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German computer scientist David Kriesel sent out a tweet one Friday in early August about a glitch in a Xerox photocopier.
By Tuesday morning, his tweet about Xerox scanners and copiers randomly altering written numbers in scanned pages had gathered steam in social communities and had been picked up by mainstream news outlets.
"We were drowning in thousands of tweets," said Jason Bartlett, the VP of global digital marketing and communications at Xerox Corp. based in Norwalk, Conn. "The speed at which this was happening was mind-blowing."
Social media listening tools enabled Xerox to acknowledge the issue in the course of a few days and test a patch for the problem within another week.
But incidents like these can be a nightmare for enterprises. When a problem surfaces in a company's social media channels, which are fluid, fast moving and viral, gaining control of that stream can be difficult. The rapid-fire pace of online conversation can amplify even small issues into business crises in a matter of hours.
"Twitter makes you move so much faster," Bartlett said.
If companies don't use social media listening tools -- which monitor conversations about a brand on social platforms -- they may not even be aware that problems have percolated to the surface. And even with such tools, companies can be unprepared for the onslaught.
What social media listening tools can and can't do
Social media listening tools are evolving and still require lots of human analysis and context to interpret the data. Companies also need strategies to contend with the issues that social media has wrought, from data analytics to compliance and governance to management of the platforms themselves.
But chatter on social media channels can be difficult to validate and react to in a meaningful way.
The biggest challenge with listening is to sift through what really matters.
"There's a lot of noise on Twitter," Bartlett said. "The biggest challenge with listening [tools] is to sift through what really matters."
Finding meaning in the haystack of conversations, likes, shares and more can be daunting, but it's also critical to meet the needs of communities in the era of social 2.0.
"All this information is coming in, but can we listen, learn and engage with the data in real time?" said Andrew Bowins, MasterCard Inc.'s VP of digital and corporate communications, at the Social Shake-Up conference in mid-September. "Can we move into the boardroom and be able to talk about it as a business driver?"
Many industry insiders said that while social media listening practices have matured in social media's "2.0 era," additional evolution and, likely, market consolidation must happen before these tools can truly deliver on their promise.
One key challenge is the human component; persuading a company's executives to focus less on the "arms race," or metrics that measure quantity of Facebook likes or Twitter retweets to focus more on qualitative measures that reflect true engagement.
"Some of these tools gather metrics that are nice-to-knows -- likes and shares and audience reach," Xerox's Bartlett said. "But they are empty calories. They don't help you understand how to move the needle."
One of the keys to gathering meaningful data in MasterCard's Conversation Suite project is to find tools that monitor conversations and roll up the data in ways that executives serving different regions can understand and analyze, Bowins said.
The Conversation Suite is a data analytics initiative that monitors content and interaction in 43 global markets and 26 languages and analyzes online communities from Facebook and Twitter to blogs and other online forums in "real time," according to Bowins.
It rolls up data on these conversations in weekly, monthly and quarterly formats to deliver information to business units. It took 18 months to define the key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure, to hone the metrics and analysis, and then to train business leaders to analyze data in terms of KPIs and business goals, Bowins said.
Defining meaningful metrics involved identifying what data should be measured and getting executive buy-in. "The part that's hard is getting every business manager, every regional head, aligned around some standard sets of measurement, some standard KPIs."
The importance of integration
Integration with existing platforms such as customer relationship management (CRM) software is important for social listening tools but also remains challenging.
Social listening data and CRM systems could form a powerhouse if well integrated, but they are not as well integrated as with other channels, said, Banafsheh Ghassemi, VP of customer experience management and CRM at The American Red Cross.
The part that's hard is getting every business manager aligned around some standard sets of measurement.
Ghassemi counseled IT buyers to put integration with existing systems at the forefront of any social media monitoring tool purchase.
"Does it speak comfortably and cheaply with my existing infrastructure and CRM systems?" Ghassemi said. "With the advent of open architecture, that search has become easier," but you may have to settle for 80% of what you want to ensure compatibility with existing infrastructure.
But today, using a single tool for all purposes isn't realistic; there isn't one-size-fits-all product available, according to Lou Dubois, a social media editor at NBC News Digital Group.
"We want a tool that ideally would do everything, but I haven't found that tool yet," he said. "Our needs are very different from a company that is looking to market their product or monitor accounts."
Many of the tool vendors are small venture-backed companies, so acquisitions and consolidations may winnow the field.
"So many of these tools are siloed or niche in what they focus on. And if some can find a way to pull it all together, it starts to be more beneficial," Bartlett said.
Industry watchers say that open standards have to be embraced by the market for enterprise scalability as the social media universe explodes. For practitioners like Bowins, scalability comes down to building infrastructure in an open source way to allow for ease of use and plug-and-play functionality.
MasterCard and PRIME Research, which help provide the foundational analytics tool set for the Conversation Suite, uses an open Web HTML5 environment.
"It's simply plug in, write a piece of code, integrate [it] into the infrastructure," Bowins said. "That allows us to continue to scale. If I bought something off the shelf, costs rise, and I'd constantly be updating infrastructure rather than addressing opportunity. "Open, Web-based platforms just have to be table stakes," he said.
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Having the internal resources to handle what comes out of the social listening platform and scaling human resources to engage with it remains the biggest hurdle, Bartlett said. His team is working to cultivate more subject matter expertise on topics that Xerox wants to "own," such as the E-ZPass technology.
Employees with lots of knowledge to share can generate content and participate in conversation that can elevate the brand by demonstrating expertise, he said.
Meanwhile, companies have to move at hyper-speed to keep up with the social media hype cycle. In some cases, consumer conversation can generate a downward spiral faster than companies can tweet, "Problem solved."
But just as this rapid-fire pace creates fallow ground for mistakes to happen, social media has fueled community conversations and forced innovation. The onus is on companies to use social media listening tools to engage with customers and improve their brand.