Social network monitoring: Heard it through the social vine

For most brands the art of listening to social network conversations is in its infancy and there are questions over how much they reflect wider consumer behaviour.

Above: Tesco says it only currently ‘dabbles’ in social listening, prioritsing the data it gets from its clubcard instead

Monitoring everything that is said on social networks sounds like a daunting job; so much so that many marketers will believe it is not even worth attempting. The available mass of unstructured data – which is generated by everyday online actions and conversations without any predefined ways of recording them – can seem so nebulous as to be impossible to harness.

However, some marketers are realising that, with a solid grasp of technology and achievable objectives, there are millions of insight sources and chances to reach consumers through social media that have never previously existed. It was a topic addressed by several speakers at Marketing Week Live, held at London’s Olympia venue last month – among them headline speaker Dara Nasr, head of agency sales at social network Twitter.

He suggests that consumers’ behaviour online might not be as unpredictable as it seems. According to Nasr, 95 per cent of all public online conversations in the UK happen on Twitter, while in the evenings 40 per cent of tweets are about that night’s television. Large chunks of supposedly unstructured data therefore coalesce around easily recognisable themes and trends – for example, the volume of tweets during a TV programme.

“It murmurs along and in moments of action increases heavily,” Nasr says, adding that this makes such moments relatively simple for marketers to prepare for. “Moments aren’t memes [content that spreads rapidly and erratically], moments are relevant, driven by awareness and intent. The majority of these you can plan months in advance.”

One of the most common approaches that brands are taking to monitoring social media is observing the comments that are either addressed directly to them or made in response to content they have posted themselves. The information can be used either to prompt further direct communication or simply for marketers to learn more about customers’ attitudes. Sex toy and lingerie retailer Ann Summers does both, as ecommerce director Andy McWilliams told an audience at Marketing Week Live.

“Some of our customers are seeking confidence about their purchase and they’re vocal about it – they don’t hold back,” he says. He even believes that at some point, social media contributions from customers will be part of the product design and development process.

Fans tell us which areas they’d like us to be in and this is passed on to the property team

General themes of consumers’ comments include hosting an Ann Summers party and planning shopping trips; as well as views on the brand’s sales or its new product lines, depending on the season. McWilliams says Ann Summers responds to any direct requests for information on social media, but in most instances other customers jump in and the conversation continues between them.

Restaurant chain Yo! Sushi maintains a similar mix of information gathering and direct intervention in its social listening operations. In the case of the former, according to senior marketing manager My Ly, it asks consumers to name dishes they want the brand to keep when refreshing the menu. Marketers also look out for people demanding a Yo! Sushi restaurant in their local area.

“Fans let us know which areas they want us to open in and these recommendations are passed on to our head of property to be considered for future openings,” says Ly.

As an example of the brand joining a conversation, Ly describes how one Twitter user wrote that she was unsure of whether to eat at Yo! Sushi or Wagamama that evening. Impressing the tweeter by responding immediately, Yo! Sushi helped her make the decision in its favour.

However, Dominic Burch, head of social media at supermarket Asda, says that there are three stages any brand must go through on social media before being able to use it to effect changes in consumers’ behaviour. First comes listening, then engagement, and only then is it possible to have influence.

“We did a lot of listening before we did any sort of engagement on Facebook,” says Burch. “British people don’t like to be sold to, especially in a social context, so we spent a lot of time going through these three points – and you have to do it in that order.”

He adds that Asda employs two people full-time who are tasked with tagging any comments they see that could have an impact on the brand. They are encouraged to approach consumers and, if necessary, continue the conversation offline where any problems can be resolved out of the public eye.

Generating ROI

The big question about the value of social listening – as with any marketing activity – is whether it generates a return on the investment that goes into it. One way some companies quantify it is by demonstrating that it costs less to resolve a problem on social media than via a call centre. If it does, then a return has already been realised every time a customer decides they no longer need to make the call. Others, such as Co-operative Legal Services, publish unique phone numbers on social networks that show when a sales enquiry is made by someone who has been prompted by a social media channel (see box, below).

