An influx of social media monitoring and analytics tools -- many of them free and available as cloud-based services -- is making it easy for companies to get up and running with programs for analyzing social media data. But as with other analytics initiatives, doing so without a big-picture plan that's directly connected to an organization's core business goals will severely limit the technology's usefulness.
To help head off potential business problems and drive more effective decision making in areas such as marketing and customer service, a social media analytics program has to do more than just capture and distill data from Facebook, Twitter and other online venues, according to a report on "social intelligence" published in August 2011 by market research company Gleanster LLC in Evanston, Ill. It also must include a strategy for distributing the analytical findings pulled from social media monitoring tools to executives and other employees who can initiate actions based on the data, Gleanster said in the report.
"Everyone makes the mistake of having all this data coming in without having a plan with what to do with it or how to deal with it," said Katie Paine, chairman of KDPaine & Partners, a consultancy in Berlin, N.H., that is owned by Dubai-based News Group International. "If you've set up a listening post on Twitter to help with customer service, you have to figure out what the flow is going to be from ears to mouth in order to take any kind of action on the data."
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In addition to addressing workflow issues, a social media analytics strategy needs to be clearly mapped to business objectives. For example, if an organization wants to solicit social media ambassadors to help promote its products and brands, an analytics initiative should be steered toward making connections between different candidates and their level of influence in specific topical areas. Or if the primary goal is to identify new product-development opportunities, the charter of a social media analytics program should be to mine customer comments and online conversations and cull relevant ideas along with feedback about existing products, desired new features and unmet needs.
Outreach outpacing analytics?
Synchronizing a social media analytics plan with business strategies is critical to achieving success, said Susan Etlinger, an analyst at Altimeter Group in San Mateo, Calif. That's especially so in light of the high number of social media outreach efforts in place in most organizations, Etlinger added. According to a January 2012 Altimeter report, 144 surveyed companies had an average of 178 corporate-owned social media accounts, raising questions about their ability to effectively monitor and analyze comments, tweets and other data generated in response to all those different outreach efforts.
Integrating data generated by social media analytics software with information in enterprise systems is another pillar of success, Etlinger and other analysts said. For example, linking data from social networks with sales, call center and customer service data provides a more complete view of customer needs, issues and concerns, allowing for more effective sales and follow-up processes.
"There are lots of ways to listen to the voice of the customer, and social media monitoring is just one channel," said Jeff Zabin, Gleanster's research director. "You want to bring them together to create some sort of cohesive whole."
While it's relatively easy for individual departments or even lone employees to get started with basic monitoring of social media data, it's critical to have the right organization and skill set in place as companies dive into more complex analytics. The first step is to involve people from all the relevant functional areas, possibly as part of a social media team or steering committee, so everyone has a say and the analytics efforts are coordinated.
No exclusions allowed on social media monitoring
"If it's going to be a core business tool, it needs to be part of the DNA of your organization and it can't exclude people," Paine said. Otherwise, she and others warned, a company can end up with rogue social media accounts that put it at risk of getting a siloed view of social network interactions and responding inconsistently to analytics findings.
The skill levels of the workers tapped to spearhead a social media monitoring and analytics program is another key consideration. Some organizations might be tempted to staff their programs with younger, less experienced employees because they tend to be more familiar with social networks than older workers are. But while understanding how social media works is certainly a requirement, social media analytics teams also must be versed in strategic business objectives and, not surprisingly, have a strong analytics foundation in order to put social media monitoring tools to effective use.
"You don't need a Ph.D., statisticians or behavioral scientists, but you do need people who can identify emerging trends and who get pattern recognition so they can understand what's going on out there," Zabin said.
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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This was first published in November 2012