Social Media Monitoring: An Overview
By Paul Squirrell
Network Director, thenetworkone
Introduction: why is social media so important?
A few years ago, Harvard Business Review published a ground-breaking study about on consumer research. It was called “The only number you’ll ever need”.
They found that the problem with most market research is that it asks consumers to predict their own behaviour and attitudes – “would you buy this new product? How much do you like brand x?” – which consumers consistently fail to do accurately. Sitting in a hall or a focus group, consumers really don’t know what they’d do when they go into a store. And if asked to say whether they like a brand (or an ad), all too often they answer to please the researcher, or to show off their good taste to the other people in the room.
The study found there was one question which consumers tended to answer much more accurately, and which provided a much more reliable picture of their real feelings about a product, service or brand.
The question is: “would you recommend Brand X to a friend?”
Out of this, the concept of “net promoter scores” was born, which has become the main measure of brand health among multinational brand owners today. If you go to conferences regularly, you surely know this.
But pause a minute. The question, however valuable, is still theoretical and asks consumers to predict their behaviour.
What if a brand owner could measure what customers are ACTUALLY saying to their friends? Wouldn’t that be even more valuable?
OK, you get the picture. Social media measures what people are actually saying to their friends. Opinions, experiences, judgments, discoveries, criticisms. Today, not when some study was done a few months back.
Analysis of comment in social media is the most valuable, immediate, reliable source of brand marketing information on the planet.
What is social media?
We all know the stats – Facebook alone now has over half a billion users and if it were a country, it would be the third biggest in the world. Other platforms may have a smaller number of users, but their influence in specific sectors is colossal – like TripAdvisor in the travel industry, or MySpace in the music business. But what are they, exactly?
It is often forgotten that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were not originally created as marketing channels for brands – they were primarily online environments for knowledge democratization, digital social interaction and sharing amongst interest groups and friends… in other words ‘sharing stuff!’
This is important to remember because it defines the essence of all social media platforms – that’s to say individual comment and expression of views is encouraged. No longer are users just content consumers, they are also content creators.
The definition of friends changes too. (Remember “Friends Re-United”?) A major Chinese consumer study distinguished between “village friends” and “internet friends” – and the latter are much more interesting!
A better definition is peers. Indeed, today, users are often more likely to value the views of a complete stranger in an online forum than the considered marketing output of a company or brand owner.
From a marketing perspective this is often touted as a new frontier and something that is changing the rule book. Brands can no longer dictate their values to consumers; instead they must ‘join the conversation’ as conversations themselves become markets in their own right.
But, how do you know where these conversations are happening and who’s having them? And what they are saying?
This is where social media monitoring comes into play…
Defining social media monitoring
In its broadest sense, the term ‘social media monitoring’, refers to the sourcing, collection, review and interpretation of user generated content from webpage, social networking sites, tweets, blogs etc. All a bit Orwellian, you might think.
As with any new ‘market tool’ with a buzz around it, entrepreneurial start-ups are a-plenty, offering a wide variety of services; whilst more established companies on the fringe of the space are getting in on the act with their own solutions.
The term ‘social media monitoring’ is perhaps a little misleading when considered in the context of the providers we reviewed, as the services they offer range from business issues driven consultancy to DIY online data gathering, via various software applications. Either approach is legitimate, but there’s definitely a degree of ‘caveat emptor’, when selecting a social media monitoring provider to work with.
Does social media monitoring work
In short, yes. However, there’s also a fair bit of hype around what it can do and where best to use it. To be most effective social media monitoring needs to be deployed on a brand that already generates a significant amount of ‘web chatter’. Typically this is a larger brand whose consumers have a strong connection or involvement with it or, increasingly with the company owning the brand, although it can also be helpful in specific niches (like hotels, for example). Brands or services with generic names can be harder to work with and often involve a higher degree of initial software configuration and data filtering.
In a similar vein, social media monitoring is often relied on by celebrities, who are of course brands in their own right.
This is not to say it can not be deployed on small brands; it can, but the data universe to draw on will be smaller and as such the results will fewer in quantity and less robust in nature.
A word of warning though, social media monitoring technology is still in its infancy and like any infant understanding the subtleties of linguistic construction, it does always get it right. Fun with your 2 year old but, less amusing when you are trying to understand what customers think of your brand!
Choosing a social media monitoring provider
Whilst at their core, all of the solutions we reviewed do much the same thing, there are differences in how the data is conveyed and latterly used.
As one might when choosing any supplier or third party vendor, it’s important to start with the business objective driving this course of action. If it’s simply to see where people are talking about your brand online and what they are saying, a basic web crawling software solution will probably be sufficient. However, if like organisations such as Dell or Betfair, the intention is to improve business efficiency or provide an additional revenue stream a more consultative and analytical software solution will be required.
How do analytical monitoring solutions work?
