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6 Ways Social Data Can Improve Communications

Social data. One day you read about social data being leveraged to improve response rates for Ebola outbreaks, and the next day you see someone discuss social data mining as “sipping from a firehose.

What you may conclude from these insights is that there is a lot of helpful social data that is quite difficult to mine and make useful.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau defines social data as “any data extracted as a result of social media interactions.” The billions of pieces of social content created on a daily basis give some perspective about the scale of the problem and of the robust insight that can be gleaned by mining this data. But how can PR practitioners best use social data to improve their communication?

What I want to share in this post are six insights that can help you approach and mine social data to improve your PR communications.

1. Find the right audience

Columbo - Social Data - PR Communications

If you are targeting businesses (a B2B scenario), direct social data probably will give you insight about the messaging that their PR people want you to know. That is unlikely what you want to glean, however. This was the situation that Chi-Chi Millaway of PRIME Research faced in a case study involving a medical device company.

Millaway explained that their business intelligence (BI) revealed the past tactics that didn’t work, and identified that the medical device manufacturer highly prioritized their customer’s insights. Given their customer’s priorities, the social data research that they performed keyed in on insights of the medical device customers by finding the most important channels (LinkedIn Groups and blogs were two of the most popular for this audience) and by targeting their influencers (using tools such as Twellow, WeFollow, and Klout among others).

By vetting out the proper social target (in this example the customers of a corporation instead of the corporation itself), you can cut down the noise that you might otherwise have with such a large data set.

2. Sense your entire target

Social Data - Audiences

Ninety percent of what you hear online comes from 30 percent of the people. This is a statistic cited by Vision Critical’s Alexandra Samuel in an article she wrote for the Harvard Business Review. Samuel goes on to point out that the 30 percent are not wholly representative of your customers, and that there are in fact three distinct groups that are observed on social networks:

  • Enthusiasts (30 percent of customers, 90 percent of social feedback) – eager shoppers, mobile enthusiasts
  • Dabblers – (20 percent of customers, 10 percent of social feedback) – the middling between enthusiasts and lurkers, less socially active than enthusiasts.
  • Lurkers – (50 percent of customers, negligible social feedback) reluctant shoppers, not easily swayed by social media or prone to share on social

You can see how social data could misrepresent this target audience. The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but for social insights it’s important to consider the other constituents of your audience as well.

3. See what you think you see

See What You You See - PR Communications - Kermit

Odds are that if you’re sensing social data on the cheap, you may not be seeing everything you think. This is an insight gleaned from Dr. Sam Kinsley about the reliability of Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API) data. Kinsley explains that the two publicly-available Twitter APIs (streaming and search) significantly limit the data that researchers can use. He points out that for very large data sets, a 1 percent sample might be considered representative of the greater population, but for most targeted queries it likely isn’t.

The restriction of social APIs is substantiated by Fortune magazine which points out that with Twitter’s acquisition of social data company Gnip, it is likely that they will restrict paid access of their API to other third-party providers of social data in the future.

Not only do most companies have to pay for a robust sample of social data, but to scour Twitter odds are you will have to pay Twitter (through Gnip) to do it.

4. Connect your data points

PR Communications

If you shopped for a new Lincoln but not a new Mazda, enjoy Michelob beer, recently bought golf clubs or cured ham, and live in South Carolina, odds are that you voted for Lindsay Graham. This profile was created with a combination of social data and web tracking cookies combining millions of datapoints into a concise target. And while most PR practitioners don’t have the budget to work with such a large scale of data, you can use social CRM tools to “connect the dots” of your information.

For example, if you glean that I like Lincolns from Facebook, that I drink Michelob from Twitter, and that I bought golf clubs from LinkedIn, social CRM tools can associate these otherwise disparate profiles and create a target snapshot that singular data points would not be able to.

Of course, there are also tools like Cision influencer reports that do all of the heavy lifting for you.

5. Use social data appropriately

Street Sign - PR Communications

“Those who do study social data typically use it for the wrong reason: to measure the brand impact of their marketing campaigns.” – Nate Elliott, Forrester Research

In a piece published on Mashable, Nate Elliott of Forrester Research discusses the limitations of social data. It’s not a proper way to measure brand metrics due to the extremes of much of the data (people post when they love you or hate you), and isn’t representative (more on that in the next section).

Where Elliott sees opportunity for using social data in marketing and PR are in the following areas:

  • Develop messaging
  • Source creative
  • Improve media plans
  • Identify key influencers
  • Social care

Of course it’s hard to assert that these are absolute for every business and industry. A good litmus test for PR practitioners is to consider whether the information you’re sensing is reliable and if what you’re hoping to glean is accurately represented by the social data. Of course that’s easy for me to say, but such self-awareness is hard to exercise.

6. Understand biases and limitations of social data

Warnings - Social Data

You know that there is a lot of information in the social sphere and that it can really help you to customize your message to impact your publics more effectively. Before you go subscribe to that shiny third-party SAAS package or try to mine the Twitter API with code and moxy, you probably ought to understand a few commonly-identified problems with social data:

  • Each social platform has different scale and constituency that may not be representative of a given target
  • Publicly available social data feeds aren’t always representative of overall data
  • Design limits social expression (i.e. Facebook’s Like button doesn’t allow for negative sentiment)
  • Spam and bot population and behavior can be mistakenly incorporated in and skew data sets
  • Fewer than 5 percent of social media users enable public geolocation location, allowing for possible data inaccuracies
  • The accuracy of automated sentiment analysis is around 30 percent
  • Social behavior is constantly changing
  • 80 percent of posts are neutral, which makes hashtag and topic analysis oftentimes disappointing

Source for bullets #1-4
Source for bullets #5-8 

Substantiating Nate Elliott’s assessment of the utility of social data, it seems there is a high noise-to-signal ratio that gives social data far more potential in theory than in practice.


It’s important for PR practitioners to be able to glean insight about our target publics and social data is one means to do this. Mining social data is entirely fallible, however.

It’s important to understand who you’re targeting, what you’re measuring, the quality of your data and the reliability your measurements in order to use social data most effectively.

In closing, here is a quote about social data from Altimeter principle Brian Solis:

If you’re a business, the takeaway is that sharing without analytics is essentially useless, that engagement is not as valuable as insight, and that seeing things in context is more important than being popular. – Brian Solis

Want insights into public relations measurement? Watch Kami Huyse’s “Master PR Measurement” on-demand webinar now!

About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.

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