In just a few years, social media has grown from a novelty into a communication system that has been embraced by millions of people around the world, in addition to playing a vital role in the marketing strategies of businesses ranging from start-ups to established enterprises.
The rise of social media has also contributed to the creation of a vast amount of digital data, i.e., "big data," that is continuously generated by people on their computers, smartphones, and other devices. As a footprint of consumers' interests and actions, big data presents a tantalizing opportunity for organizations to better understand their audience and make wiser business decisions.
There are numerous ways for companies to make use of the information leveraged through social media. Specialized social media monitoring and analytics firms have stepped forward to help marketers track digital consumer data in real time, mine it, and analyze it. Monitoring tools can help companies hear what is being said about their brand, collect demographic information about their customers, discover key influencers, and better engage their audience.
Why Companies Need to Listen
In 2009, blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter surpassed email for the first time as the top online destinations for American Internet users, according to a report by Nielsen. Facebook has more than 800 million active users, followed by LinkedIn, which has more than 150 million users, and Twitter, which was up to 140 million active users on its sixth birthday in March of this year.
More adults are also logging on to social networks: Sixty-five percent of adult Internet users told the Pew Research Center that they used a social networking site like Facebook or LinkedIn in 2011, up from 61 percent in the prior year. This marks the first time in Pew Internet surveys that at least 50 percent of adults report using social networking sites.
Stories of companies that have been hit by a barrage of complaints via social media are becoming increasingly common. In addition to keeping track of what customers are saying about their brands, marketers are also looking for ways to better engage their customers.
Enter social media monitoring platforms.
"Socially savvy companies," notes Jeff Cotrupe, global program director at Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan, "have been creating their own rudimentary 'social media monitoring' on the fly by using the growing selection of RSS readers to gather relevant news and social streams and having support, product, marketing, and the C-suite respond appropriately in the optimal venues.
"The advent of the social monitoring platform automates and brings a systematic approach to what was formerly an ad hoc process."
Picking a Monitoring Tool
Given what's at stake, companies can no longer afford to not have a monitoring and response strategy. The first step is to find a monitoring tool. Before you meet with vendors, you need to know what you're looking for, explains Stephen Rappaport, author of Listen First: Turning Social Media Conversations into Business Advantage and knowledge solutions director of the Advertising Research Foundation.
"Understanding your objectives is crucial. Where a lot of the listening fails is when people are driven by the tool, and they don't know what to do with it," Rappaport says. "How you look at the tools depends on your objectives. If you're interested in brand reputation and customer service, for example, you'll be interested in a tool that combines monitoring with engagement capabilities."
The second step is figuring out what your implementation strategy will be. Determining how you will incorporate the technology into your operations will also affect your choices. "These are just tools at the end of the day…. What I've seen happen at many companies is [that] they found the budget and are ready to select the vendor, but they don't actually have people with enough time or training to use it [the monitoring tool]," notes Zach Hofer-Shall, social intelligence analyst at Forrester Research.
It is important to decide if you will be using a self-service product, if it makes more sense to work with a vendor that can provide consultants to assist you, or if you would rather have the job handled by an outsourced team.
When reviewing product features, be aware of the difference between social media monitoring and social media engagement tools. Vendors are increasingly offering a combination of the two services, but it is helpful to understand what distinguishes one from the other.
Social media monitoring is "basically a search and clipping service with advanced analytics to help you understand the results," says Jake Wengroff, global director of social media strategy and research at Frost & Sullivan. "The latter [social media engagement] is a service which lets a social media manager create messages and conveniently cross-post to multiple social media channels, as well as reach out to customers directly."
While both types of products "do monitoring," social media engagement tools only measure the performance (clickthroughs, shares, etc.) of content you created and not all content on the social Web that references your brand, he adds.
It is also important to ask about the product's ability to archive historical results. Some platforms store past results up to a year or two, whereas others offer a shorter timeframe. In addition to measuring the results of ongoing campaigns, Wengroff notes, having the ability to compare these results with past campaigns—even when you did not have a social media monitoring provider in place—can be helpful.
