NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- By now it's a widely accepted marketing maxim that a brand isn't simply what its marketing department says it is but what its customers say it is. And listening to what consumers are saying and distilling the most important information into useful business insights is an area in which most marketers rely on a fast-growing group of outside vendors for help.
The best of those vendors, according to Forrester Research, are Nielsen BuzzMetrics and TNS Cymfony. The companies topped Forrester's Wave study of "listening platforms," as these vendors are known, and were hailed for their mix of "technology, insight delivery and strategy."
"Nielsen BuzzMetrics offers a strong analytical and insight capability while TNS Cymfony excels in data collection and media coverage," wrote Suresh Vittal, the report's author. As of October 2008, Nielsen had more than 125 BuzzMetrics customers and TNS Cymfony had 78, according to the report.
The second tier of listening platforms included Biz360, Dow Jones Insight, J.D. Power & Associates and Visible Technologies, which had a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Dow Jones Insights had great data collection but lacked the ability to help a marketer shape strategy. J.D. Power scored big for its social-media monitoring and market segmentation, but it didn't have the data coverage that other services had. An emerging vendor in the study was Radian6, which Forrester cited as a great tool for public relations but was limited beyond that discipline.
The key to showing up at the top of the list -- in addition to minimum criteria of at least 50 clients and annual revenue of more than $5 million -- is not just listening to consumer conversations but helping clients figure out how those affect marketing strategy, said Mr. Vittal.
"We've seen this evolution in the business intelligence and web analytics space and we see it here, where vendors started off counting and tracking mentions and following discussions to the point they're now extracting insights and delivering those to shape marketing strategy," he said.
He was careful to note Forrester only rated a small group of players in what is an exploding category. The companies were included because of their breadth of geography and multilingual abilities, financial stability, strategy practices and market share. But he said the market for such companies is evolving so quickly that there are probably others who by now fit the criteria, even if they didn't when he began researching the report. One such shop, he said, is Converseon.
Some agencies and public relations firms are building out their own capabilities, while others are partnering with firms in this area.
"Agencies, PR firms, they're all interested in tracking this stuff," he said. "And frankly technology isn't many agency or PR firms' strong point. But we're seeing lots of agencies working with these vendors. It's clearly a capability marketing clients look for from their agencies."
His said there are several questions to ask when trying to figure out which one of the bevy of listening platforms to work with: Is the technology a fit? Can we build or add on services on top of this to differentiate ourselves? Is the vendor committed to this relationship? Culturally are we a fit? Do they complement our skills?
"For example," he said, "if you're a large consumer-package-goods company or agency that does that, you'll be interested in one that provides a multichannel view of the conversation."