serendio www.serendio.com

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10 years ago

Every time someone writes about social media measurement the vendors fall over themselves to comment, offer effusive thanks and then say in some roundabout way how the analysis didn't quite pick up on their core strengths/ the competition lacks something really key/ they have a new gizmo that is truly revolutionary. I wish they would back off and let researchers debate the issue first. As someone trying to figure out which tool to use, the plethora of free and paid tools is overwhelming and really confusing. None of them are perfect, far from it. They all need time to configure if you're looking at general conversations; or to analyse if you want something more than a rather flawed thumbs up or thumbs down measure. It's really competitive out there and there's masses of potential so no surprise that as a user/ buyer it seems so chaotic. Hopefully they'll all start buying each other up and it will get simpler.

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10 years ago

Amen Paul! I agree that this is a little bit annoying and seems to be the way it goes with any post related to listening tools.

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9 years ago

Agree Paul. To even shortlist the top contenders that meet your requirement, from the huge list of products, is daunting! Pradeep http://www.pradeepsanyal.com

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9 years ago

None of the software are perfect. They are made to provide solutions to the creators' desires. http://www.subhendusen.com

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