There’s been a lot of activity in the social media monitoring space over the past 18 months. With the rapid growth of Facebook and Twitter and the fire hose of dialog generated there businesses are beginning to realize they better be listening to the dialog. That’s great. But as demand grows, vendors are flooding the market with whatever solutions they can patch together from a rented data feed and some basic keyword extraction tools. Slap an open source sentiment analysis tool on top and presto!, you’re in business.
The problem with the social media monitoring market is that it’s a four-lane highway to a one-lane dirt road. The first step of collecting and mining data has pretty much reached the level of commodity programming. But the output is a nearly unusable fire hose of data that’s impossible to manage. The second step is a doozey. Somehow, you have to figure out how get meaning out of that fire hose of data. That kind of development is not trivial. It’s complex, iterative, and requires grinding cycles of user testing and feedback. SocialRep has been on this path for several years, working slowly and steadily with a few major brands to really crack the code of intelligence, as opposed to basic data-mining.
To understand why intelligence is qualitatively different than monitoring, and why it’s so valuable, consider the following longitudinal analysis we conducted of the automotive market.
While some conversational trends emerge in the first few days of tracking, such as the latest product release or industry scuttlebutt, deeper and often more significant trends appear only when you follow a market over many different channels for a long time. One trend we tracked in the automotive market is the broadening of online discussion to include different levels of market participants.
Off the Internet, there are a lot of dividing lines between different groups of people that talk about cars. Market insiders have their associations and professional networks where they talk shop; enthusiasts have their clubs; general consumers have their friends and family, and sales associates when they’re ready to make a purchase. As these conversations move online, people extend their research beyond friends, family, professional networks and sales associates to talk with any like-minded people who have a shared interest in the same kind of cars, wherever they happen to gather.
When you track market conversations over many channels for a sufficient amount of time, it becomes apparent that these previously well-segmented groups are beginning to blur, aided primarily by the power of search and increasingly by social networks. It often isn’t obvious at first—you simply notice that there are many people engaged in a particular dialog who display widely diverging levels of knowledge and understanding about cars and automotive mechanics. You find people who are obviously new to the dialog, people who are frequent contributors, people who are well-informed and people who are just know-it-alls. It’s often difficult when you first start tracking the conversation to distinguish between all these different stripes of people. But if you follow the dialog over time, you realize that right alongside the newbies and know-it-alls, there are often people weighing in with the insight of industry executives, market analysts, economists and engineers. I’m not talking here about the blogs of industry experts but about insiders who join public discussion groups, hobnobbing right alongside consumers with just a generic profile and a whole lot of specialized knowledge.
Most often you find this broad mix of participants in discussions that focus on industry news and trends, while technical product discussions tend to segment into more rarified groups. But the impact of this mixing in the broader dialog is an obvious increase in the sophistication of conversation. When a consumer Googles a car they want to purchase, they can easily tap into discussions where experts drop substantial insights about what’s shaping the market–from technological advances to competitive market strategies.
For some consumers this might just be noise. But the more complex or expensive the purchase decision, the more likely the added information can influence purchase decisions. In the automotive market, you can easily find automotive engineers engaged in conversation right alongside consumers about the implications of the next generation of hybrid vehicles and the merits of different types of technology. For a consumer considering a $25-30k purchase, knowing that an improved hybrid technology might be only a few months away can make a huge impact on when and what they decide to buy—and we’ve replicated this pattern all the way down the line to a $300 cell phone/PDA.
Why, exactly, high-level market insiders are engaging in dialog on broad discussion boards is an interesting question. You often can’t even tell they’re insiders until you follow the dialog long enough to pick up on something that gives them away. Maybe they find the broad dialog about market trends compelling to engage in, but don’t want to be known; maybe they crave recognition for their expertise; maybe they want to engage with a broader swath of the market beyond their professional echo chambers; maybe they want to seed the market with information beneficial to their business interests. Whatever the reason, you can find them if you look, and they’re often quietly adding information far beyond product features and benefits that can shape consumer attitudes and purchasing behavior. The result is a greater likelihood that your customers and prospects are going to have access to more information about the market than ever before. It’s hard to imagine that kind of trend leveling off any time soon, as social media continues to grow and as indexing of content penetrates more types of social content.
The obvious counterpoint to the idea that consumers are becoming more informed is the increasing noise factor of superfluous dialog, misinformation and shilling, which some say will even dampen participation in social media. That’s its own topic but I’ll say that from what we’ve seen at SocialRep I think the evolution of online dialog is Darwinian. Consumers are learning quickly from direct experience what level of trust to put into what they tune into online, and they’re developing skills to read more effectively between the lines. I think this is another indicator of long-term development toward a more sophisticated and more informed consumer.
This is one small example of the kind of data we process as social media intelligence, and what we’ve developed our platform to achieve. Sure, listening to what people are chattering about on Twitter this week is interesting, and we certainly gather that, but that’s not what’s going to move your market tomorrow—and tuning into the same pre-processed data feed everyone else is getting isn’t going to give you any kind of a competitive edge. So we’re quite happy to see all the newcomers validating our space. When that freshly paved 4-lane highway runs out, we’ll just be hitting our stride.