Social Media Analytics: Interview With Author And Analyst Marshall Sponder

Posted on September 25, 2011. Filed under: Business Strategy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Do you want to know the business value all of the effort you put into social media? Is it important for you to figure out how facebooking, tweeting, youtubing, blogging and other social activities affect your bottom line?

To figure this out you must go deeper than just looking at what’s happening on your own social media turf. You need to analyze data from the larger social media ecosystem.

But try to sort out the various social media analytics offerings on the market today and you’ll find each platform is so distinct you can’t make an apples to apples comparison. Certain tools are fine for basic PR analysis but they may not do much in terms of in-depth market research.

One way to help decide which tool best suits your needs is to read Marshall Sponder’s Social Media Analytics. It goes under the hoods of major platforms as well as offers insights about challenges within the industry.

Marshall and I recently had a long conversation, and clearly, this man has a passion for his subject matter. We discussed a range of issues that affect social media analytics. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Interview with Marshall Sponder: Web Metrics Guru

There are numerous books and blog posts about social media analytics; how is your book different from what’s already out there?

Marshall: It’s not a how-to book. It’s more a book about the industry, and then it’s a book by someone inside the industry who’s talking about the problems the industry has.

Also it’s a book about making choices, which are difficult for people to make if they don’t have the information to make it. The other books out there don’t really do that.

Of course, the social media analytics industry is evolving.  Even if you decide on a tool today, you have to keep on top of what’s new, because things change pretty fast. Correct?

Marshall: The tools are changing. They are getting a lot better. But one thing I was thinking about today is there’s a big disconnect about what these tools provide, the nature of the data, and the willingness of people to pay for it. Because other types of business intelligence data are usually really expensive… With social data it’s a little harder for people to understand what the value of it is.

It’s difficult for people to rationalize large investments in IT infrastructure and training and dashboard development when they don’t understand number one, why they need it and number two, they haven’t figured out a version of social success that makes sense. So they wouldn’t want to invest money into something that is so dynamic and changing.

With social data it’s impossible to capture everything. It’s a moving target… and it does take a lot of money to take this river of data and turn it into something that is useful to people.

I think we’re sort of getting past the question, is it worth it and getting to what do I need to do now to know how to choose and who do I hire? Do I hire myself or do I look for someone else to do it for me?

To someone who’s not in this business it’s hard to determine authentic points of differentiation between the platforms. There’s no consistency in terminology and it’s hard to know if the data that they can give you is going to be meaningful.

Marshall: What my book does, it blows open the whole question of do you even know which one to choose? … The [systems] are misrepresented by the vendors, and the agencies are out there trying to cost it out, and the client doesn’t know how to make a decision because they didn’t have the right information. Your ability to use this data has a lot to do with your sophistication to value and pay for it. That is something people haven’t considered in the social space.

In many instances social media falls under the purview of marketing. There may be other departments that are also involved, but marketing and PR are often the primary owners. But you argue that they’re not the right people to handle social media analytics.  

Marshall: The right people, in this environment, today, tend to be pure analysts with the platform. They’re often familiar names, and they often have the higher price tag, because they’re also the ones who can eliminate a lot of uncertainty: Nielson, Buzzmetrics, Brandtology, Synthesio, and Integrasco in the European market.

The reason they can do a lot better is they control their own data culling. They also have customized platforms. I’m not saying that’s the total answer but for a discriminating sophisticated client they’re often cheaper in the long run. They’re cheaper because what you’re getting is clean data, a trained analyst and a customized dashboard… The communications people should really focus on communications and let the market research be done by somebody else. That’s my fundamental belief.

It can be tough to a parse it out, so much depends on your specific business use case.

Marshall: That’s why you need someone like me. If you think about, let’s say you have a legal case, well then you hire a lawyer. If you have a database implementation, you hire a data architect team.

Do you think you want to start making these kinds of decisions off the cuff, or do you want to have someone that really understands and can figure out and can work through what you really want to know and can tell you how to do it?

In the book you talk about ultraviolet data and ultraviolet activity. Can you explain what you mean by those terms?

Marshall: There’s a ton of information out there but we may not be able to gather it. There can be 500 people at a conference and a lot of them may have Twitter handles, but if you didn’t collect that information you might not know everybody there who’s tweeting.

A restaurant have a lot of people checking in [with a location-based app] but it would be hard to qualify the value of that, because unless you’re tracking all those people and their friends and how much they buy on a tab, and unless you incentivize people who work at the restaurant to reach out to people who check in and open up a tab; in other words you have a business process, which is linked to the measurement process; if you don’t have those two linked, you can’t really measure what’s happening.

The ultraviolet means that data was there. The people came in and they checked in and they spent $50 or $100 and some of their friends came in, but you don’t have any way of tracking it, because you have no business process or collection methodology to get the data into something you can perform discreet metrics on.

How is that different from me seeing an ad and my buying a car based on the ad. You can’t track that, either.

Marshall: But people were willing to accept that. You can have an ad in a magazine and the magazine will say I’ve got 3 million people reading my magazine, Here’s my rates. You’ve accepted that, there’s no way to know who saw your ad. But with digital media, one was always told everything is measureable.

I think the difference is because it’s digital, because it’s online, someone should be tracking that…The assumption always was the web created a closed feedback loop so that you could measure it. So the thing is, there are massive reams of data out there, but the devices to capture it and assemble it and then use it as a marketing formula haven’t really been assembled.

And the people who are doing it right probably aren’t talking about it. The people in Las Vegas know. From the minute you land, they’re tracking everything. There are businesses out there that have probably figured out the ROI riddle, but they’re the last people in the world who want to talk about it.

Another thing you talk about is the integration of social media analytics with other types of business analytics, including search engine optimization and web analytics. You feel that’s the next wave.

Marshall: That’s beginning to happen, but even beyond that you need to have a measurement strategy. When you figure out what your business goals are, you then need to go back into your business processes. You may have to change something on the business side in order to get the measurement right. A lot of people have lost sight of that. They think you can just graft measurement on top of business, but in a lot of ways, just making subtle changes in the way people do something, or how they store their data, or some middleware they use to communicate with each other when some event needs to be tracked… in other words there has to be business tactics to support the measurement strategy.  You may have data gaps, and you may have a lot of data, but you can’t do anything about it unless you do additional operations on it.

This is an emerging field that requires research and knowledge. A lot of companies don’t realize all that’s involved.

Marshall: That’s why I say the full service platforms, that do the crawling, analyzing, the specialized dashboards, usually give you a better result because they’re limiting the amount of uncertainty involved and they have more control over the process. There are so many things out there that can make this process noisy and distracting. At this stage that we are today, when you use a do it yourself tool it’s kind of like you’re going out into the ocean without having a compass or know where you are going.

More from Marshall

Many thanks for Marshall for sharing his time and thoughts. If you’d like to stay current with what he’s up to, visit his blog WebMetricsGuru, follow him on Twitter.

So what do you think of Marshall’s views on social media analytics? Do you have your own insights on this topic? Please share your comments.

- Deni Kasrel


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