Listening to social media chatter, of course, doesn't have to cost a dime. Just open your ears—or browser and TweetDeck windows—and take it all in. But managing social media listening and response is a whole other ballgame.
“There are free tools available for tracking a brand through online discussions, but these only prove the value of paid tools because they require more manual labor and time to trudge through the data,” said Forrester's Hofer-Shall. “Between free tools and paid tools, there's an inverse correlation between the amount you spend and the amount of time you'll use trying to track your brand.”
At the very lowest end of the spectrum, marketers can simply set up some Google News alerts or stored Twitter search strings to start to get a sense of what is being said about their brands. At the next level are free (SocialMention or MonitorThis) or inexpensive (BuzzDing, Trackur or BrandsEye) online tools that start to add some better interfaces and capabilities to social listening. Also worth a look are tools typically used to monitor an individual's online reputation, such as Naymz or MyReputation. Finally, one gets to more commercial, marketing-focused listening platforms, which typically come in two flavors: self-service tools (that also increasingly include services) like Attensity/Biz360, Radian6, ScoutLabs or Visible Technologies; and offerings that typically include some online tools but have a more agency-led, strategic services-based approach, such as Nielsen's BuzzMetrics and Cymfony.
Enterprise-scale vendors in this area tend to emphasize a small set of things: the challenge of collecting and storing massive data feeds; the need for sophisticated analytical tools and actionable user interfaces; and the growing requirement to integrate with other systems like CRM. Just as important are the benefits that social media listening can deliver: improved customer relationships, faster response to brand problems and increased sales and loyalty.
“Free and lightweight tools, like alerts and tracking tools, are a suitable place to start for brands dipping their toes into the world of social media,” said Blake Cahill, senior VP-marketing for Visible Technologies. “But as soon as brands want to go from merely observing information to truly taking charge of their reputations online by analyzing data and developing actionable insights, upgrading to enterprise-class solutions is the smartest way to achieve the greatest benefits.”
For b-to-b marketers, the investment in any software or enterprise platform comes down to building a business case for it. Social media listening has a definite buzz about it, which alone can help push an investment through. A more rigorous approach to justifying the investment is to start with free tools and build a business case by measuring both the value brand monitoring delivers as well as the investment—in terms of current employee time or new hires required—to keep up with the conversation flow.
“Ideally, you want to be spending your time acting on the information you find rather than gathering it and doing the analysis manually,” said Radian6's Begg. “If you're spending more than an hour or so a day gathering and tracking results, and more than a couple of hours a week doing the analysis, you might be ready to consider a more robust platform to do your listening and engaging.”
The scale problem also comes into play from a technology perspective. Commercial platforms can consume—and in some cases store for historical analysis—massive amounts of online data feeds, often in real time, and deliver more sophisticated algorithms and tools to pull out the chestnuts that deliver real value.
“We're talking about building truly massive listening posts,” Attensity's de Haaf said. “You have to be able to analyze a lot of data very quickly online, and doing it in a very scalable way is hugely important.”
The tools and user interfaces to analyze that firehose of incoming data often fall into two main areas: interfaces that aggregate data via bar charts and pie graphs, illuminating big-picture trends, and queue-style interfaces that bring the most pressing issues to the top of the pile and help route them to the department or individual that needs to address them, de Haaf said.
Another key decision point for marketers is whether they can simply use listening tools themselves or whether they need to work with a vendor or agency to build a listening strategy and day-to-day execution plan. Many larger companies start with free tools, purchase an online dashboard and then make the investment in an even larger partnership.
A vendor such as Cymfony, for instance, may start with light consulting, configuring tools for a company's particular needs. Some of those customers will then take the next step and turn to Cymfony's analysis team to conduct a specific study of a market or a competitive set based on the social conversations happening online, said Rich Pasewark, Cymfony's general manager. At that point, sophisticated marketers look at social media data the same way they'd look at research data. “We may get asked for a report that looks at 10 products across four regions with a quarterly analysis and more real-time weekly updates,” Pasewark said. Marketers versed in customer research are able to “quickly understand the added value that social media data offers,” he said.
“While tools can facilitate the process, socializing your business is a relatively new and complex process that is best accomplished with expert help,” said Visible Technologies' Cahill. “Turning data into actionable intelligence and information—complete with influencer ranking, sentiment and context—often requires a human touch.”
Perhaps the biggest trend these days is moving social listening beyond the marketing and PR teams, where the focus is really on brand management, to a larger group of participants that can apply what is gleaned from social conversations to solve customer service problems or enhance product development. The key is to have tools and a team to kick-start the process and get the data flowing properly—including into related software systems such as CRM or call-center platforms—for creating a more 360-degree view of customers.
“This is why many business are beginning to shift their listening strategies to reside with the customer analytics, insight and intelligence teams,” said Forrester's Hofer-Shall. “These are data-savvy marketers who know how to work with information and distribute insights.”
“Reputation management is not an isolated business practice,” Radian6's Begg said. Social media is a business channel, just like direct mail and other traditional communication and marketing channels. However, unlike many traditional methods, social media unlocks the door to instantaneous, two-way dialogue. There are golden nuggets of opportunity and lessons learned lying in wait amongst those stories.” M