Social media analytics software pulls useful info out of online muddle

Beth Stackpole

If you think all the activity on popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter is meaningless chatter, you might want to think again. Buried within the millions of tweets and comments and the jillions of seemingly innocuous likes and dislikes are valuable insights that when mined effectively can help steer corporate decision making on product development, customer service and other key business issues.

The wealth of data being amassed on social networks has given rise to a new breed of monitoring and analysis tools designed to help companies listen in on and parse the cacophony of online conversations to uncover actionable information relevant to their businesses. Social media analytics software leverages text analytics capabilities in an effort to reveal patterns, identify trends and detect potential business problems from what people are saying in these online forums.

"Social media listening or monitoring is intended to help organizations understand what's being said about them on the social Web at any given time, typically in real time," said Susan Etlinger, an analyst at Altimeter Group, a market research and advisory services company in San Mateo, Calif. The findings can then be used for purposes such as addressing customer service issues and fine-tuning marketing and customer-engagement efforts. Ultimately, "the goal is taking action," Etlinger said.

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There is no single department or business unit that should "own" what some analysts refer to as the social intelligence process. In fact, Etlinger and others say it's a cross-functional discipline that can benefit many of the key parts of an organization.

For example, marketing can tap into social media analytics tools to understand what messages best resonate with a particular audience, while customer service might use the technology to get a lead on chronic customer complaints and to facilitate faster and less expensive problem-resolution practices. For product development teams, monitoring and analyzing social media data can provide a window into white-hot consumer trends and a funnel for customer feedback on desired product features and for ideas that could spark plans for future products.

Motivations not lacking for social media analytics

"Social media monitoring straddles all parts of the organization," said Jeff Zabin, research director at Gleanster LLC in Evanston, Ill.  According to a survey that Gleanster conducted in the second quarter of 2011, the ability to generate customer insights was the top motivator for social intelligence initiatives, cited by 93% of the 335 respondents as a reason for launching their programs. But it had lots of company: Eight-eight percent of the respondents said their companies were using social media monitoring and analytics to improve marketing effectiveness, and 86% said they were looking to bolster the reputation of their corporate brands.

Other widely cited reasons that the Gleanster survey pointed to for adopting social intelligence tools included increasing customer satisfaction (81%), improving the effectiveness of market research efforts (79%) and making customer support operations more effective (72%). Gleanster deemed reducing customer support and market research costs and improving sales effectiveness to be "less compelling" reasons to implement the technology, based on the survey results.

Given the soaring popularity of social networks, the analysts said that most organizations, particularly large companies with well-established and lucrative brands, likely have started using social media analytics software to some degree. For example, when Altimeter surveyed "social strategists" from 140 companies in late 2010 and early 2011, 82% of the respondents said they expected to have a brand monitoring strategy for social media in place by the end of last year.

High adoption, low maturity

While that figure indicates a high rate of adoption for social media monitoring and analytics, Etlinger said the maturity level of programs is still relatively low. Most early adopters are primarily deploying tools to monitor what's being said on social media sites and aren't at the point where they're poised to act on that in an automated and coordinated fashion, she said.

Moreover, early deployments of social media monitoring tools have been focused primarily on volume metrics, sizing up statistics like number of clicks, shares or retweets, Zabin said. But those metrics don't necessarily map to a company's business goals or aid in generating useful insights.

"By now, every consumer brand out there has tested the waters just because everyone has woken up to the realization that controlling the brand message has migrated from what they have to say to what consumers have to say," Zabin said. The long-term goal, he added, should be moving beyond examining the ratio of positive and negative buzz to trying to understand the reasons behind that buzz at a more granular level. Companies that do so will be able to use the findings "to drive business value," Zabin said.

And businesses that ignore social media analytics are taking a chance, especially if they make or sell consumer products, said Seth Grimes, principal consultant at Alta Plana Corp. in Takoma Park, Md., and organizer of the Sentiment Analysis Symposium. "We're already at the point," Grimes said, "that if you're not doing it, you're incurring a lot of risk -- if only from a reputation point of view."

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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