Social listening done right

I had the privilege of attending the “Pay Attention! Social Listening Done Right” panel at this year’s Social Media Week in New York. As the title of the session conveys, this was a discussion about how brands and marketers listen in on conversations happening on social media channels, separate noise from meaningful signals and properly respond to the information they glean. In the company of about 120 fellow attendees (by my rough count), I enjoyed the free-flowing conversation that touched on a handful of intriguing topics and first-hand tales of the trade.

Michael Learmonth (@learmonth), digital editor at Ad Age, was the moderator of this five-man panel:

Kyle Monson (@kmonson), senior technology editor, JWT

Shiv Singh (@shivsingh), head of digital, PepsiCo Beverages

Brian Clark (@gmdclark), CEO, GMD Studios

Ed Sullivan (@ed_sullivan), vice president of strategic alliances, Radian6

Michael Jaindl (@jaindl), chief client officer, Buddy Media

Instead of typing out a play-by-play of the discussion, I’ve rummaged through my notes and have spotted four main points that I’ll recap below. If you would like to watch the entire session, head over to Social Media Week’s Livestream video of the event.

The panel was kicked off by Learmonth, who noted that though big brands are now listening to conversations happening in the realm of social media, “any 2-year-old” can do that. The real question, he asked, is: “What do I take from all of this information and how do I act?”

This led to the discussion of the following topics, among others:

1) The challenge of separating noise from meaningful signals: Singh was first to offer his thoughts on this, the “heart of the challenge we face.” He said that the information gathered through social listening “only makes sense when it’s put in the context of other information.” Digital dashboards that help his company track how they’re faring against their competitors in the social space are interesting when they’re placed beside volume data and brand-health data so correlations can be observed. Singh added that while his company listens to conversations on a daily and hourly basis, “The challenge continues to be separating the noise from meaningful insight, and then data that can be actionable and data that we can respond to in a real-time sense.”

Sullivan, whose company makes software and analytics to help deal with this issue, added, “The good news is that as more money is being invested into social media as a medium, as part of a fabric of a company’s strategy, there are really cool tools that are coming out to actually help that entire process of finding the right piece of information, the right nuggets, and getting them to where they need to be.”

Monson (who, funny enough, was monitoring the tweets about the panel with his laptop) added that the trick is putting the right person in front of all the information who can interpret the data and make the right decisions in a timely manner, an inherently risky task that might go against a marketers’ nature.

An easy way to discern the noise from the signals, according to Jaindl, is to start paying attention to anything with a question mark: who, what, when, where, why and how? This is a good place to start if you want to know what you should respond to.

2) How companies should respond/act: Once you identify the important signals, the issue becomes how you should respond to them, if at all. One of the more intriguing points of the conversation occurred when Learmonth brought up an example of Virgin America sending a traveler a $200 voucher by way of a direct message on Twitter because the traveler’s flight was delayed. Monson contrasted this with an airline responding to an angry tweet with just an apology and explanation, and drew the “common sense” conclusion that brands shouldn’t get involved with a customer’s moment of despair unless they can actually do something about it. “If you can’t do something, you’re just reinforcing the negative perception that I already have of your brand because my flight’s delayed.”

Clark pointed out that sometimes people will tweet in anger without wanting a response. He added, “The novelty of, ‘Oh look, the brand actually is listening to me,’ I think, over the next few years is going to be replaced by a sort of creepiness about, ‘Oh, the brand is listening to me.’”

The recent Wheat Thins commercials, where consumers who tweet about the brand are visited by a yellow van and a film crew, and given a pallet stacked with boxes of Wheat Thins, was used as a possible example of this. “Now, at some point that novelty’s going to wear off and that’s going to be creepy,” Clark said. He then told members of the audience who partake in social media listening that they are “professional voyeurs,” and that there are creepy ways to use the information gathered from these activities. Clark warned that every brand that messes things up will change the landscape of consumer reaction, forcing brands to be more sensitive to this matter of privacy.

Later in the discussion, Singh brought the conversation back to gray areas when he called out “the elephant in the room,” which was Facebook. While the giant social networking site clearly houses a wealth of valuable conversations for brands and marketers to tap into, the problem is that only a small slice of that is open to viewing and listening via brand pages and public profiles. Monson dubbed this walled-off information the “holy grail.”

“And that’s the big missing thing,” said Singh. “Listening is never going to be totally scalable until we can listen to that, or we can at the very least model out the impact of what’s happening on those pages.” He stopped short of saying whether Facebook should actually be opened up to this extent or not, but did say he thinks what keeps Mark Zuckerberg up at night is the decision to make Facebook profiles private instead of public by default, which is the opposite of what Twitter has done.

3) Determining who brands should respond to: While it’s easy for brands to respond to customers who are either big supporters or detractors, “How do you find the normal people out there?” asked Learmonth.

“Normal people don’t make footprints in social media,” said Clark. After some laughter, he continued, saying, “People who make footprints are having an extreme reaction. They either really love the brand or they really hate the brand.”

Monson added that brands often respond to sentiments not held by the larger community. Nevertheless, Clark noted that by responding to extreme reactions, brands are showing that they’re actually listening.

During the Q-and-A time later in the session, when the panelists were discussing the concept of influencers, Jaindl made the point that brands might want to worry a little bit less about who their influencers are. “Everybody has a little bit of influence, and I think people like brands that are genuine and treat everybody equal,” he said. “So if someone’s looking at a brand and they say, ‘OK, that brand is only responding to who they think has ‘influence’ — that comes across as a little bit insincere.” Jaindl’s bottom-line suggestion was, “Stop trying to figure out who the influencers are and start responding to everybody.”

4) The perils of using Twitter as a focus group: “There’s a danger in putting too much stock in what Twitter users are saying, I think, because they’re not always going to be representative of the audience,” said Monson regarding the idea that social media conversations may offer a glimpse into the future for brands.

“You end up with ‘Snakes on a Plane,’” Clark added.

Learmonth added that listening to what consumers are saying online led to the failed attempt by CBS to bring the show “Jericho” back on the air.

“It’s so tempting to use Twitter as your focus group because it’s free, it’s pretty easy to mine what people are saying and it’s easy to throw those results into a PowerPoint deck,” said Monson. “But I think you still need to actually talk to humans because…humans talk in different ways than they do on Twitter.”

My takeaway: While many subjects were covered in this discussion, the overall sentiment that I walked away with was, well, more of an image — an image of a child on a quest, trying hard to wield a large sword. While it’s clear that social listening is a potent new tool that can benefit brands and marketers, there’s a distinct tension between that and the cost to the unknowing consumer. As it stands, there’s much to be learned about listening, responding and balancing this task in the grand scheme of bigger strategies. The path to the holy grail might be blocked, but it doesn’t mean people will stop searching for other ways to that prize, no matter how many times they might fumble their weapons along the way.

Authored by Jason Hahn, editor, Profnet.

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3 responses to “Social listening done right

  1. Great writeup, Jason. You add some good insight in your last graf

  2. Thanks for the kinds words, Kyle. You and the rest of the panel participants gave us a lot of keen and interesting insights to chew on, so thank you for that, too.

  3. Pingback: PR is for Listeners | Career Hunting

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