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'Big data' is the latest buzzword describing the overwhelming amount of information businesses can access with in the digital age.

And while businesses are now well aware of the benefits of capturing consumer information, finding the best way to approach and analyse big data is still a massive challenge.

Social media presents a unique data challenge as much of what is captured is difficult to quantify as the value lies hidden in sentiment that it is difficult for computers to group and analyse.

One of the companies trying to bring some sense to social data is Autonomy's Promote Solutions.

We spoke to Promote Solutions SVP for EMEA Elio Gambetta to find out how brands should approach social media monitoring and how it can positively impact their business.

What’s the difference between meaning-based listening and social media monitoring?

Social media monitoring usually involves watching out for keywords, or following hashtags or trending topics on Twitter, for example.

You can get some insight out of this, but it’s really only a tiny part of the picture.

It’s all very well being able to count how many people are talking about your company, or your products or your latest event, but what can you actually do with this data? 

If you can start looking at the sentiment behind a Tweet, a post, a blog article, and see when people are saying similar things just in different ways, you open up a whole range of possibilities as to what you can do with that data.

Understanding the meaning behind a message, rather than just counting that it’s there, enables this and much more.

What’s the biggest mistake you’re seeing being made by brands when it comes to listening?

A worrying number of brands are still ignoring channels like social altogether. This is less and less the case, but it’s still happening.

There’s more and more emphasis on the social channels on the consumer side. This is how they are communicating with their friends, so it’s how they will naturally think to communicate with brands. 

There are brands that are engaging with social media channels that make the mistake of thinking of them as separate entities, rather than being part of the whole customer interaction process.

Companies should be considering them as part of the whole picture, not something separate in their own right.

Looking at the social channels along with everything else gives a holistic view of customer engagement – and that’s where the real value is.

Another big issue is the presumption by companies that they know what they are looking for.

This assumption is fundamentally wrong, as it neglects the ‘unknown unknowns’ – you can’t always predict what trends will emerge, and what your customers will say – to assume that you can means that you will miss crucial trends and big opportunities. 

What’s the biggest ask by clients?

The most common ask is ‘help us monetise what we’re doing in the social media space’. 

Thankfully, we’re seeing people realising that just listening isn’t enough, but many brands are finding it difficult to work out what comes next. Any advice?

Collecting all this information and listening to it is one thing – being able to actually derive meaningful insight and use this data to inform your strategy is another. Understanding meaning is the key.

If you can understand the meaning of the information, whatever it is, you can use it to spot patterns and trends as they emerge, and use this to inform and shape your strategy.

If you can do this in real time, you can get that much more of a competitive edge, as you can act and react more quickly.

What do you think are the most valuable outcomes from analysing social and online conversation?

You can see what your customers are saying about you, which gives you the ability to act on this insight and increase revenue, subscriptions, conversions – whatever your goal is.

There’s a lot to be gained here, but there’s also a lot to lose by not engaging and listening to your customers in this way.

What’s the future of this space?

We’re going to see a progression from social media to rich social media.

If a Tweet is analogous to an SMS message, what happens when these all become picture messages, and social media becomes rich media melded with augmented reality?

This is already happening – Facebook currently handles 40bn photos from its user base.

Communicating with an image is simple and easy, particularly from mobile devices, and it can say more than words.

Suddenly, it’s not about understanding messages of 140 characters, it’s about understanding equivalent streams of rich data.

You can’t just look at the keywords here – you’re forced towards an altogether more fundamental ability to understand meaning in the information.

Aurasma is coming along in leaps and bounds. Why do you think that is?

Augmented reality is a huge burgeoning platform – there is just so much that companies can do with it, and it’s a great channel from the consumer perspective.

From the point of view of businesses, it’s a great way to add digital interaction to what would normally be purely physical, unquantifiable interactions. It’s a whole new interaction channel. 

Is there a real argument for the use of augmented reality in a mainstream sense? Are we ready?

We’re more ready than ever. The proliferation of smartphones and other devices make this a more accessible channel to consumers than ever before, and people are really excited about new technologies like this. 

Companies have actually been ready for this for years even if they hadn’t realised it.

Most of them are producing the content already. Think about a newspaper, streaming videos on its site, for example.

All that content is already there, ready to hook up to the physical newspaper.

Suddenly, rather than being stuck with traditional print deadlines, you can update stories after the fact, without altering what you’re printing. 

Can you measure influence?

For the first time ever, companies can really see who is engaging with them in offline advertising channels – they no longer have to place large numbers of these adverts without knowing in real terms how they are influencing consumer behaviour.

Advertisers can now see that the promotion at this location had more customer interaction and drove more sales than elsewhere. 

We can also better track how perception, influence and adoption grow and change over time, by understanding what people say, how they say it, and how often.

We’re not reliant on arbitrary tags like QR codes, hashtags and the like – looking at these alone can distort the results, as it neglects those who are not using them.

Being able to understand the meaning in all forms of customer interaction is absolutely fundamental. 

David Moth

Published 23 April, 2012 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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