As the true value of social data emerges, businesses are forced to question how well equipped they are to use it. Christian Walsh, MRS Digital Director offers some key takeaways from last month’s Social Media Research conference.

When Face’s Chief Innovation Officer Francesco D’Orazio analyses social media conversations, the words in the message are just a fraction of what really interests him. It is the 200 other lines of code that surrounds it that provides so much rich data from which insight can be drawn – the time the message was sent, the location, the device it was sent from and so on. 

This observation, made during his presentation at the MRS Social Media Research Conference, could serve as a metaphor for a major shift in how businesses value social media.

"Programmable analysis is one thing - a programmable response is less simple."

Christian Walsh, Digital Director, MRS

There was a time when the message was everything, and the apparent superficiality of those messages was the fuel for detractors who regarded social media as worthless. In other words, they were taking social media at face value.

Measurement is no longer a dirty word. Technology is enabling us to go beyond the message – beyond text mining and keyword analysis - to really understand the impact of social media activities. And the recent explosion in interest in big data has played its part in encouraging businesses to re-evaluate social media's potential.

Tom Ollerton, Marketing Director at We Are Social says that in the last year, his agency has witnessed a noticeable increase in the ‘size and reach of the briefs’ and the proportion of marketing budget that is spent on social. A particularly imaginative and complex campaign, ‘Return of the Marmarati’, built relationships with the most fervent Marmite fans over a series of online and real world events. The cost to Unilever was a fraction - just 20% - of its usual marketing spend.

That begs the question: how is success evaluated? Questions around measurement and benchmarking cropped up throughout the conference, but answers were less forthcoming.

New business model, new business

Enjoying its new status as the ‘voice of the consumer’, the rise and rise of social media is having a profound effect on how companies operate and organise themselves.

The analogy between the message and the contextual data that surrounds it can also be applied to the relationship between the marketing department and the insight function. Social media has brought the two even closer together: witness the growing trend of co-creation social media exercises which simultaneously market a product and harvest business intelligence.

What this means is that when we talk about measuring effectiveness, we should recognise that we are really applying the objectives of separate business divisions to that activity, and we need to develop the metrics to suit.

Throw in other departments - product development, front line services, IT - and you start to realise why social media is forcing some organisations to rethink their traditional structures altogether.

Social media measurement has until now been quite backwards says D’Orazio, with ‘a focus on clicks’. Ever more sophisticated ways of integrating qualitative with real-time data have opened up new sources of intelligence – enabling business to separate what’s really important from what is just noise. The commercial value of a ‘like’ or ‘share’ can now be extrapolated using some smart data and smart thinking. 

Reacting in real time

But real-time communications pose real challenges to PR and customer services functions: this enriched view of consumer behaviour puts pressure on a business to react. 

‘If you can’t make decisions in real time there is no point in using real-time intelligence,’ says D’Orazio. He describes a social data hub that feeds the appropriate intelligence directly to the parts of the business that have been empowered to take swift action. Real time decision making is something that large complex organisations need to prepare themselves for.

O2 provided what many still cite as a ‘masterclass’ in social media handling in July 2012 when the network went down for two days. The tsunami of negative tweets was handled head on with responses from O2 customer services that were humorous, helpful and immediate. By pulling them back from the brink of what looked like an inevitable PR disaster, the O2 team rewrote the crisis management handbook. 

However, smaller organisations that engage well and have large followings can become victims of their own success if the duty to respond becomes unsustainable.

The human touch

So how does Deborah Lee, a Forbes Top Global Social Media Influencer, have an authentic engagement with her 142,000 followers?

‘I’m a Lincolnshire girl,’ she says, by way of explanation. ‘I keep things very simple and straightforward.’ Lee manages her own account and keeps up conversations with her followers, including the occasional detractor. She’s doesn’t mind criticism, but ignores time wasters. ‘I just don’t respond,’ she says.

Many businesses are paralysed by the belief that they must respond to everything. However, as social data analysis becomes not just more automated but smarter, the burden for staff to monitor and respond is reduced.

Back to D’Orazio, who describes how labour-intensive human data analysis – for example, categorising and applying meta data to social content – can be used to train computers to do the same at massive scale, and in real time.

But programmable analysis is one thing - a programmable response is less simple. 

Through link sharing analysis and audience profiling a business can find out who is hearing this noise, and ask themselves whether they care. But ensuring the response is in line with the commercial value of the noise - and deciding what that response should consist of - is a very human evaluation.

Putting a price on social

As happened throughout the conference, most roads of discussion lead back to the measurement/value question.

One could say that Lee’s is a simplistic, humanistic view – she says the value of social media is to spread the message, to create awareness. D’Orazio’s focus is more analytical and complex, taking research into new territory that offers some hard metrics.

While benchmarking effectiveness and agreeing universal industry standards remains a challenge, by the end of the conference it was clear from the case studies that some businesses have developed a robust enough approach to measurement to elevate social media discussions back into their boardrooms.

These businesses have recognised that social media activity is not an end in itself but should - and can - be measured in line with their broader business objectives. Actionable social data is flowing internally - putting the consumer at the heart of the business - and the appropriate functions are empowered to act upon the data to good effect. 

These are the first generation of winners in this new social age.

Related information

MRS is running the following conferences: 

Find out more about social media effectiveness at the IPA Eff Fest, sponsored by MRS, on 15 October. MRS members receive the same discount rate that is available to IPA members.

Read more about social media monitoring - 'Content in context', an interview with Francesco D'Orazio. 

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