Social monitoring tools sputter, despite potential

Social media monitoring tools premiered with a bang, as companies sought new ways to listen to customers on Facebook, Twitter and other sites. But the tools stalled. What happened?

Social media monitoring started off big, then failed to deliver on its promise. It wasn't for lack of potential -- so what happened?

It's been the better part of a decade since social media monitoring tools took hold, and almost as long since ways of gathering information about consumer trends and habits and thoughts have been developed. Social media monitoring is now a recognized technology specialty, on the radar of every CIO. Yet the organizations that have successfully implemented social monitoring tools and put them to profitable use remain few.

The promise of social monitoring is extensive: With these tools, companies can listen to consumers on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forums and other ubiquitous social media platforms for posts and chat about products, services, events and other objects of business concern. Doing so can provide an enterprise with deep analytics that will yield insight into customer needs and fine-tuned strategic marketing.

And, sure enough, data is available to be harvested and those analytics are readily available to the enterprise. But companies are still struggling with social monitoring tools, and the question is: Why?

What did you expect?

Is the problem in social monitoring tools themselves? Or is the concept of social listening flawed?

Neither, according to Forrester Research analyst Allison Smith. In the report "Understand The Enterprise Listening Platform Landscape," she explained that the problem is one of misplaced expectations.

Social media monitoring should create actionable insight. But that is up to the user, not the software.

"Forgetting that it is a poor craftsman who blames his tools, and that they themselves deserve some of the blame, many [customer insight] pros point to 'bad' data gathering, 'poor' sentiment tools or 'unreliable' reporting and analytics as reasons why their listening efforts fall short of expectation," she wrote.

The entire point of the exercise is to convert social information into increased revenue, she wrote. But many organizations attempting to implement social monitoring think the software itself knows the nature of the answers it is delivering -- but those answers can be markedly different across organizations. "Social data answers a business question," she said, "but without asking a question, it's just noise."

What's the holdup in adopting social media monitoring?

The upshot of this crashed expectations problem is that social monitoring vendors stalled the progress of the technology in the recent past, in their efforts to compensate for what amounted to ineffective implementation on the part of their customers. The typical enterprise knows exactly what to expect of accounting software and how to implement it, but that's not remotely true of social monitoring tools. Vendors in the segment began "feature bombing" their products, creating new capabilities like community management that served to only distract attention from the problem.

These superfluous features also detracted from another issue: Social media monitoring should create actionable insight. But that is up to the user, not the software.

All of this made a bad situation worse, Smith pointed out, citing Salesforce's acquisition of market leader Radian6, a purchase that resulted in Radian6 losing its leading edge. Focusing on integration with its parent and other behemoth sources such as Google Analytics and Webtrends, Radian6 steps around the more pedestrian sources (like Facebook fan page posts, Amazon reviews, LinkedIn groups) that can make or break a social monitoring platform.

The new social listening playing field

On the one hand, social monitoring tools have become popular enough that everyone wants a piece of the market; on the other hand, the methodology (and, to some degree, the implementation of the technology) are not yet mature enough to suggest a clear path for their continued evolution.

The best approach for evaluating social monitoring providers in an environment where vendors are taking a hit for perceived social monitoring fails is to rate them according to customer satisfaction. By that measure, new leading vendors have emerged over the past two years:

Brandwatch. This platform gets high customer satisfaction scores based on its diligence in cleaning social data before analyzing it (spam, ads and duplicates are meticulously excised), yielding a more reliable result. Its crawl range is also substantial, extending across 70 million sources.

Mention. This tool has a clever strategy of identifying "influencers" -- sources that trigger brand notice in downline sources. Mention enables focused campaign strategies and the discovery and cultivation of new marketing channels.

Brand24. The tool from Brand24 Inc. exploits the profiling potential of social media. It can not only identify and classify existing and potential customers but also provide metadata about customers that can be leveraged in campaign planning.

Synthesio. Like Mention, Synthesio identifies "influencers" -- but it does so by following conversations on a global scale. The social media monitoring tool tracks not only who is influencing whom but also where the influenced are located, allowing for more focused targeting of those new potential customers.

Digimind. A veteran in the field, Digimind has refined the craft of monitoring not only one's brand success but also that of one's competitors. This not-uncommon feature is highly developed in Digimind, supporting strategic planning for enhancing brand awareness as well as second-guessing business opponents.

Stay tuned to social media monitoring

That missing piece -- actionable insight -- is no more present in accounting systems than it is in social monitoring systems. The real difference between the two certainly comes down to how well the business world understands them -- and insight comes with understanding.

Social media monitoring tool providers can improve the standing of their products with customers by enlisting AI-driven trend-spotting that surfaces relationships that aren't apparent in conventional reporting. This capability is a core feature of descriptive and predictive analytics, and emerging in business technologies such as Microsoft's Office Graph. Not only would it improve the uptake and effective implementation of social monitoring, but it could also lead to integration of social monitoring with other business technologies. This is desirable and necessary, as decision making in the enterprise becomes increasingly real time and increasingly multi-channel.

Next Steps

Social media strategies coming into their own

Evaluating social listening systems' maturity

How social media and traditional contact center customer service converge

Dig Deeper on Enterprise social media management