But where insight gathering is concerned, Tesco Bank head of customer insight and strategy Simon Baines argues that investment in trying to gather unstructured data from social media diverts funding away from more valuable work in the area of customer relationship management (CRM).

“The opportunities to drive more value from the data we’ve already got are huge,” he says. “If I had £5, £100 or £1m I would much rather spend it on that than unstructured data.”

Through its Clubcard loyalty scheme Tesco possesses far richer customer and transaction data than most brands, but Baines points out that even for his company “the idea of having a single view of the customer is still an aspirational state” that needs to be more fully achieved before the potential value of each one is realised.

Priorities about which unstructured data to focus on therefore need to be set strategically and brands “have to make a decision about the key sources”, Baines argues. He says Tesco Bank is only “dabbling in social listening” and performing some automated text analysis in call centres, but there are also “people still trailing through pages of verbatim call transcripts and coding it up”.

At Birmingham City Council, head of strategic research Steven Rose says that there have been cost savings made through the use of unstructured data, but it has generally been that which is easiest to collect and analyse. For example, by mapping the routes of dustbin lorries from their GPS locations, the council could determine whether the refuse collection services were as time- and fuel-efficient as possible.

“We came up with a route that can get us round the city in 20 per cent fewer miles,” says Rose. “The other thing we’ve now got is a database of digitised routes linked to households and our CRM system.”

Braving the depths of social media has so far proved harder, and Rose says there’s a danger that the council “risks being seen as too paternal” if it is overtly monitoring its citizens’ behaviour or interrupting their online conversations. However, he adds that “one of my aims this year is to make our ability to harvest that intelligence much better” and that thinks it would be useful to join conversations to gauge the public demand for council-run services. Emergencies or periods of civil unrest would also be appropriate times to to crawl social media for more information, he suggests.

“When the Birmingham riots happened [in August 2011], being able to do a ‘tweet map’ of who was talking about it would have been really helpful,” says Rose.

The reality is that, for most brands, social listening is still a discipline in the experiemental stage. And while it has proved useful for marketers seeking to achieve fairly narrow goals, there are still big caveats about how representative social media conversations are of wider consumer behaviour – especially if a brand only monitors what is said directly to it, or in response to its own posts.

There are still a large number of people not on social media, or who are not active and vocal. And even those who are don’t always act as they claim.

Hi-tech listening tools: The Co-op

The Co-op taps into social media conversations not only to track what its customers are saying but what competitors’ customers are saying

The array of technologies available for carrying out social listening is vast and swiftly evolving. According to Co-operative Group social media lead Gail Lyon, such is the level of competition between them that the company reviews the tool it uses every 12 months.

Lyon says Co-op’s businesses – ranging from banking to legal services to food – have many and varied requirements of its current platform, provided by Meltwater. It is used for benchmarking, “listening not just to what our customers are saying but also what our competitors’ customers are saying”; as well as an early warning system for PR crisis management.

Currently, for example, Lyon’s team is producing regular reports and constantly listening to what is being said about Co-op Bank’s funding difficulties and its credit downgrade by ratings agency Moody’s. Regarding the latter, Lyon says the brand took the decision to respond to everyone who raised a concern.

The group’s overall social media strategy is that any activity “always has to have a purpose” and should not just be used “as a fluffy add-on or because we want to chat to people”, Lyon says, although there is some analysis that is open-ended. For example, Co-op uses social media to assess key trends, competitive sets and market share year on year. But she admits that measuring return on investment is hard.

“It’s problematic because there isn’t one tool that links everything wonderfully together for you, but we’re experimenting with different technologies to see how we can track people by multi-click attribution. On the Co-op Legal Services YouTube channel, we’ve got a telephone number on there that is directly attributable to that channel, so we know if someone calls on there, we can put them into the sales funnel from social media.”

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