Are you making sense of your social engagement?

Social analytics, or the analysis of user behaviour in social media whether Twitter or Facebook, may be evolving so quickly that it’s difficult to keep up, let alone figure out how it fits in the business. Yet, Dilip Soman thinks it’s hardly a fad. 
“This is a beautiful wicked problem,” said the professor of marketing at Rotman School of Business. 
Soman loves how mind-boggling it is to figure out a framework to harness business value from social media. “We want to take that step into the unknown,” he said. 
The Toronto-based school started offering a social analytics course last year that takes a strategic approach to analyzing consumer behaviour on social media sites and businesses’ reaction to that. Soman fully expects the curriculum to change along with the industry’s understanding of social analytics: into a more nuanced focus.
Rob Begg, director of product marketing with Fredericton, N.B.-based social analytics technology vendor Radian6 Technologies Inc., knows all about this changing landscape. He’s observed, in the past nine months, businesses getting increasingly sophisticated in their social analytics strategies. “Social media is happening quickly,” said Begg.
A clear indication of this to Begg is the sheer calibre of requests for proposal that Radian6’s customers are bringing to the table. “It went from we need to find stuff … to really complex multi-volume ones with really specific needs. And that shows maturity in the market,” said Begg.
The lightning-fast pace of social analytics is not surprising, considering the domain is in its infancy. But Begg notes it’s not to be confused with social media monitoring, which has been around for about five years. While the latter is basic listening of social media to get actionable insight, social analytics is about measuring social engagement.
Think of it as a “micro-niche” of Web analytics, said Avinash Kaushik, analytics evangelist for Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc. and author of the book entitled Web Analytics 2.0. “At some point, social analytics just becomes one more component of business analytics,” said Kaushik.
Business leaders today misunderstand the term social analytics because the word “social” still hasn’t found its rightful place in the business world, said Kaushik. “Any analytics word attached behind it becomes less meaningful,” he said. Moreover, a common mistake is to keep data gleaned from social media sites separate from the overall business strategy. 
“I hope that social grows up one day that it becomes a key part of any business’s strategy, and analytics connected to social becomes a core component of business analytics,” said Kaushik.
Most companies have competing efforts when it comes to making sense of social engagement, thinks Sameer Patel, enterprise 2.0 analyst with Constellation Research Inc. Ideally, the myriad data points — social media sites — should feed into the software infrastructure of the company such that employees can access the specific data they need for their job, said Patel. 
The issue further compounding a siloed approach is that social software is often allowed to define a business’s strategy and understanding of social analytics. Business users will introduce new but unnecessary key performance indicators based on what the software can do, said Patel.
“I’ve got these discrete performance benefits that keep me up at night. Where is the connection? I don’t need another performance objective,” said Patel.
Instead, think about how these new data points will help the business monitor existing objectives more efficiently, said Patel. “See how this is a weapon in your arsenal as opposed to new objectives,” he said.
Businesses can choose a social media maturity model from among the many available online and use it as a guide to form a social analytics strategy, advises Barry Cousins, senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Ltd. 
But if the models are too complex, Cousins suggests taking gradual steps that align with the business’s comfort level. First, understand how ambitious the company’s strategy should be relative to its use of social media. 
Second, be defensive at the start by monitoring social chatter to ascertain what it’s about before actually measuring anything. “Don’t get caught up in finite quantitative measures,” said Cousins, who warns that getting quantitative in the early stages only creates trouble.
Third, the IT department and the business should prepare to go on the offensive by working together to integrate the necessary social software. But IT departments won’t yet be able to include social software in the technology refresh cycle. Cousins said social software refresh cycles are currently non-existent given the market is nascent and vendors are still emerging and developing their offerings. 
A survey in 2010 by Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd. revealed that while 50 per cent of Canadian businesses are using social networking sites for customer engagement, less than 20 per cent are applying analytics to that. 
“That’s kind of scary,” said Krista Napier, senior analyst for Canadian digital media and emerging technology with IDC Canada. “Lots of people are out there using the tools without really understanding the underlying potential benefits to the company.”
Canada is by no means lacking in social technology vendors, such as Radian6, Swix Inc. and HootSuite Media Inc., which leads Napier to believe that businesses haven’t made the shift to analytics because they are just plain unaware of what is available. 
But once the tools are in place, businesses that are new to social analytics must realize they will have no historical numbers against which to measure performance, warns Napier. In that case, they’ll have to resort to industry benchmarks offered by vendors that provide a sense as to how a company of a particular size and of a particular sector should be performing.
One Canadian organization using technology from Radian6 is Air Canada. The airline has integrated social media and analytics in its overall communication strategy. “For years, we have been active on popular travel forums,” said Isabelle Arthur, a spokesperson for Air Canada.
Last year, for instance, the airline tested a new frequent flyer upgrade program by measuring sentiment and making tweaks in response to customer feedback. Arthur said the incoming data was in real time and changes could be applied quickly.
Another Canadian company,, has had success with social analytics as part of its overall business intelligence strategy. In fact, the model has since been extended to its global subsidiaries.
A survey of Canadian executives by Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute Inc. in 2010 found 17 per cent cited social media as the most important means for engaging consumers about their brand. It was described as playing a major role for 31 per cent of businesses and a minor role by 43 per cent.
Organic Inc., a San Francisco, Calif.-based social analytics services provider, uses social analytics technology from SAS to aggregate different data sources in order to understand traffic patterns on its own Web site and blogs. The company needed a platform to integrate incoming feeds given the myriad data points out there, explained Jonathan Prantner, Organic’s director of market intelligence.
While Organic analyzes its own social data, the company also uses the same technology to offer social analysis services to customers. Prantner said one mistake customers make is to approach social analytics as if it were traditional offline marketing. “What we are seeing over time is that’s not playing as well,” said Prantner.
While the quantitative aspect of traditional marketing is similar, what’s novel about social analytics is what Prantner calls “message spread,” or the idea often discussed in academic circles that key influencers on the Web are vehicles for a company’s message.
“That’s the other aspect that’s been flirted with at this point, but we still don’t have a good grasp on it,” said Prantner.
Ramayya Krishnan is one such academic who believes future social analytics will produce technology that integrates content with social network structure. “That taken together gives you the methodological tool kit to analyze the kinds of behavioural data that is emerging from social media,” said the dean and professor of management science and information systems at Pittsburg, Penn.-based Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College.
He sees social analytics as the newest data point for existing business intelligence strategies, that combine data mining of structured and unstructured information with social network structures. 
In the business world, this means identifying shared interests and domain experts that reside in social ties. “It’s like a Yahoo Answers but within the firm,” said Krishnan.
“There’s a network centricity to it,” he said. “It’s almost the water cooler conversations that never got captured are actually being captured.” 

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