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Common misconceptions about social listening

Common misconceptions about social listening Scott Fiaschetti

Social listening has finally reached its tipping point. While the idea and the technology have been around for awhile, every brand I speak with wants to figure out what consumers are saying about it in real time.

Back around 2008, social listening was being positioned as the world's largest focus group -- a savior to both the marketing and the research industries. It was the shiny new object, and it was going to change the world as we knew it.

Why not? It was perfect for the time. We were going through the worst recession since the Great Depression. Budgets were tight, and here was a way to get direct consumer feedback at the cost of a single round of focus groups. It was a tremendous budget saver. There was no need to travel to a facility any more. We could save time, money, and calories by not eating all those M&Ms.

I have to admit, I was excited as well.

It was great. Type in a few key words, type in the brand, get the logic down, and bam -- several hundred thousand comments were captured in an instant. I could tell my clients whether there was a lot of positive sentiment about their brands, their products, and/or their advertising campaigns, how they were trending, where the comments were coming from, and even what words were frequently being used, all in a nice word cloud.

After the initial excitement wore off, however, we all were left asking ourselves -- so what? All that was really great to know, but how do we take action on these insights?

Over the course of the past few years, we have developed a set of guidelines for getting the most out of social listening.

First, "start at the finish line" and have a plan for getting there

We often use this term to help ourselves and our clients focus on the business objectives of the study. What problems are they trying to solve? How is this data going to be used in the decision-making process? Who is the ultimate audience for the results? How will they access the research findings?

It seems simple, but you would be amazed at how challenging it can be to answer these questions. Without knowing where the finish line is, it is extremely hard to develop an accurate path to success.

Second, make sure it is something people are actually talking about

Often we do a topic validation exercise before starting any social listening project. This is basically an initial listening exercise to ensure that the topic is something people are actually talking about online.

We have had experiences where topics that we think would garner a lot of social chatter actually have very little. For example, one time a client whose product targeted senior-level technology officers wanted to do some social listening. No brainer, right? These guys are in technology; of course they are going to be chatting about it online. Wrong. We actually found very little discussion. When we thought about it, however, it made a lot of sense. They were mostly C-level decision makers that were too busy to take the time to chat about this stuff online.

Third, know what you are listening for -- kind of

While it is helpful to measure and track the change in key metrics such as overall volume, sentiment, and share of voice, it is more important to understand the themes of the conversation and what other topics they are closely associated with.

When we listen, we don't focus as much on the positive or negative comments, but more about the themes of the conversations. Often, much of the chatter on a brand or product falls into the neutral category, and quite often is ignored. At some level it makes sense; the ends are where the real issues are, and that is where you are going to find the strengths and the opportunities for improvement. But that approach is often misguided.

What we should be listening for are the key topics discussed around your brand or category. It is a technique called semantic analysis (rather than sentiment analysis). For example, a major financial services firm wanted us to help them understand how consumers were talking about one of its key products -- personal loans.

While this is an important topic, again, no one was really talking about these types of loans independently. There was very little discussion related to these products on the ends of the sentiment spectrum (e.g., people discussing having a particularly good or bad experience with a provider).

What we found was that these products were often discussed as part of a greater personal finance discussion. This was truly enlightening for our client and helped it understand where and how it could enter the social conversation with potential customers -- not with advertising, but in a more supportive and authentic way by offering guidance and advice.

By not focusing on the positive or negative comments, but rather the general themes of the entire conversation, the client joined the social conversation in a more relevant way. Ultimately, the company realized that, to be successful, it needed to provide consumers with more than just a product, but a partnership as well.

Finally, don't just listen

While social listening is great, it only tells part of the story.

Where possible, combine the listening with additional demographic or behavioral data. This will help give context and depth to the results. Going back to the financial services example above, we were also able to give the client insight into what social and demographic groups were discussing the topic most and how to target them. As it turns out, moms were really concerned about personal loans.

Social listening is just one more tool in the overall insights toolbox. It is great at helping uncover emerging trends, problems with products, and identifying potential new targets, but it should be complemented with additional research to validate and extend the findings.

Like any new technique, social listening has a place in the modern insights toolbox, but it is not going to change the world of research. There is no one magic bullet that is going to solve all of your insights needs. It all comes back to knowing your project goals and coming up with a plan to achieve them -- the same as it ever was.

Scott Fiaschetti is the director of consumer insights for Questus.

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"2 businessmen with telephone can" image via Shutterstock.

Scott Fiaschetti is the VP of insights and strategy for Questus, a digital ad agency based in New York and San Francisco and iMedia’s 2011 Agency of the Year.  Scott has more than 15 years of industry experience and has worked on both the...

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