Every day almost one million people worldwide log onto their computers and share their views and thoughts with the world in a blog. Most bloggers are independent and do not seek any financial return for their views, but when it emerges four out of five post brand or product reviews, with 37 per cent posting them frequently, it becomes clear that this is a powerful voice. The big issue, however, is about listening.
'Previously companies have largely been forced to communicate to their audience through a megaphone approach - send their message out broadly and hope their audiences hear it,' says Karla Wachter, senior vice president, product development, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. 'Social media has changed this one-way dynamic into a two-way conversation by creating a pipeline that allows companies to build and nurture personal connections.'
'More chief executives are blogging and many brands are directly engaging with consumers on social networks. We're seeing an age of transparency emerge where people want to connect with brands on a personal level,' adds Stephanie Agresta, global director, digital strategy and social media, at Porter Novelli. Making a success of that kind of conversation, though, requires an understanding of the power of influence, argues Wachter. 'Influence is about reaching the right people, with an engagement that delivers value, offering a company's audience a meaningful connection to their brand,' she says. Achieving this also means knowing what conversations are going on, and which of the many thousands are relevant and require responses. As Wachter says, it's the ability to 'collect data that helps [companies] discover the who, what, why, when, where and how of influence'. It all starts with a social media monitoring strategy.
The problem with monitoring
Despite the business potential, it seems that many companies currently underestimate the importance of such monitoring activity. 'Some organisations believe that [online] conversations about them just do not exist,' says Michelle Goodall, social media marketing consultant at Econsultancy. 'But monitoring is not just about focusing on your organisation, it's also about direct and indirect competitors. It can help you gain an understanding of competitor customer service or product issues, to analyse gaps for potential products or services or to help understand why their communications campaigns did or didn't work.'
She also thinks that some organisations discount monitoring activities because they do not believe their key audiences are involved in social media. 'Your audiences don't have to be active participants in social media to see a bad product review or a customer service complaint visible in Google when they search for your organisation, products or services. Monitoring is not a nicety but a necessity for all organisations,' she says.
The delay in companies actively monitoring social media may also lie in some confusion over the tools available, and how monitoring can be resourced effectively. 'Brands and communicators are having problems deciding upon the metrics, what the technology is and how they can bring realistic goals and objectives to the activity or campaigns they wish to create,' says Tim Gibbon, director at media consultancy Elemental. 'More importantly, brands and communicators are unclear what channels are available, and how to work with them to connect with audiences, and subsequently what methods should be employed to measure activity.'
The problem is compounded by the amount of material circulating online. Ploughing through millions of conversations to find the few that will be relevant to a brand is likely beyond the resources of most companies. 'There are so many blogs out there that you quickly ascertain that a lot of blogs don't get read. There's a huge number of people writing and posting blogs with no-one paying attention,' says Marcus Gault, managing director at media intelligence company Precise.
Technology to the rescue?
Myriad tools have emerged promising to help organisations in tracking these innumerable online conversations, including free tools such as Addictomatic, Google Alerts, Technorati, Surchur and Socialmention; social bookmarking tools, such as Delicious; RSS readers that group and collate data feeds, such as Google Reader; as well as more costly but sophisticated enterprise-level tools and technologies such as Radian6, Crimson Hexagon, Alterian/Techrigy SM2, Brandwatch and Buzzlogic.
Technology may have its limitations, though. 'Whilst the technology used to locate environments and the conversations within them is now a science, social media monitoring remains more of an art. This is because regardless of how great the functionality of the technologies that are available, it is the simple, yet complex conversation and dialogue that is exchanged that holds the real crux of useful information that communicators and brands can benefit from,' says Gibbon.
Goodall agrees, arguing that even the best tools require an element of human analysis and interpretation of data to factor 'influence' and 'sentiment' into the source of the conversations. This requires time and training, resources for which may be in scant supply, especially in these recessionary times. Goodall also thinks that experience of free tools may have put off some companies from monitoring activities altogether. 'Many people are using free tools such as Google Alerts but they are getting frustrated at the amount of noise, irrelevant information and results that are thrown up, so assume that effective monitoring will be time intensive and resource heavy.'
To resolve these issues, companies are working hard to develop monitoring products that go beyond merely collating data. Waggener Edstrom, for example, has devised monitoring tools such as 'twendz', a data-mining application, and 'WExPulse', a multi-channel monitoring solution that enables agency account teams and clients to better track news and conversations from a variety of global channels. Twendz was devised by Waggener Edstrom's software engineer Tim Sears as a way to track emotion in Twitter posts. 'Twendz utilises the power of Twitter Search, highlighting conversation themes and emotion of the tweets that talk about topics you are interested in,' explains Wachter. As the conversations on Twitter change, so does twendz by evaluating up to 70 tweets at a time. The aim, Wachter says, is to provide organisations with a glimpse into what's on people's minds and their emotional reaction. Meaningful words in each tweet are compared against a 'dictionary' containing thousands of words that are associated with positive or negative sentiment; each word receives a score that, when combined with the other scored words, allows twendz to make an educated guess at the overall tone of a tweet. 'Twendz provides a number of ways for communications and marketing professionals to see influence in action on Twitter,' says Wachter. 'You can see brewing trends, conversations and determine key actions you should take.'
Porter Novelli has been working in partnership with Crimson Hexagon, which creates custom analytics reports about online conversations. 'In addition to measuring the volume of mentions on platforms like Twitter and blogs, they can also measure the sentiment of the conversation,' says Agresta. 'We add a layer of value to the tool through interpretation of this data and knowledge of the influencer base.'
The human equation
While the tools are becoming more sophisticated, this human dimension will likely be forever essential in effectively monitoring social media. Wachter admits, for example, that while products such as twendz can provide the user with the 'auto sentiment' needed to monitor emotion, the real power of these tools comes through coupling them with personalised consulting. 'While tools such as twendz can prove powerful if used as an early warning system, it is important to remember that it requires human interaction to have a two-way dialogue,' she says.
With this in mind, Precise has spent the past few months devising a social media monitoring service that works on a distinctly human level. Rather than fruitlessly attempting to search every blog and online conversation, Gault and his team narrow down the most relevant sites for each particular client and work from there. 'We look at the people that engage in a blog, the credibility of the blog and list a few thousand blogs that matter. And then we monitor those for our client. We track it all the time and send alerts when something comes up,' he says.
In addition, the firm looks at the social media scene more broadly, before boiling it down into three or four-page reports of trends relevant to each client. 'This saves clients from having to search thousands of posts that are just not relevant. For example, we've just produced a report for one of the large banks. In 30 days there were over 25,000 blogs and tweets about their organisation. No one [at the client company] is going to have the inclination to plough through all that. We can pull out the relevant posts - which might boil down to just a handful - and then summarise what's going on that really matters,' he says.
A strategic approach
Nicholas Scibetta, partner at Ketchum Pleon, has a similarly strategic business-focused outlook on the monitoring process. While he agrees that tools play an important role in a monitoring strategy, he says that relying on tools alone is a one-dimensional approach that overlooks the all important strategic rationale for engaging with social media. 'At first, there was a real frenzy in the social media trend - with lots of companies wanting to get involved just because others were,' he says. 'But you have to start with the strategy: what are you trying to achieve? And what would success look like? You have to set your benchmarks before you start listening and engaging.'
Such a strategic approach aligns with the step-by-step advice of Mike Manuel, general manager at Voce Connect, a division of Voce Communications, who advocates tempering any monitoring activities with the realities of business resources and objectives.
He recommends dealing with the 'paralysing volume of online conversations' by taking a slice of the conversational web - perhaps Twitter, Facebook or forums - and then focusing on monitoring and successfully engaging in these places first, before broadening those efforts. 'This is also a helpful way to control the time and budget investments in these programmes, because it lessens the man hours spent monitoring and responding to things each day, and it counters the temptation to over-invest in monitoring technology until the organisation has proven it's capable of acting successfully on opportunities found,' he says.
Manuel thinks that companies have been paying far more attention to what people are saying online, compared to just two years ago when 'far fewer communications teams understood the value of online listening'. But he also argues that there remain difficult questions to answer in getting a social media strategy right. 'I think that companies are beginning to make larger investments in organisational teams and tools that can help make sense of the social web,' he says. 'A lot of companies are trying to figure out three things:
- What can they do with all of this new insight they're collecting;
- How can they smartly (and quickly) act on conversations as they surface on the web; and
- How can they measure or otherwise calculate the value and return of their listening and engagement efforts.'
People technology = success?
There seems to be agreement that monitoring is just one step of what should be a much broader social media strategy, which focuses from beginning to end on turning research into action. As Wachter says, getting the right data from the right places may be important, but gleaning actionable insight from that data is imperative. It is this latter task may well be the most difficult task facing companies today. 'To ensure you overcome these challenges, we believe that any social media programme should consist of credible tools like twendz, combined with highly skilled influence analysts that can provide the who, what, why, where and how behind that data, that allows you to drive action,' she concludes.
The term 'social media monitoring' implies a fairly straightforward process that merely extends the mainstream media monitoring that firms have long conducted. But tap beneath the surface and the nature of social media makes the process more of a minefield than it might at first appear. The breadth of conversations now conducted online requires a well-thought-out and targeted monitoring programme, but one that is based on a deeper strategic rationale that looks to the business benefits of engaging with an online and interactive audience. In recessionary times, resources to conduct such activity might be in short supply and there may be some dispute as to which in-house team would be best suited to take on the activity - for example, communications or marketing? With more effective tools and skilled third parties hitting the market with more effective solutions and services, however, the monitoring process is likely to become an ever-more prevalent and essential component of an organisation's online communication strategy.
Global faces and networked places:
A Neilson Report on Social Networking's New Global Footprint
- Two-thirds of the world's Internet population visits a social network or blogging site, and the sector now accounts for almost ten per cent of all Internet time.
- 'Member Communities' have overtaken personal email to become the world's fourth most popular online sector after search, portals and PC software applications.
- Time spent on social networks and blogging sites is growing at over three times the rate of overall Internet growth.
- The total amount spent online globally increased by 18 per cent between December 2007 and December 2008.
- In the same period, the amount of time spent on 'Member Community' sites rose by 63 per cent to 45 billion minutes; and on Facebook by 566 per cent - from 3.1 billion minutes to 20.5 billion.
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