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Social media monitoring as a technique has evolved to become almost totally marketing-centric, but this misses a trick.

While dashboards provide great real-time information, they can struggle to help you really learn about your consumers. 

Going back to basics for a moment, we can boil social media down into four parts:

  • Creation – your consumers creating, sharing, commenting and publishing their own content.
  • Listening – how you access this stream of conversation.
  • Learning – your ability to create and share insights about your consumers and markets.
  • Interacting – acting on this knowledge, influencing the conversation and engaging directly with consumers. 

As an industry we’ve come a long way in terms listening and interacting, but there’s still room for improving how and what we can learn from what consumers say. At the moment we seem stuck at measuring what can be measured (keywords, reach, sentiment etc.) at the expense of trying to really learn what consumers think.

Here’s a quick test you can do to see if you’re really learning or simply counting:

Q: Has your approach to social media so far:

  • Helped you understand how and why (not just if) consumers feel the way they do about you?
  • Let you find answers to questions you didn't know you had?
  • Given you the evidence and insight to innovate, solve problems or be creative?
  • Given you valuable insights to share with other departments?

Those with listening systems with outputs limited to just dashboards tend to answer ‘no’ to most of these questions.

However, it’s not a lack of desire that’s holding firms back, but rather a matter of having the right tools. Computers are great at sorting and counting, but still have a way to go to unpick the chaotic beauty of human communication.

The challenge seems to be how to make the most of these systems by combining human analysis with machine processing.

We’ve seen some evidence of firms using this hybrid model to great effect, but so far this approach tends to be light touch and focuses on observing trends in the outputs of dashboards, rather than going back to the raw data.

The problem here is one of scale, how can you practically read thousands of comments and learn from your observations?

There are some recent developments that are starting to provide answers to this. These use some new techniques (such as out-tasking or crowdsourcing) that enable firms to use humans to read large amounts of information and help identify what’s important and interesting. 

This then can be harnessed more easily to create genuine insights about how people think.   

Our work for an engergy company shows how this can be put into action. As part of a recent innovation project they collected thousands of detailed comments about energy and how it fits into people's lives and wanted to see what they could learn from it.

Sentiment and keyword analysis couldn't provide them with the depth of insight needed, so we read and analysed the comments to understand what people were saying about energy, when they talked to each other.

From this they were able to learn more about what motivates people's interest, what untapped needs they had and identify 'hooks' to help communicate more effectively with them. 

Jeremy Hollow

Published 10 May, 2012 by Jeremy Hollow

Jeremy is the Founder of Listen & Learn Research and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow on Twitter

3 more posts from this author

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Nick Stamoulis

"At the moment we seem stuck at measuring what can be measured at the expense of trying to really learn what consumers think."

I think you make a great point. It's hard to boil real insights down into numbers and stats. You have to really listen, not just quantify, to understand what people are saying.

over 4 years ago

Jeremy Hollow

Jeremy Hollow, Founder at Listen & Learn Research & Outtaskers Ltd.

Hi Nick

Thanks for your feedback. I know a lot has already been said about sentiment but its a good example of what you're saying. It's a simple metric and useful in some regards, but it often loses so much in translation.

over 4 years ago

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Nan Dawkins

I couldn't agree more with your assessment that adding humans to the mix is the key to real insights. One of the biggest problems in the industry today is that most monitoring tools lack true flexibility and the work-bench features that enable deeper analysis of the data records returned. For our clients, the ability to work with their own data (tagging it, slicing and dicing it, annotating, adjusting sentiment, etc.) has been the big catalyst for the "ah-ha" moments. It is difficult and often impossible to get to those "ah-ha" moments by simply looking at the standard set of metrics that are commonly returned by monitoring tools.

over 4 years ago

Jeremy Hollow

Jeremy Hollow, Founder at Listen & Learn Research & Outtaskers Ltd.

Hi Nan

Thanks for joining in.

I agree with you, but I think there's two things here; information and insight.

More flexible monitoring tools are definitely going to help us get better information which great for measuring things like reach and awareness.

Insight on the other hand needs consideration and context to help you develop an intuitive understanding.

This is where human analysis, reflection and experience in interpreting this type of data really comes in.

over 4 years ago

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Alex Craven

I don't disagree, but what about when you are dealing with hundreds of thousands of messages, tweets, comments, blogs etc. it's just not possible to cost or time effectively manually draw insight from this.

We're in an age of ''big data' where tools are needed that enable the type of insight you rightly highlight means far more than automated sentiment analysis.

It is possible and there are some really exciting projects coming out this year that will help.. It's a challenging but exciting time :)

over 4 years ago

Jeremy Hollow

Jeremy Hollow, Founder at Listen & Learn Research & Outtaskers Ltd.

Hi Alex

I think we just need to be sure we're using the right tools for each part of the job.

Monitoring tools will always be needed collecting, sifting and presenting information from vast amounts of data. But, for the analysis and insight, out-tasking or crowd sourcing are giving us new opportunities to learn from social data which can scale cost-effectively.

over 4 years ago

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Nathalie Hinrichsen, Head of Marketing at YouGov

We (at YouGov) have been grappling with this issue of how you can use social media analytics to better understand your audience. Existing social media analytics tools can give a very good idea of volume trends, sentiment and themes but they can't tell you who is exposed to these comments. We are developing a very unique solution to this by analysing what is heard by combining demographic data from our panel with the comments they receive through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. This subtle difference in analysing what is heard rather than what is said allows us to measure reach and segment this by in-depth audience demographics. This gives marketers the first way to look at effectiveness and ROI for social.

If you are interested check out YouGov Soma here: http://research.yougov.co.uk/services/soma/

over 4 years ago

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Nan Dawkins

Alex, you are right about the difficulties of human analysis when you are dealing with tons of records. But...no tool can do it all for you. Right now, what current tools can do is reduce the number of records humans have to sift through - some tools do this better than others, but none solve the problem completely.

Also Jeremy, I do think you are right that analyzing this type of data requires skill and experience. But humans are expensive - especially outsourced humans. :) At some point, the cost of human analysis can tip the ROI equation in the wrong direction.

Just as clients have had to learn how to DO social engagement on their own, should they learn to do at least some of the analysis of data (not just monitoring data) on their own as well? I'm wondering what your thoughts are on this. Is there an optimal balance of in-house and outsourced data analysis?

over 4 years ago

Jeremy Hollow

Jeremy Hollow, Founder at Listen & Learn Research & Outtaskers Ltd.

Hi Nan, thanks for moving the discussion on.

You've raised a great point here. We really enjoy working with those clients who are keen to get involved with interpreting the data.

As to an optimal balance, its all going to depend on scale, complexity and other time commitments. Ideally the client would be in a position to read and absorb everything that's being said about them, but we all know that this is seldom the case. It's then a question of assessing each option (monitoring, dashboards, analysis) and determining the right configuration for the problem you're trying to solve.

In terms of using people for analysis, out-tasking or crowd sourcing can give you more options and a better return than than traditional forms of outsourcing, particularly when combined with good web monitoring tools.

over 4 years ago

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Zubeda

I really liked this article but I have a question: Does listening lead to profits?

about 4 years ago

Jeremy Hollow

Jeremy Hollow, Founder at Listen & Learn Research & Outtaskers Ltd.

I suppose the quick answer is that it depends on what you do with what you've heard.

More seriously, from what we've seen, using social data can provide a highly cost effective source of insight (many organisation have the data already) which is both very current and different from traditional sources of insight. It lets you listen where people are talking.

about 4 years ago

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