Online tools for monitoring social buzz, offered by companies such as Sysomos, Radian6, Alterian and Brandwatch, are opening marketers' eyes to a world of chatter about their brands. Many brands' insight departments report, however, that the tools are labour-intensive to operate, since the results need careful interpretation by experienced researchers.
When used in conjunction with other research methods such as focus groups and depth research, however, social listening tools are proving their worth. Some in the industry predict that online monitoring technology will develop in accuracy and effectiveness over the next five years to such an extent that it will become an indispensable part of marketing.
One effective use of such monitoring is to improve online customer service. Vodafone, for example, can find out whether someone is talking about the brand online within five minutes of the comments going live. If it is a customer with a problem, the company's web agents can join the conversation and offer a solution. Meanwhile, social media is widely used to track corporate reputations and public attitudes to companies and brands.
Social-media monitoring still has a long way to go, however, to conclusively prove its reliability as a market research tool; many marketers argue that buzz monitoring has its limits when used for gathering insights that can be used in marketing or innovation.
Jan Worsley, innovation director at market research company SPA Future Thinking, is among the sceptics. 'Social media might give you the odd insight here and there, but you would always want to validate those,' he says. 'This is just another exciting little instrument to have at your fingertips.'
Worsley previously worked at Innocent Drinks, tracking social-media commentary about the brand. 'You can't type "Innocent" into a social-media tracking tool, you'll get all sorts of nonsense, some of it quite rude,' he explains. 'If you put in "Starbucks", 80% of the comments will simply be people saying "see you in Starbucks later".'
Lack of subtlety
TV channels use social-media monitoring to find out in real time how shows are received by audiences and check reactions to characters and plot lines.
Tools for tracking sentiment are a blunt instrument, however, according to Channel 4 senior research executive Mark Donovan.
He points out that if people are tweeting comments such as 'disgusting' or 'grim' about the show Embarrassing Bodies, for example, that could actually be a positive sign, but the comments would likely be interpreted as negative on a sentiment tracker.
Sue Gray, Channel 4's head of advertising research and development, shares those doubts. 'It is not a perfect science,' she says.
'It won't pick up on places where you know a lot of comment will be.'
For instance, the tools often cannot monitor what is being said on Facebook, depending on people's privacy settings. She remains at least partly positive about the method, however. 'It's been a really interesting addition, although it is quite challenging to use it properly,' adds Gray. 'It has, however, added to our assessment of our content.'
She says Channel 4 aims to develop social-media monitoring of the ads it runs and will share the information with brand owners.
Indeed, it is important to note that these are early days for the technology. Giles Palmer, founder and chief executive of social-media monitoring company Brandwatch, accepts that the tools are still developing, but expects giant steps forward as the tools become more adept at assessing sentiment and differentiating between terms.
Promise of monitoring
Palmer predicts that monitoring will have a major impact on marketing. 'In five years time, it will look radically different,' he adds. 'Social-media monitoring is important if you take a long-term view of your brand, though not so much if you just dip in and out of tracking social media.'
Palmer goes on to explain: 'The promise of monitoring is that when something important is said about your brand or sector on the web you are told about it and told what to do. For instance, it alerts you to what you need to do about competitors and how you can get better at beating them. When we get good at that in the next two years or so, it will change the dynamics of marketing. It is the big data story; being able to run algorithmic analysis to pull out trends.'
Palmer argues that the technology will bring sweeping changes to how businesses are run. 'It might take marketing into more strategic areas within organisations,' he contends. 'I see the importance of the chief marketing officer growing as a result. The boundaries between the customer and supplier are crumbling and the role of the lead marketer will not be to stand back, but to get involved in the conversation and bring the insight back into the organisation.'
Much depends on different departments working together. Monitoring may be used by the digital department, the customer service section or marketing, so businesses need a way of integrating those areas.
One problem for FMCG brands is that they may find there are precious few mentions of the products in social media, as people often don't refer to them by name. Andrew Nelson, Ipsos MORI director of social media, argues that it makes sense to look more widely at the way people talk about using products.
He gives the example of Philadelphia cheese; a search for 'Philadelphia not city, not film' may reveal only a few mentions. Looking at the category of cream cheese instead would help to see how people use the product.
Nelson adds that social-media monitoring can be useful when used in conjunction with other research tools. 'If you do a quick dive into online conversations before doing a focus group to validate the themes, it doesn't take too long and can help you ask better questions,' he says. 'The speed of uptake of monitoring tools meant some people were misled by what they could deliver. If you get stuck into the raw data, there are limitations to it. You need a researcher with a brain that is familiar with and understands a brand.'