Experts recommend choosing a product with a flexible enterprise price plan. "You may be the only one inside your company measuring social media conversations, but little by little, more and more people may need access," Wengroff says. "Select a solution with pricing that coincides with the number of seat licenses or access levels that you need."
Basic Tools: The Pros and Cons
For many companies, cost is a primary factor when choosing a monitoring tool. Small companies or start-ups in particular may not be ready to invest in a full-service suite, but are still interested in monitoring their brand.
"A good place to start is with free tools, like Google Alerts," maintains Rebecca Wetteman, vice president of Nucleus Research. "It provides you with basic insights [into your social media campaigns], and you can always upgrade to more powerful platforms as your needs increase."
Karen Lyon, vice president of brand marketing at IdeaPaint, a start-up that creates dry-erase paint products that can transform nearly any surface into a whiteboard, says her company uses a mix of free and paid platforms, such as Hub Spot, HootSuite, PageLever, Twitter Counter, and Google Alerts, to monitor social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and others.
"We find that many of these platforms offer one or two unique insights or specific benefits, and so by keeping an eye on the brand across multiple channels, we are able to have a broad view of how we are doing in the social space," Lyon says.
Each platform serves a different need, and Lyon and her colleagues use the tools to track inbound Web traffic, lead generation metrics, and market sentiment, as well as seek out new opportunities to infuse social media into their business.
In addition to using the monitoring platforms to quickly identify and fix customer service problems, IdeaPaint's staff also use them to engage their customers and broadcast references to their brand.
"We say 'thank you'
' a lot!" Lyon says. Besides retweeting and reposting blogs and social mentions from customers, the staff also share customers' photos of IdeaPaint products that they've culled from social media sites to use as success stories. "We are much more interested in talking about who our customers are and how they use the product than we are about just talking about ourselves."
Free or entry-level monitoring tools can offer a lot of value, notes Hofer-Shall, but companies should keep in mind that as their brand grows, the limited capabilities of these systems could become a disadvantage.
One of the risks is missing out on a new social network that is not tracked by a basic monitoring tool. Hofer-Shall points to Pinterest, the newly popular social photo-sharing site, as an example.
"One of the biggest benefits of these [full-service] monitoring tools is being able to add new social networks. Pinterest is hot today, but there'll be another one next month and another one next summer. One of the big challenges, if you're not using one of these tools, is the fear of missing new and emerging sources," he says. "Free tools can only take you so far."
The Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals International (SOCAP) is a trade organization that provides customer care professionals with educational tools, resources, and networking opportunities. It has 2,700 members and uses social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube to engage members and keep them updated on the latest news.
Staying on top of the organization's numerous social media accounts, in addition to having multiple log-ins, had been quickly becoming a logistics nightmare, according to Brian Cheung, manager of education and marketing at SOCAP.
"Fifteen to twenty percent of my day was spent managing social media with several tools for publishing, monitoring, and analytics," Cheung says. Not having the resources to constantly monitor social media also led to a "fear of missing out on something critical, or being too slow to reply," he adds.
The Avectra Social Console helped solve those problems by bringing the majority of the company's social media operations under one roof and automating many monitoring functions.
The Social Console lets users follow social media conversations and track followers' updates, as well as keywords on the Web and on social platforms. It also automates social updates, notifications, and responses, and provides trend reports.
Cheung says SOCAP primarily uses data from the Social Console to see what topics, content, and offers resonate with customer care professionals. "It [Social Console] allows us to identify influencers and topics of interest in the social space…we can apply that knowledge about topics to educational programming decisions," he notes.
SOCAP is one example of how progressive organizations are making the most of the social media monitoring technologies that are available today. What's next for these tools? The bad news is that listening platforms are still far from perfect. Listening platforms need to extend the depth and breadth of their data collection and get better at helping users act on the insights that they've gathered, among other areas. The good news is these solutions are already proving their worth, and we can expect to see continuing improvements as the social media monitoring space matures.
Tools at a Glance
Companies have a broad array of monitoring tools to choose from—and more continue to enter the market. To help you get started, here are several popular options:
Used by: SMBs
Designed for small and medium-sized businesses, Sprout Social lets companies monitor their brand across social channels and the Web, schedule and publish updates, manage online conversations, and measure their campaign efforts with reporting and analytics tools. "Sprout Social does social customer engagement for small businesses very well. The platform has an easy-to-use, easy-to-understand interface with high-level dashboards that provide a snapshot of social activity and customer engagement," according to a report by Info-Tech Research Group.
