Is much of social media monitoring snake oil – or have I missed something?

Picture2I have recently had reason to focus on the area of monitoring of social media which has involved looking once more at the whole range of black box monitoring solutions that are out there.  This has caused me deep feelings of confusion and uncertainty.

The reason is this: when I do monitoring for a client, or advise a client on how to do monitoring, this is what I do.  I work out what issues the client needs to track.  I devise from this relevant search queries.  I punch these queries into a range of search tools, since no one tool covers all the bases.  I have a quick look at the results and tweak the search queries if necessary and also have a quick look at the general shape of the conversation (i.e. any especially relevant blogs, the balance of conversation between twitter, blogs, social networks etc.)  I then pull the feeds from these searches into an aggregator (Netvibes seems to be the best for this) and segment things by creating relevant tabs.  I then start to watch what is going on and chase down the threads that seem to be interesting.  Over time I add to and tweak the model as I start to get a better feel for where the conversation is happening.

With such a tool I seem to have everything I need to stay tuned in to the conversation.  I can write a report or analysis of this for a client (or the client can access the information by tapping into the tool direct) as well as having all the information the client needs  to actually “do” social media – i.e. respond to the conversation, create relevant content, engage with relevant communities.

However, out there is a huge industry selling incredibly impressive black boxes that reel of reams of charts and data and figures and tracking, with sentiment analysis and conversation mining (conversation mining?) and all sorts of other wizardry.  This is very intimidating – surely my little homespun costs virtually nothing solution that relies primarily on the intelligence and analysis of a real person cannot be anywhere near as impressive as these mighty emperors with all their fancy clothes?

But the problem is – when I look at all these impressive reports I can’t work out how they help me design and run a social media strategy.  They could help me craft a one-to-many message (but that’s called advertising not social media) and the sentiment / volume metrics might help in measurement – we did x and the volume / sentiment needle moved x per cent in this direction.  But that’s about it.  And in any case all of this intelligence I would be getting through using my homemade tool anyway – albeit the intelligence would be in my head, not in a chart.

The analogy that springs to mind is this.  Suppose there was a large room and inside it were all the key stakeholders of your organisation.  Let’s say these people were at a drinks reception that you had organised – gathered around in groups chatting about you, subjects relevant to what you/ they do or maybe just about sport and the weather.   As hosts of this party what do you do?  The logical thing would be to go into the room circulate around the groups, listen to what people are saying, have a chat, tell people what you were doing.  What you wouldn’t do is send someone else in to listen-in on the conversations or set up a form of remote surveillance and then sit in another room and wait for someone to prepare a presentation and report back.  It may well be that this report is very detailed and gives you more information than you could obtain just by circulating round the room.  It would tell you exactly what topics were being discussed, what volume and sentiment of conversation was attached to each, who was speaking the most, correlate the people with the most to say with the colour of their shoes, determine that those with black socks are marginally more positive about you than those with brown socks – or any other way you would want to “mine the conversation”.  But exactly how useful would this information be?  If all you were going to do was to walk into the room, stand on a platform and deliver a speech, this type of stuff might help.  You could, for example drop in a subtle reference to the fashion credentials of black footwear.  But that’s advertising.  That’s good old-fashioned one-to many communication.  Its not social media.

But there again – it appears to be big business.  People are buying these remote sensing and analysis products.  Is it just snake oil and are the purveyors of such trading (albeit unwittingly) on ignorance? Or have a missed something?

Update: Clearly I am not the only one – see this from Asi Sharabi


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  3. PhilGo20

    Your analogy makes from a great post and I tend to agree with you… but not fully.

    IMHO, you somewhat need both. You obviously need the close-up walk-around-the-tables type of contact with your guests/clients/users, but you can get some interestings insights by sending someone to do remote surveillance for a couple of reasons.

    First, when you are walking around, you can not join each conversation and you don’t know what’s happening at the other end of the room, maybe someone is complaining about the service and you might only know at the end of the meal when it’s too late. I would want someone to report it to me as it happens so I can act on it asap.

    Second, you re-align a conversation as soon as you enter it. Which is usually good for you and your brand, but you might also lose some truthful and raw comments from people too shy to express it face-to-face (so to speak). But knowing about these comments and their strength can be valuable.

    I agree with you that some of the insights you will get from a monitoring solution will be used to either analyze your campaigns (“we did x and the volume / sentiment needle moved x per cent in this direction”) or too get insights for traditional advertising or “good old-fashioned one-to many communication”, but that’s ok because you still need both : measurement and traditional advertising.

    What’s dangerous to me is many people seems to think that by buying a off-the-shelf solution, they will get a clear picture of what they need to do and how to do it.

    Great post again !

  4. Ertter

    I think you have missed something. You are comparing the equivalent of social media search engines to social media analytic tools.

    Monitoring Tool:
    – Saves complex queries with wild cards and generational terms (such as plurals and singular forms, gender and verb conjugations, adjective forms, and verb conjugations)
    – Enables layered queries for rolling up searches into categories
    – Target specific time frames
    – Identify trends (yes, I find charts to be rather insightful)
    – The ability to tag and categorize mentions
    – Assign response priorities and resources
    – Calculated metrics like influence
    – Customizable metrics like sentiment
    – Drill down and slice & dice for analysis based on source, categories, specific query, and date

    Social Media Search Engine:
    – Find sources, domains, and mentions
    – Some have sentiment but you can’t adjust it

    Either way there is no magic button that pops out a report with everything I need to know. It requires an analyst to pull out the insight and make recommendations. The monitoring tools just make my job a lot easier.

  5. David Wang

    Richard, I know exactly what you mean. And when recommending a listening strategy to clients I also find that they have difficulty seeing the value of such tools.

    But as Ertter implies, tools like Radian6 and Techrigy make it much easier to collate and organise the information. IMHO, the bigger the budget for social media programmes the more relevant a monitoring tool is to justify the ROI of the programme. However when I work with small businesses I never even consider such tools.

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