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Social Media Monitoring and Listening Tools: a Primer

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Posted January 4, 2013 By Paul Rubens     Feedback

Interested in "social listening?" This beginners' guide to social media monitoring and listening tools tells you what you need to know.

The rise of social media over the past few years has led to an explosion in applications and services offering social media monitoring and listening.

Monitoring and listening are often used interchangeably by users and even by vendors themselves, but there is a distinction to be made between the two. It is probably more accurate to think about three different areas of functionality:

  • Social media monitoring. This is reactive, and involves monitoring social media channels like Facebook and Twitter to spot mentions of particular words such as brand names.
  • Social media analytics. This involves measuring, analyzing and displaying what is being mentioned in social media channels, perhaps in response to a specific marketing campaign.
  • Social media listening. This is the most sophisticated of the three, involving listening to the conversations that are going on in social media channels and using the information gleaned to gain insights in things like customer sentiment and, more generally, "what's going on."

Are products that offer this functionality worth paying for at all? Surely it's possible to get much of this information for free by setting up Google Alerts with suitable keywords, or simply using the search function in a Twitter client to root out any Tweets mentioning your brand name?

"I think if you did that you would find plenty of valuable insights, but you would also find that it is a heck of a lot of work," says Zach Hofer-Shall, a senior analyst at Forrester Research.  "If the information you get is valuable and takes hours to find like this but takes just seconds with a suitable listening or monitoring tool, then the tool is probably worth investing in."

Ultimately what you're after is a return on the cost of getting these insights -- the cost of using the product -- and you can hope to get this in a number of ways. Some -- like protecting your brand by understanding what is being said about it and responding when appropriate – offer soft returns.

Others are easier to quantify. For example, after detecting a problem with a product because of a discussion on a social media site you may be able to suggest a solution which will then be propagated to other users. By doing this you may avoid the support costs that would be incurred if hundreds or thousands of affected customers contacted your company individually.

How Do Social Monitoring Tools Work?

A complete rundown of all the capabilities of social monitoring and listing products is beyond the scope of this article, but in general the starting point for almost all of them is the entry of a keyword - typically a product, company or brand name, but it could be anything at all - that tells the software what to find.

Some systems  use machine learning; you give it a thousand or so Tweets which contain the sort of information you are after, and the system goes and finds "more like that." You can then refine the results, to hone the system in on your areas of interest.

The magic happens when the products start to do theme detection or topic discovery – revealing the hot topics being discussed around a product or brand.  This might be done by finding a particular word that keeps cropping up close to your keyword, or in a variety of other ways.

Most tools can be configured to send you an alert if discussions around a particular theme suddenly become more active than normal -- possibly indicating an emerging crisis, or perhaps the precursor to a surge in demand for your product for some reason that you had not anticipated.

Most software is "intelligent" enough to work out the sentiment of social media postings - whether they are generally positive, or generally negative. By using analytics tools, dashboards and charts, it is possible to keep an eye on the prevailing sentiment surrounding your product or brand, to measure how your actions (such as communications or marketing campaigns) affect it, and gain insights into the causes of negative (or positive) sentiment.

Social Monitoring Shopping List

So what differentiates all these products, and how do you know which one to buy?

"One of the key differentiators is the quality of the data that these tools find and use," says Hofer-Shall. "There is a big problem with spam postings, and some products deal with it and filter it out much better than others. And if your brand is a common word like "target," then the software has to work out which mentions of "target" are talking about you."

It is also important, Hofer-Shall says, to look at how accurately a product interprets the data. "If a product's sentiment analysis detects positive sentiment overall, is this right?"

Pricing ranges from free tools such as socialmention.com to sophisticated products which may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per month. In general, a large company should expect to pay a few thousand dollars a month for a well-regarded product while a very large enterprise could easily spend $20,000 or more each month.  Almost all of the products in the market are cloud-based, and thus accessed by monthly subscription.

"Often pricing starts low, but it's per seat, so you pay more for each person who uses it," says Hofer-Shall.  "It's also based on usage, so a company with one brand that generates little discussion will end up paying much less than a company with many consumer brands that generate millions of discussions."

Forrester Research identifies nine major vendors that offer social media monitoring and listening tools:

Alterian SM2 (owned by SDL )    

Attensity

Converseon

Lithium

Networked Insights

NM Incite

Radian6 (part of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud)

Synthesio

Visible Technologies

Other vendors include:

Beevolve

Brandwatch

Oracle Collective Intellect

Sysomos (a subsidiary of Marketwire)

uberVU

Viralheat

Paul Rubens has been covering IT topics for over 20 years. In that time he has written for leading UK and international publications including The Economist, The Times, Financial Times, the BBC, Computing and ServerWatch.

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