In reality all of the solutions are based on web crawler software that searches a pre-determined selection of websites, groups, forums and the blogosphere across a given language set – normally the main European languages although a few service providers offer Japanese and Korean. The search is at its most simple a ‘key word’ or ‘key phrase’ search – although solutions are improving all the time.
Many providers will claim that language is not a restrictive factor to effective social media monitoring and to some extent this is true given that much of the content of the internet is in English. However, if you have a Spanish brand, based in Spain for example, it’s likely a great many conversations are happening in Spanish and not English!
Some providers will claim that they can easily include additional languages but this is to be viewed with a degree of scepticism. Language and its use are incredibly complex and as such creating an application capable of interpreting it takes a considerable investment. It is therefore likely many such providers are relying on a high degree on manual (human) filtering and interpretation of results.
With regard to the actual search, the difference and indeed the quality of the output, is determined (initially) by the search parameters and then the categorisation of the results, to explain.
Any business sector will have a limited number of ‘key’ sites, forums etc, that receive the vast majority of social media traffic – for example Autotrader.com for the UK automotive sector. From these key sites a crawler will spider out along lines of ‘key influence’ such as influential bloggers and writers etc.
“Influence is not only about having the most friends or followers. Real influence is about being able to affect the behaviour of those you interact with, to get others in your social network to act on a suggestion or recommendation.” – Fast Company’s ‘Influence Project’.)
To a greater extent this will be the content of interest, because this is where the important conversations are happening. Whilst other conversations might happen across the Internet, they are fairly isolated and as such not terribly influential and therefore of limited interest – however they will nevertheless show up.
It is important to note that relatively low influence conversations can become high influence conversation if they gather momentum in the right forums as again, Dell discovered with ‘Dell Hell’ – an old example, but still relevant. So, all the providers recommend that a campaign should run for several months around an issue, to be most useful.
Once the conversations have been found, their relevance and importance needs to be defined and this is where the differences in approach start.
The automated approach
Some of the providers offer totally automated solution that are built around sophisticated linguistics algorithms that determine whether the text that has been found is relevant, and also determine sentiment. At a basic level, this means whether the comment is of a positive or negative nature.
Perhaps the biggest issue with this approach is the limitations of the software. As previously mentioned, most solutions analyse key words and phrases and struggle with the much more complex issue of sentiment, because human emotions are subtle and complex and as such not easily categorised. Accuracy claims for this software range from 60-90% in English language text.
The semi-automated approach
The more costly providers start with an automated solution and then have an individual review the results. This has the advantage of being able to identify the more subtle nuances in language. For example something being ‘cool’ good or ‘cool’ cold – useful to know if it’s your hotel’s room’s being commented on. This is also the approach used to classify most video or rich media content that’s found – essential give the size and importance of sites such as YouTube. (It’s often thought that social media monitoring is purely verbal – but some providers also track video.)
Furthermore, it can be tricky to regionalise data. A global brand might well feature on many blogs, forums and sites but, contributors to those sites could well come from counties or regions that are not of interest and because the software is only concerned with the domain, filtering needs too be undertaken manually.
The majority of the providers we reviewed provided an online dashboard (of one sort or another), with which users could view – and in some cases interpret – the results generated.
In some instances the dashboards (such as the one offered by Hotgrinds) are highly sophisticated and customisable, allowing users to view their data in many forms and indeed track back to the source (the original blog for example). Other dashboards (such as Radian6 or Market Sentinal) are not as user friendly in our opinion but, they output data in transferable formats such XLS, CSV or PDF format – useful for inclusion in presentations.
Other service providers (such as Durrants or Trackur) offer far simpler online dashboards that display the data either in a raw form or as simple flat charts. This is normally because the solution has a low entry price or, in the case of Durrants, is a supplementary service to the core business (press clippings) – despite what they might tell you to the contrary!
Of course, social media monitoring solutions are research tools and like any research tool, their output needs to be interpreted in some way. For providers like Hotgrinds this interpretation is left to the end user – albeit with the aid of a sophisticated set of dashboard tools.
Other providers such as Market Sentinel and Net Monitor (and even Durrants to a degree) promote consultative services to not only interpret the data but also to define the business issue and possible solution being highlighted. In the case of Market Sentinel, this is a very credible offer delivered by what is really a management consultancy – however, this can be reflected in the cost.
Despite being a relatively new area, the base software (web crawler technology) is quite well developed – although consider the limitations already mentioned. Most providers claim to have developed their own unique applications on top of this. Providers such as Neilsen and Milward Brown integrated this into other research offers and tools they have.
Because the majority of companies in this sphere provide their software on an ASP model rather than an install model, users benefit from regular updates as they are released.
Again, price is the divider here with all the providers offering some sort of account management / application training. For the more consultancy related providers this is of course a way to sell additional consultancy or research projects. Others like Radian6 outsource support to VARs such as 6Consult, and at the other end of the spectrum the likes of Google and Trackur have a web-based Q&A approach with an email address.
