3 Things to Know About Social Listening (That No One Tells You)

Social Media Listening

Social media listening has become a broad, all-encompassing term that represents a bunch of different applications for social data.

This is a big deal for PR practitioners and marketers as Altimeter reports that a quarter of all social media falls under the purview of communication, and another 40 percent is the responsibility of marketing. The tactics and tools that we use to manage social listening are the result of how we understand that social media serves our intended purposes.

According to a paper published by the Semantic Technology Institute, social listening may encompass one or all of the following functions:

  • Reputation management
  • Event detection, issue and crisis management
  • Competitor analysis
  • Trend and market research plus campaign monitoring
  • Influencer detection and customer relationship management
  • Product and innovation management

According to Forrester analyst Allison Smith (who is one of the foremost writers about enterprise-level social listening), customers expect social media listening tools to be the Swiss Army knives of social software – performing all of these functions competently.

Tom Kaneshige of CIO.com points out that vendors that build out generalized functions from specialized platforms are having a difficult go of it, and companies are switching vendors chasing the promise of a multi-layered solution. Which leads me to the premise of this piece….

Social media listening isn’t always considered as pragmatically as it should be. Like pastels in the 1980s and flannel in the 1990s, social listening has a certain amount of trendiness to it. We come to social with different understandings that are sometimes influenced by shiny objects rather than by an assessment of what we need and what our tools can accomplish.

What I want to share are three insights about social media listening that may make you reconsider how you approach social listening and the value that you give to each aspect that social listening tools provide.

1. The least exciting thing about social listening is also the most important

Probably the least exciting aspect of social listening is customer service. You may provide customer service by phone or by email, in great volume or in great scarcity – but social care (customer service on social media) is the primary reason that many social users will engage with brands on social platforms.

A recent survey by Oracle reports that:

  • 43 percent of social users interact with brands on social media for a direct response to a problem or question
  • 31 percent of social users interact with brands to gain direct access to customer service representatives or product experts

If we look back at the criteria that studies like STI and Forrester use, they weigh each of those six functions equally to determine the utility of a social listening application. For many or most businesses issue management is a far more important aspect of social listening.

When you consider that the criteria for an enterprise-level user is more than $100 million in annual revenue, you understand that smaller scale likely means prioritization. Or put more bluntly, you probably can’t afford the social listening tools that purport to do everything and don’t: so you must decide what is important.

Issue management is also the most straightforward data that social listening provides. Consider what the Wall Street Journal published about social media and its capabilities:

“Most consumers aren’t visiting social media sites to engage with brands — they are there to interact with people they know….. They are far less interested in learning about companies and/or their products, which implies that many companies have social media strategies in place that may be largely misdirected.”

In other words – if you depend upon social listening for competitive analysis or for market research, how representative is the data that you’re assessing? (That’s a rhetorical question, incidentally) Customers that are seeking social care are a juxtaposition of this: each customer interaction is as tangible as a customer service call (albeit a publicly-available customer service call).

2. Social media listening is open to interpretation

What's Your Interpretation - Social Media Listening

There’s a good possibility that you (like me) may have seen some feature of a social listening tool and thought: “wow!”

When you understand that businesses are using social listening as a means to do real-time market research or product management, the potential for social listening as a business tool becomes expansive.

Forrester points out an aspect to social listening tools that is both intuitive and surprising:

“All vendors have access to the same social data. And all are hobbled by social networks that won’t share data or change application platform interfaces (APIs) at a whim, or which lack a critical mass of demographic and geographical data about their users.”

In other words, social listening isn’t the product of social data because everyone has access to the same information. Many of the advanced aspects of social listening are interpretative – the data is processed to make it meaningful. For example, a competitive sentiment analysis may assert that customers have a more positive view of a competitor than you. This conclusion is only valid if:

  • Social customers are a representative sample of the larger set of actual customers
  • Semantic interpretation of social posts accurately represents the sentiment of these customers

Those are two very big “ifs.” The takeaway for PR professionals (or anyone, really) is that all social listening is drawn from the same data sources (more or less). When using tools for analysis you should always consider how the data is being interpreted and whether an incorrect assumption or interpretation might change your conclusions.

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3. There is a lot of noise in social listening

Consider these statistics:

I could expand this ad infinitum, but the point I want to emphasize is that there is a lot of social data out there. If 1 percent of social posts were brand related, this would mean that 5 million tweets and 4 million Facebook statuses would require social listening daily. Half of those posts may be about a brand without tagging them, half would be tagged, and sentiment would have to be inferred to provide appropriate context.

As for “appropriate context,” this means that you are ascertaining the information you need from the data. Look on your Facebook feed and try to determine sentiment from some of your friends to understand how difficult this task is.

This is the challenge of social listening: does the interpretation of huge troves of data justify the conclusions that you’re drawing? And are you getting the social data that you need, or are you capitulating to the data that certain tools give you (that you really don’t need)?

Conclusion

Social Media Listening - Data

While social listening is potentially quite powerful, it also is quite fallible. What I wanted to discuss in this post was that:

  • The potential for social listening is far more impressive than its execution
  • Although it’s not new or sexy, customer service is the most tangible part of a social listening program
  • Everyone uses the same data, so it’s important to consider the interpretation of social listening insights before actioning them
  • There is a lot of superfluous social listening data.

I’ll conclude with a passage from Jeff Zabin of Gleanster Market Research, who articulates the challenges of social listening like this:

“Generating actionable insights from social listening means being able to create structure around unstructured data. Of course, unstructured data accounts for the vast majority of content that resides in social networks, blogs, wikis and ratings and review sites…. success in social listening means improving the signal-to-noise ratio…. (this) means honing in on the small fraction of consumer-generated posts and comments that are relevant to the brand and that may yield actionable insights while eliminating the ‘static,’ which is all the content with no value to the brand. “

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