Social media networks are increasingly being touted as a rich source of potentially valuable business information – primarily by providers of analytics tools designed to help firms mine this particular seam of data.
From technology giants like IBM, Google and Salesforce.com to more niche players like Hootsuite, Buffer or Brandwatch, there is no shortage of vendors out there trying to persuade businesses to base their social media analysis strategies on their wares. But the question is: are businesses buying it?
Mike Coshott, director of customer insight at DIY and home improvement retailer B&Q, has had many vendors come to him to pitch their social media solutions, and so far he hasn’t been impressed.
“We’ve not had enough confidence in the people who use social media and understand it. It depends on the business objectives, and using data to solve a specific problem, [with social media] we don’t know if we are going to get a solution,” he told delegates at the British Retail Consortium’s Customer Insight Conference 2014.
Gartner analyst Carol Rozwell said that Coshott’s views chime with Gartner’s own research, which suggests that many businesses are using analytics in the wrong way.
“I have spoken with a number of people that view analytics as a bit of magic, rather than a tool that can be useful depending on knowing the decisions you have to make,” she said.
Like Coshott, Caroline Pollard, customer strategy and insight analyst at Debenhams, remains unconvinced as to the value of social media analytics.
“At Debenhams, our [board] wants numbers, figures and concrete data, and there is not a lot of buy-in to get data on what customers ‘feel’ about the company,” she explained.
A Debenhams spokesman told Computing that the retailer does analyse social media, but that it does not use agencies that “scrape social media sites to find out key themes that people are saying about us, and whether they are positive or negative”.
He added that “this computer-generated scraping often doesn’t give a clear picture”, and that Debenhams instead prefers to use internal staff to track, analyse and measure customer sentiment on Facebook and Twitter.
Rozwell argued that social analytics tools do not remove the need for human input, but instead should be used to help staff narrow down their data searches.
“In the insurance industry, social analytics is used for fraud prevention; if someone has to find fraud and they are going through hundreds of records on a daily basis, you want them to focus on the ones that are suspicious, and analytics can help you get there,” she said.
The insurance industry is not alone in using social media analytics in this way. HMRC’s head of analytics, Mike Hainey, told Computing that the department is using its big data analytics system to trawl the internet, including social media, in a bid to find potential evidence of tax fraud that it can feed into its Connect data warehouse.
Media organisations are similarly trawling social media for their own ends. Financial Times CIO Christina Scott explained that social media has been hugely disruptive to news organisations like hers.
“We can listen to what people say about the FT and particular articles, and journalists, and feed sentiment analysis to customer service agents to gauge how happy they are, or the reasons a subscriber is looking to leave,” she said.
And Ruth Spencer, director of digital and loyalty at Boots UK, said that the firm tracks social media and sentiment in a bid to better understand its customers.
Rozwell believes that with so many different industries and business functions being able to tap into social media, responsibility for buy-in does not always lie with the CIO.
“I would not blame the CIO for any misunderstandings [about implementing social analytics tools]; if you’re looking at risk mitigation that might be a deployment you see in corporate communications, PR or security [as opposed to IT], while the first uses of social analytics were in marketing,” she said.
Recruiters believe demand for social media analysts will rise in 2014 as more firms try to gain business insight from consumers’ online interactions.
“Traditionally, our vacancies for social media roles have asked for people with marketing or communications backgrounds, but we expect 2014 will be the year we see uplift in those that demand strong data analysis skills to crunch the numbers,” said Richard Nott, website director at CWJobs.