The cost of social media monitoring solutions range from as little as US$ 1 (for a trial offer) to around US$20,000. The average monthly cost for a mid-range solution is about US$ 1,000 per month per brand or vertical search.
Business models differ slightly with some like Radian6 offering free access for several weeks to some where the user pays upfront.
Most providers based their pricing structure on a per-user approach.
Generally access is on a monthly rolling contract whilst some like Hotgrinds have a minimum 3 month contract.
This said, the market is hugely competitive. “Trial offers” abound and longer term, favourable rates can be obtained for those able to negotiate them – as with any new market, it’s in a state of pricing flux and inevitably over time a pricing equilibrium will be found.
For agencies, this is especially important when pitching for new business. There is no quicker way to learn about – and demonstrate – the issues facing a brand’s consumer health. A snapshot picture is cheap to buy, and may even be available free of charge, especially when there is a prospect of a long term monitoring contract for the provider.
Which agencies should recommend social media monitoring?
Thus far the recommendation for the deployment of a social media monitoring campaign has typically come from either the PR consultancy or the digital agency but, this does not have to be the case. After all, digital chatter draws its influences from all channels, online, offline, TV, press, events etc., – the conversations just happen online.
When considering recommending social media monitor campaign, agencies should ask themselves:
- Does the company or brand to be monitored operate in a sector that generates suitable levels of web chatter? Arguably, a B2B niche manufacturer of car parts for example, will likely have a relatively low level of content about them on the internet and probably their customer relationships are more interpersonal. However, a B2C brand will be much different.
- Do consumers engage with and feel ownership of the client’s brand or company? If they do, they are more likely to generate comment (good or bad). Many consumers want to connect with not only the brand but also the company and people behind the brand. They want to understand and comment on company policy, company ethics, direction etc. A great example of this is Apple and Steve Jobs who are inextricably linked. Mr Jobs is as important to Apple as Apple is to Mr Jobs in the eyes of Appleites and as such they both generate considerable online comment which can be monitored – unlike perhaps Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo… the recently-replaced CEO of Nokia, in case you did not know!
- Can we action the results generated? As with any form of research, the results are only really useful if they are actionable in business terms. So for example, does the client and / or agency have a strategy and sufficient resource to be able to respond to comments generated on blogs and forums? If the answer is no, the activity becomes just an information gathering exercise.
- Will the client pay for this service? Social media monitoring is still relatively new and a perceived by many as an odd mix of art and science. As such, convincing a client to pay for it can be problematic. Many of the dedicated providers (such as Radian 6 or Hotgrinds), will provide real-life demonstrations of their products – which is the best way to demonstrate the value.
- Crap in, crap out, or whatever version of the expression you prefer to use! As with any form of research, one needs to start by understanding the core issue to be researched, the methodology to be employed and the audience to be investigated, or the results generated will be misleading at best or just plain wrong.
Also, the bloggersphere / online environment is only part (albeit a very useful and growing part) of the whole picture and it should be viewed in context.
Human nature being as it is, complainants are those individuals (normally in the minority), expressing negative views and are likely to be more vocal that those who are satisfied our happy with a product or service. This obviously produces a bias that must be considered when reviewing any results.
Finally for consideration
Social media monitoring can offer intriguing insights into the conversations happening about and around a brand or company and indeed, who’s having them and who’s influencing them. But beware: this is a market that’s in a ‘gold-rush’ phase to some extent, and as such many would be providers are setting-up and offering social media monitoring solutions – some of which are over- priced and some of which under-deliver. There’s a definite quality divide, with the larger and / or more established players offering the more robust services in terms of support, usability and technology. However, there are numerous new players entering the market with good solutions that should also be considered before committing to a provider. As the old adage goes – shop around!
There is also a degree of ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, in the same way that everybody wants an ‘App’! For some brands the investment in social media monitoring is just not worth it yet because they don’t generate enough online chatter to make the searches viable. This will change as monitoring technology becomes more sophisticated and the “Outernet” (the migration of the Internet from PC like devices to more everyday items such as clothing or jewellery, enabling a more directly interface with an online environment), encourages great human digital interaction and content generation than now.
No matter how you look at it, social media (and therefore social media monitoring) is here to stay and it’s developing fast. From a marketing perspective the medium is already worthy of serious consideration for certain brands. For sure, it will become an ever more important part of a brand’s marketing activity in the future, but the key word in this last sentence is ‘part’. View the results this type of research produces as a guide to an overall picture and in context (and for at least the moment), with a healthy degree of scepticism regarding its overall accuracy and completeness.
Paul Squirrell is Network Director at thenetworkone. thenetworkone is a network of 300 independent creative agencies in 65 countries that ‘custom builds’ bespoke networks of independent marketing and advertising agencies around their specific communications needs. Paul can be reached at email@example.com or +44 207 240 7117.