Listening is just the start – learning is what matters

“Social networks have taken the world by storm and they are not going away any time soon. A lot of organisations have put off starting in them, but a decision has to be made.” So says Zach Hofer-Shall, analyst at Forrester Research and co-author of its recent report, “Defining Social Intelligence”.

One of the key reasons for companies delaying their engagement with social networks is the problem of how to integrate the information they generate with established customer intelligence. “A lot of what we see is a lack of process. That is the biggest question – and it isn’t easy,” says Hofer-Shall.

As the report points out, SN provides an opportunity to listen to customers as a minimum level of involvement. The time to start doing that was yesterday, not least because both consumers and business have adopted networks with enthusiasm. Segmenting cconsumers by their adoption of SN, Forrester found just 18 per cent were inactive in 2009, compared to 44 per cent in 2007.

Notably, 24 per cent of users can be classed as Creators and 37 per cent as Critics, while 21 per cent are Collectors. Just over half (51 per cent) can be counted as Joiners and 73 per cent are Spectators. (Consumers can belong to more than one group.)

This is creating an unprecedented source of real-time information on consumer opinion. Or to put it another way, a torrent of unstructured data that presents a major challenge to customer intelligence professionals.

Forrester believes that old practices are being applied to these new channels. Although 78 per cent of CI professionals have included listening into their strategies, other functions are less well integrated, with database and direct marketing among the worst (see chart).

It is not surprising that market research has most deeply integrated customer listening, since SN in many ways extends significantly what it has always tried to do. This function also has a body of expert data professionals who understand how to manage unstructured data sets.

What is holding back much of the integration of SN into CI is that it has no obvious home territory, however. “There is no enterprise silo for it. We’re working hard to identify where it should be. The problem is that there is no set model. Companies are organised so differently from eachother, it is hard to say,” says Hofer-Shall.

What holds back the integration of social network data is that it has no obvious home.

Web analytics might look like the obvious home, since it is used to dealing with high volumes of digital data. Yet he argues that it is the customer data function which ought to be seen as the target for SN information, since it understands the importance of insights into customers, wherever they are derived.

The report suggests a possible architecture for “listening platforms” and notes that the supporting technology is changing fast. It is also critical of the level of accuracy of commercial text analysis services and especially their limited language group coverage.

Forrester advocates a concept it calls Social Intelligence, where SN data is applied to marketing. “It is the big next step, saying that information from social networks matters,” says Hofer-Shall. One of the challenges of integrating SN data sets into classic CI environments is the lack of standards in this sector.

Each network has its own data model, technology platform and reporting systems, which makes integration labour-intensive.

“A second challenge is that companies don’t have their own standards,” he notes. Often, companies simply force SN data feeds to fit their existing customer data model or add new fields to allow it to be included. “Time will tell what will happen and become best practice,” says Hofer-Shall.

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