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Nearly 1.5 billion people used a social networking site last year. And they were all chattering about you.
Sure, not every tweet, post or comment was about your company, but consider this: Twitter alone registers more than 200 million tweets a day, and half of all Twitter users recommend products in their tweets. "Social media is the world's largest focus group," said Wayne St. Amand, vice president of marketing at Crimson Hexagon, a social media monitoring and analytics software vendor in Boston. "Consumers are telling you what they want every single day on social media."
Smart businesses ought to be listening.
If your work in social media doesn't somehow contribute more money to your organization, then it's not working.
Shabbir Safdar, founder, The Safdar Group
Analyzing the data that pours out of countless social media sites across the Web has become increasingly critical for forward-thinking organizations looking to stay ahead. The discipline, known as social media analytics, allows companies to take control of the flood of social data produced every day and transform it into actionable business intelligence.
"If you're not listening and using the intelligence as a feedback cycle into your business plan, you're really missing out," St. Amand said.
For the past half-decade, social media tracking and analysis was focused on numbers -- numbers of fans, followers, likes and traffic. But today that has all changed, said Don Martelli, director of digital integration and social business at Boston-based public relations and marketing communications firm Schneider Associates. Companies have gotten better at collecting data and have learned how to use it not only to inform their digital marketing strategies but also to make smarter business decisions, Martelli said.
Diamonds in the social media rough
"Analyzing social data has applications in almost every part of the organization," said Chuck Hemman, director of analytics at WCG, a communications, advertising and analytics services provider in San Francisco. From public relations and marketing, to customer service, human resources and product development, there is opportunity for learning and taking action.
"How often have you tweeted, 'Boy, this product is really great, I wonder if the next version will have X, Y and Z features?' " Hemman said. On the flip side, Hemman cited a problem he had with a new TV. He reached out to the manufacturer on Twitter and the problem was rectified within days, he said.
Sure, customer feedback like Hemman's can be invaluable, but how does a business make sense of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tweets, Facebook posts and YouTube comments that come down the pike every day for larger organizations engaged in social network monitoring?
Best Western International knows a thing or two about the cascades of social data that are most likely to influence how its hotels are perceived. Sites like TripAdvisor, which claims 200 million unique monthly visitors worldwide, have long provided a place for travelers to share their experiences about hotels, flights, restaurants and rentals.
"Here are consumers making buying decisions based on this social feedback," said Michael Morton, vice president of member services for Best Western. "People trust that this is real, organic feedback, unmonitored by the brand."
Best Western knew the social chatter was something more than people just sharing their experiences and therefore worth harnessing, Morton said. So the company worked with Medallia Inc., a customer experience management vendor in Palo Alto, Calif., to create a tool that allows hotels to manage and respond to social feedback. It also tracks and analyzes customer sentiment. For example, a hotel's Internet speed might draw the most comments, but the software can show that they have limited impact on a guest's likelihood of recommending that hotel.
Morton said he can then focus resources on areas that have a greater impact on recommendations, such as the cleanliness of guest rooms.
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With social media monitoring and analytics tools like Salesforce Marketing Cloud (formerly Radian6), Sysomos, Crimson Hexagon and Medallia, businesses are able to find out how consumers are talking and sharing information online. "We can learn what they're interested in, what they'd like to hear more about from the brand, what kinds of customer service experiences they're having and what product developments they'd like to see," Hemman said.
At Crimson Hexagon, massive amounts of information are collected and digested every day through a social media tracking system. The company has been storing social data since 2008, amounting to some 250 billion posts. Another billion posts are added every two days.
The software lets users analyze traffic by social media channel or competitor name, among other factors. "Then our algorithm learns what you care about as a brand," St. Amand said. For example, Starbucks may want to know how customers are reacting to a new coffee drink. Are they buzzing about the smoothness of the coffee? The boldness? The acidity? It's not only important to know what is being said on social media -- negative or positive -- but also why a consumer is responding a certain way, according to St. Amand.
"You can act on this information if you know why," he said. "That's where the real value is."
Social media tracking goal: Show me the money
But it's hard to connect sentiment and "share of voice" metrics back to revenue, said Martelli of Schneider Associates. "It's a very squishy area," he said. "That's why I tend to return to leads, conversation, engagement and traffic. This way you're touching on the hard numbers but also that second layer of analysis that could impact the way you are marketing a specific product."
Martelli says social media analytics should allow businesses to segment their audiences and craft the right messages to the right people, leading directly or indirectly to revenue.
"At the end of the day, the goal of every analytics program is to increase positive outcomes," added Shabbir Safdar, founder of The Safdar Group, a San Francisco consultancy that provides analytics services for nonprofits. "If your work in social media doesn't somehow contribute more money to your organization, then it's not working."
One simple way to know if your digital marketing strategy is working, Safdar said, is to identify where each social channel fits within the marketing "funnel." That's a way to think about the theoretical journey a customer takes on the way to purchasing a product or service, with awareness being at the top of the funnel and purchase or commitment at the bottom.
"When you dig into analytics features like Google Analytics' multichannel funnel you'll see that this person actually visited the site multiple times, possibly driven by YouTube, possibly by Facebook or an e-mail before committing to a transaction."
Shafdar has learned, for example, that for nonprofits Facebook is usually not the last touch point before a transaction. But it's very good at moving a user from awareness to consideration and closer to a commitment. For nonprofits, he said, e-mail is often the best channel for closing the deal.
Kimberly-Clark Corp., the Irving, Texas, manufacturer of Kleenex, Huggies and other hygiene and beauty products, recently learned all about that customer journey.
Using SAS Analytics, the digital ad agency Organic was able to help Kimberly-Clark make smarter decisions about resource allocation. Where should we be spending time on social media? What content should we be posting? And at what point does each social media platform have the biggest impact? These are the questions Marc Rosenstock, Kimberly-Clark's director of global digital measurement and analytics, can now dig into with more confidence.
Take Kimberly-Clark's Facebook presence. It had been assumed that Facebook was particularly effective when meeting a customer at a certain point in his or her "journey." But after looking at the data Organic produced, the company strategically shifted the content it posted on Facebook to reflect the new intelligence about its customers. Facebook is a place where "moms meet and exchange experiences," Rosenstock said. "Now we can tailor our message for better impact."
Mind readers must make sense of social data
Despite the powerful tools available to carry out social media tracking programs, the hardest part is getting a person, not some machine, to examine the numbers, Safdar said. "Human analysis is expensive and it's hard. You can bake a lot of it into tools. But ultimately you still need a person operating those tools. That's the bottleneck for most organizations," he said.
The data generated by tracking social media sites can appear to be "just a bunch of numbers on a screen," Martelli said. "You still have to figure out how those numbers tie back to your business objectives." The important thing is to just do it, he said. Even the most basic social analysis can yield in-depth, intelligent data that will allow a business to see what's working and what's not.
"We use social media to tell stories," Martelli said. "The data on the back end is telling you how well your story is being listened to. And if you're not doing that part of it and changing your story based on the analytics, you're doing your brand a disservice."
Aaron Lester is a Boston-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronLester