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Social media analytics: Still trial and error

Companies are discovering the challenges of social media analytics, and many are not sure where to begin. But industry analysts say launching a listening strategy is a good way to start.

A customer comment can ring loud and clear on a social network, but social media analytics strategies to make that comment useful are far less precise.

“The first thing companies are trying to do is identify what social analytics is,’’ said Paul Greenberg, president of consulting firm The 56 Group in Washington, D.C. "It’s a murky area."

Companies will find an increasing number of analytics tools for social media that claim to deliver different levels of functionality to assess and respond to the social conversation. Organizations should first turn a critical eye to themselves to determine what engaging on social channels can give them, according to industry consultants.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What do I want to get out of this?’” said Denis Pombriant, CEO at Beagle Research Group, LLC in Stoughton, Mass.

As a baseline, most experts agree companies should begin by paying attention to what people are saying about them online. One industry executive said that a customer claimed his company wasn’t tracking social channels because it didn’t think it was necessary. As an experiment, the executive tracked the company’s brand for a few hours on Twitter and found its name popping up once every nine minutes.  

Listen carefully for success with social media analytics

Listening applications are considered an entry point to social analytics and give companies the tools to gather, track, categorize and assess what is being said on social channels. Dell Inc., for example, has developed a social listening command center to track between 22,000 and 25,000 online comments from customers every day, said Maribel Sierra, director of global social media and communities at Dell.

“Once you know what your customers are saying, the tonality of the conversations, the places  where they are having the conversations and those individuals who are influencing the conversations, then you can better define the social media strategy that fits your customer’s needs, not those of the company,’’ Sierra said.

Industry observers note many companies are just beginning to put in place a listening strategy.

“I think we are at the very beginning of effective adoption,’’ said Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of Nucleus Research Inc. in Boston. “We are seeing tactical responses, companies tracking what people are saying and responding.’’

The trick is to bump that process up a notch -- instead of responding to remarks, companies should determine what the comments truly mean and which comments deserve a response.

Companies “had some missteps in the initial phase,’’ Wettemann added. “An automated response to a Twitter comment isn’t always a good thing.”

Determine who the influencers are in your community

In some cases, a very negative comment may not merit a reaction because it comes from an online lone wolf. But negative remarks from customers who wield power -- meaning they can sway other customers -- is far more critical. The problem is figuring out which customers are the true influencers.

The 56 Group’s Greenberg said identifying the influencers is challenging because traditional measurements do not apply. Furthermore, the essence of power or influence can be different, depending on the company or its market segment. Numbers alone do not tell the story. A person could have thousands of Twitter followers but may not carry the clout of someone who has lower numbers on Twitter but writes a highly respected blog.

Companies that are ready to drill down to better understand social commentary should look to text analytics products that can give meaning and context to comments, according to industry observers. These products can help companies see patterns emerge, spot trends and, most important, identify a problem in its early stages.

Understand how people really feel

The traditional approach of using surveys to measure customers’ feelings on a five-point scale identifying positive, neutral or negative opinions with sentiment analysis has grown more difficult, as customers are not only able to express a greater range of emotions but do so in the unstructured formats of texts, tweets and Facebook posts.

“The big move is to capture conversations with emotional content,’’ Greenberg said. “You have to redefine the algorithms for sentiment analysis.’’

Some vendors are coming out with tools that give companies the ability to rate customers on an 11-point sentiment scale, he added.

Because customers are not filling out formatted surveys, they can express far more detailed emotions that could result in a variety of subsequent actions. Now, “you have to know the difference between irritated and furious,’’ Greenberg said.

Finally, once a company is armed with meaningful data about customers, it can move beyond a reactive strategy to one in which it engages with customers and develops a more continual conversation with them, analysts said.


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