As a professor, I have the privilege of interacting with many executives across fields and countries. And, given my interest for social media, the conversation invariably turns to how brands and companies can leverage social media effectively. Almost always, I am asked about which platform to use, how make content viral or even how to create engagement.
This focus on what to do with social media—what I call proactive social media strategy—is indeed very important, as social media can be a very effective communication channel helping companies promote their products or services. At the same time, this focus often comes at the expense of another key way in which social media can be used. Systematically listening to and leveraging the billions of conversations consumers have about brands and everyday activities on social media platforms, or reactive social media strategy, concentrates less on actively mobilising social media channels and emphasises reacting to existing content.
How can companies take advantage of such massive amounts of data? Listening to big data can yield insights at three different levels of increasing scope.
The first level is the company level: Listening to conversations can provide real-time insights about the brand reputation (e.g. whether a brand is talked about positively or negatively; the extent to which a brand becomes associated with societal issues or potential challenges) and can thus inform managers about any short-term corrective action they might have to take to alleviate these challenges. To illustrate, a luxury company may find out that consumers might increasingly talk about counterfeits of the brand.
The second level is the competitor level: Listening to conversations about a brand and competitors can yield extremely useful insights on how a brand might differ from its competitors over time. For instance, consumers might increasingly use the same words when talking about two brands, reflecting potentially dangerous similarities between them.
The third and final level is the industry level: listening to conversations about how people talk about their activities might give insights into how an industry might change over the course of several years. To illustrate, car buyers might include more and more environmental concerns in their conversations, highlighting the importance of developing green cars.
To be effective, social media strategies need to be decided and integrated across functions in the company. In a recent successful integration of social media listening, l’Oreal Paris uncovered a mounting interest for a new hairstyle over the course of several months. Both quantitative insights (increase of search amount on Google trends) and qualitative insights (increase in consumer-made videos on YouTube) confirmed the trend. The management team communicated this information to both the marketing team, who designed a segmentation and targeting plan, and to the research and product development team, who designed a product that would respond to the trend identified.
How does one listen to customers online? A number of social media listening tools, from Digimind and Branthology to Radian 6, offer the means to track what people do online. While these companies might differ in their ability to extensively incorporate data sources, or the level of advice in designing the listening strategy, two features are particularly important to any social listening project: firstly, the company should carefully define the listening goal(s) so that it listens to the “right” platforms and the “right” customers.
For some projects, listening to Twitter might be more relevant but for others, Facebook or LinkedIn might make more sense. Secondly, the company should make sure to back up any insight or trend observed on social media with additional data to confirm or contradict the trend. Once a topic of conversation has been identified, the company should seek confirmation from search data (eg Google Trends). That is, if there is real interest in a new topic, more and more people should be searching for it.
Overall, the most successful social-media strategies are those that are both reactive and proactive, and dynamically combine these approaches. When skilfully conducted, social-media listening can deliver key insights about one's company, one's competitors and the future of one’s industry. This can result not only in a brand staying in tune with its customers, but also in spotting early trends that might transform a company’s future success and ensure sustained growth.
David Dubois is assistant professor of marketing at INSEAD