For unwary users, social media data analysis can be an unfriendly task

Beth Stackpole

Without a well-defined plan that puts social media analytics into a broader enterprise context, and a set of technologies that can effectively support that process, organizations can miss the mark -- badly -- in trying to parlay isolated insights gleaned from social networking data into strategic business intelligence.

In response to the surging popularity of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, companies are frantically setting up social media "listening posts" and empowering departments to take action based on what they hear. But treating social media data as an island unto itself is a big mistake, said Katie Paine, chairman of consultancy KDPaine & Partners in Berlin, N.H., and chief marketing officer at its Dubai-based parent company, News Group International.

"The reality is that social media is just a piece of the broader mix," Paine said. "You can't just think in terms of social media -- you have to think in terms of the business."

That alone won't guarantee social media data analysis success, though. Paine and other analysts cited a variety of challenges that organizations need to address as they plan and push forward with social media monitoring and analytics programs, including these:

The available data has its limits. Compounding the silo issue is the fact that social media analytics offers a limited perspective on what's being said in social forums because all of the data being generated there isn't readily accessible for analysis. Take Facebook and Twitter, for example. Most companies don't have access to the complete "fire hose" of Twitter data and are only able to capture publicly available information on Facebook -- not what gets posted on people's personal walls behind privacy protections.

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"We've all been waiting for the walled gardens to come down," said Tom Anderson, CEO of Anderson Analytics LLC, a consulting and technical services company in Stamford, Conn. "The only thing you can get from Facebook is what's said on public company walls, which is much less interesting than what you'd be able to see from what customers are saying on their personal walls."

Text analytics software isn't perfect. Accurately assessing the meaning and sentiment of social media posts is complicated by the still-limited ability of text analytics tools to interpret the nuances of written content, including sarcasm, slang, jargon and irony. Even widely used abbreviations such as LOL or IMHO can confuse the tools, according to Susan Etlinger, an analyst at Altimeter Group in San Mateo, Calif.

Organizational hurdles abound. A successful program involves far more than just choosing the right social media monitoring tools and analytics software. First, companies need to take stock of the resources and skills they have in-house and decide if they need to devote funding for any additional help, whether that means hiring new employees or bringing in outside contractors.

Breaking down organizational barriers is another important step, especially when companies are trying to promote an enterprise approach to analyzing social media data and acting on the findings. But dealing with political issues such as who "owns" a social media analytics program and is ultimately responsible for its success is a big challenge for many organizations. Creating a social media steering committee with representatives from departments like marketing, customer service and product development can help foster an integrated social intelligence strategy.

Before reaching that point, though, it's often difficult just to get business managers and workers to take social media chatter seriously, said Jeff Zabin, research director at Gleanster LLC in Evanston, Ill. "A lot needs to happen on the change management side," he said. "You need to give employees the right reasons and incentives that motivate them to listen to [the voice of the customer] and why it's important."

Overreaching is dangerous. Too much information can be the death knell for social media data analysis initiatives, warned Seth Grimes, principal consultant at Alta Plana Corp. in Takoma Park, Md. Companies should avoid the temptation to try to find useful information in every corner of the social media universe, he said: "You have to be able to focus on what matters to the business' bottom line in using these tools and not look at every mention of your product or brand."

Social media is a small part of the overall conversation. The data you can tap into on sites such as Facebook and Twitter constitutes only a fraction of what's being said about your company or products in word-of-mouth forums as a whole. "Ninety percent of the conversation and influence still happens offline," Paine said. "[Social networks] are not a substitute for what people are saying sitting in a bar or at the soccer field."

Even when its use is managed effectively, social media analytics software is by no means a panacea for companies looking to track and respond to customer sentiment, Paine cautioned. "Anybody who wants to be in business at this time needs to be listening to customers on social media," she said. "But it's not the ultimate answer to everything, and it's not the only way to be listening to customers."

Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for more than 25 years for a variety of publications and websites.

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