NEWS21 September 2016

Social media insight held back by "people issues and mindset"

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A new cross industry guide to social media insight entitled ‘Integrated, Not Isolated’ was launched on Monday night at the IPA in London. It’s the latest in a series produced by #ipasocialworks and the first to examine the value of social media as a source of powerful insight to influence long term business strategy. By Christian Walsh.

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And it is insight, not marketing effectiveness, where social media offers the most value, said Patrick Barwise, Emeritus Professor of Management and Marketing at the London Business School. "My hunch is that insight and CRM are the areas where there are the most advantages, instead of advertising" said Barwise in his opening remarks.

The guide is co authored by Tom Ewing, Senior Director, Brainjuicer and Jessica Owens, Social Media Research Manager, FACE. It references dozens of case studies, including two of Ewings ‘favourites’ from Sport England and GE Healthcare. 

But how well organisations use social media data is varied with some areas "completely barren and devoid of experience and knowledge".

"Too many teams are providing reports that are nice to know", says Fran Cassidy, Project Director of #ipasocialworks. Reports that are not linked to the broader business operations or metrics.

The state of social insight today, according to Ewing, is:

  • Dramatically varied levels of experience and knowledge.
  • A continuously changing playing field – new platforms, new rules, new behaviour.
  • Large amounts of ‘invisible’ work behind the scenes.
  • The main problem isn’t doing the work… it’s using the output.
  • Social insight needs integration on multiple levels.

While the software is pretty good, and processes are increasingly automated, the real organisational barriers to progress are "people issues and challenging the mindset" says Barwise. Business acumen, storytelling, and talent are recurring themes – themes which echo the broader research sector challenges identified in the MRS / PwC Business of Evidence report.   

Not only are some skills in short supply, but there is a prevailing misconception says Ewing that this work is cheap (much of the data is free) and quick (because its real time). But there’s a huge amount of "invisible work" behind the dazzling dashboards and C Suite reports. Without the skills and resources it’s easy to get the set up wrong, which in turn means the answers will be wrong too. At its worst, social media insight becomes "A Shangri-la for confirmation bias – a hay stack for finding any answer you want." 


For Barwise, the extended marketing function is "more siloed than we were 20 years ago". This is in part due to pressure to keep up with the pace of technology, and has resulted in a lack of integration across the business divisions. This is especially manifest in the lack of ownership of social media within many companies and little evidence-based advocacy of its value at an executive level.

But even the best in breed users of social media insight are not immune to what Ewing describes as "the rise of digital short-termism". At O2, the focus has become real time measurement, says Jessica Salmon, Head of Research. Social media insight, she says "has moved into a marketing effectiveness role. It needs to reclaim its longer term strategic role."

Salmon is unequivocal that all sources – including social media – are equal. And her warning to agencies is: "Don’t come and tell me about your methodology – tell me what you can do to solve my business problem."

"The gold dust," says Barwise,"is customer dissatisfaction with categories". Jess Owens agrees that looking at "the other stuff" – the conversations outside of the brand mentions – is where real competitive advantage can be gained. It’s these conversations that represent the complete lives and passions of consumers.

This advice allays some of the concerns around automation by requiring a level of human analysis not yet achievable in machine reading. "Don't rely on the tool to do the work for you," says Ewing. "Don’t just look at the numbers. Read them. Look for the negative spaces, at what is not being said."

The reports key findings are:

  • Social data is the real voice of the customer. It can be invaluable and cost effective for hypothesis testing and making enhancements to product, service, pricing and distribution. However, although it can be a catalyst for it, on its own it is less suitable for major strategic innovation.
  • Social insight KPIs need to align with, and ideally predict, the business metrics of the parent organisation.
  •  Organisations should invest in human analytical interpreters of the social data, rather than just in new improved software and tools. Those who can translate analytic output to business action will be the source of competitor advantage.
  •  Social must be integrated into the range of other insight tools and business intelligence datasets.
  •  The best model of integration is ‘diffused integration’ – professionalising and upskilling people in social insight techniques to enable knowledge and skills to spread across the organisation.
  •  Social analytics demands functional and analytical skills but also collaboration, agility and an experimental mindset.
  •  Social data moves insight teams even more into a strategic function, which can transform organisations.

The report is available here to download at a discount to members of MRS / IPA / Marketing Society (£30, £60 for non- members). Members of MRS can use the following discount code: MRS100

#IPAsocialworks is a collaboration between the IPA, The Marketing Society and the MRS, and supported by Professor Patrick Barwise, Emeritus Professor at the London Business School, Facebook and Twitter.