Sprout Social offers three price plans, starting with the $39 per month "Small Biz" package, which includes brand monitoring, reports and analytics, audience targeting tools, check-in and loyalty tracking, and more.
Used by: SMBs to enterprise-level companies
InsideView's platform aggregates sales intelligence about companies, executives, and other related news from social networks, blogs, financial publications, SEC filings, and other sources. It's not a tool for businesses looking to monitor their own brand per se, but it provides a convenient way to gather relevant data to help sales teams better understand a prospective client and deliver more accurate pitches.
Options range from a free plan that includes company details, social mentions, personal connections, and limited tracking alerts and sales triggers to three paid plans starting at $29 per user and month that offer more sophisticated features.
InsideView's entry-level rates make it an ideal tool for small businesses as well as larger companies, says Paul Greenberg, president of The 56 Group. "All businesses benefit by knowing about the individuals and companies that they are trying to move from prospect to client," Greenberg notes.
Used by: Medium to enterprise-level companies
Founded in 2007 and acquired by MarketWire last year, Sysomos provides a segmented approach to monitoring conversations using a "Five Ws" system: Who is doing the talking, and what kind of influence do they have? What are people talking about? When did the conversations occur? Where did this happen? Why are the conversations happening and are they positive or negative?
Sysomos is popular for its "robust analytics and demographics," observes Jake Wengroff, global director of social media strategy and research at Frost & Sullivan. The company works mainly with medium to enterprise-level companies, which it defines as companies with 200 to 500 or more employees.
Used by: Medium to enterprise-level companies
Cymfony, a Kantar Media company, offers a customizable listening platform called Maestro that includes monitoring services, natural language processing, and reporting, as well as a team of consultants who help clients interpret the data and offer advice.
The application's strengths include its research services and broad reach (Cymfony acquires content in 142 countries in 86 languages), according to Gartner's "2011 Magic Quadrant for Social CRM" report. Cymfony's customers are primarily large enterprises (defined as companies with an annual revenue greater than $1 billion), although it also serves smaller companies.
Used by: Enterprise-level companies
Attensity's main focus is social analytics, but it is also a growing player in social media monitoring. Attensity's Analyze application monitors and analyzes social media conversations to identify key influencers, relationships, trends, sentiment, and more. The software also produces reports to help users track information about their brand and their competitors. Gartner praised Attensity for its "more advanced social analytics and monitoring capabilities" for customer service and marketing processes in its "2011 Magic Quadrant for Social CRM" report. The report notes that the company is "strong in text analytics, with a good NLP engine, good data analytics, and configurable reporting dashboards to assist in pattern recognition."
Used by: Enterprise-level companies
Converseon bills itself as a "full-service social media agency" that provides customized listening, analytics, strategy, program execution, and creative services. Named a "Strong Performer" in Forrester Research's "Forrester Wave Enterprise Listening Platforms Q2 2012" report, Converseon offers "strong consulting and custom reporting offerings," according to the report. Forrester notes, however, that Converseon needs to extend its offerings by helping its clients integrate social data with their marketing and business data.
Used by: Medium to enterprise-level companies
Described by analysts as the leader in the self-service social monitoring space, Radian6 (acquired by Salesforce.com in 2011) receives praise from users and analysts for its listening platform, which can be used by a wide range of businesses to listen to, monitor, and analyze social media conversations, as well as its full suite of workflow and engagement tools.
Radian6 is "easy to use, and it's suitable for a broad range of business sizes," notes Mitch Kramer, senior vice president of the Patricia Seybold Group. One drawback, according to Kramer, is that Radian6's filters are limited when it comes to searching for "industry-specific" data. "You can't go too deep. Its main strength is providing a holistic view of the social Web," he maintains. Radian6 offers four price plans (Business, Standard, Advanced, and Pro) starting at $600 a month.
Associate Editor Judith Aquino can be reached at email@example.com.