One of the great hopes for real-time research is that it will enable brands to tweak their ad campaigns as comments and reactions emerge online. Tom Poynter, chief executive of agency Iris Worldwide, argues that brands have failed to grasp the opportunity.
'The bit people fall down on most is that they report back on the buzz around a campaign too long after the event,' he says. 'Being able to do something about the comments is the big opportunity. How many brands are actually optimising their social-media monitoring? What is trending on Twitter may be an influence. Being able to respond in real time is really important.'
Selecting the most appropriate monitoring service depends on how deeply the brand needs to drill into the social-media buzz. Mark Higginson, director of social media at iCrossing, says one problem is that five different monitoring tools will provide differing results. 'You have to go deeper than treating it as a black box where you put in the brand name and get your results,' he adds.
Much depends on the search terms used. Mobile phone brand Orange could get an odd view of the world by just searching out social-media comment on its brand name, so its researchers might enter a string that searches for the term 'Orange' being used within 50 words of the term 'mobile phone'.
Social-media monitoring is an important additional research tool for insight departments and can be employed to effect in tandem with traditional methods and more recent developments, such as online panels.
With the technological progress being made in semantic search and the ability to interpret commentary, buzz-monitoring tools are set to improve quickly. When that happens, the technology might transform the way that insights are gathered, and, ultimately, how businesses are run.
THE TRUTH ABOUT BUZZ
The prospect of automated buzz tracking that can operate well without human intervention seems a long way off. Much of the cost of using any social-media buzz tracking tool is in the hours researchers spend interpreting the results.
As the tools improve, however, the question is whether they will ever become accurate enough to identify and categorise chatter about a brand in a meaningful way without human input. One advantage of social-media commentary is that it is unprompted and does not react to questions posed by researchers. Focus groups and depth research are artificial situations led by the researcher, whereas social-media comments tend to be spontaneous reactions to situations.
Research company Nielsen has partnered management consultancy McKinsey to create NM Incite Europe, which examines the way in which social media might change how organisations are run.
Emily Dent, UK strategic director at NMIncite Europe, says: 'The problem with tools - and most of our clients have admitted this - is that it is easy to think a tool will give you the answer. Then they realise the tool cannot interpret the data or apply it to a business problem.'
Brad Little, head of NM Incite Europe, adds: 'Marketers up to a certain level in a company get a buzz-tracking report that says there is 40% negative sentiment and they just think, "so what?"
To be credible in social-media listening, you have to help a business answer the question of why it matters.'
Case Study: Call Of Duty
Finding out how gamers would react to last year's release of video game Call of Duty Black Ops was crucial for brand owner Activision, as it sought to identify how it could generate positive buzz about the product.
Activision worked with social-media monitoring agency Brandwatch to track online buzz around this and other games it has released. This has enabled Activision to assess its brand reputation, identify key influencers such as bloggers, and engage more strongly with its audience.
Brandwatch reported on the volume of mentions, topics under discussion, top sites, sentiment, competitor context and share of voice for a range of Activision titles. The agency created search strings and tailored dashboards to monitor commentary. For Call of Duty, it tracked commentary in the build-up to the launch, on the day of release, and in the aftermath.
It monitored video-clip sharing as well as comments. Brandwatch chief executive Giles Palmer says the project was a success: 'We now have a clearer picture of what drives conversation around a game's launch and how content strategies can be used to maximise its impact.'
Case Study: Vodafone
The UK's mobile operator industry has a bad reputation for customer service. In light of this, Vodafone set about improving its own performance in this area by using buzz monitoring tools created by the Integrasco consultancy.
As Jakub Hrabovsky, Vodafone UK head of web relations, explains: 'Measurement and monitoring reflects the need for us to listen to what is being said across the social-media channels.'
He adds: 'Effective monitoring and response can help us pre-empt potential issues before they become major problems and even help develop new products and services.'
The buzz monitoring project sought to engage with key influencers, generate positive sentiment, to 'humanise' the brand and reverse negative sentiment online. Integrasco trained Vodafone's web relations team in using a proprietary portal to identify relevant posts. Vodafone estimates it identifies 95% of online conversations related to the brand within five minutes of them taking place. The team can then aim help at people with customer service issues by entering conversations on web forums.
The company claims it has achieved customer satisfaction rates of 80% in social-media channels, while its web relations team has been increased from two to 15. According to its own data, Vodafone now boasts the highest social-media net promoter score in UK telecoms.