Web & communication software

How Savvy Firms Monitor Customers' Online Chatter

People react to the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes in one of three ways: Some hope that the next knock on the door will be a member of the company's Prize Patrol carrying a giant check; some think the whole thing is a joke; and others exploit its brand for scams.

Tracking the buzz from all three types -- and responding to it -- has grown ever more complex with the spiraling growth of social media, says Josh Glantz, vice president of Publishers Clearing House Online, the Internet arm of the company that claims to have awarded more than $200 million in prize money in the past 30 years.

In addition to a small, internal social media team that uses tools like Google Alerts, Glantz recently hired an interactive marketing company to provide a more thorough social media reputation management service. It provides him with reports and analysis of all of the chatter on blogs, microblogs, forums and chat rooms, as well video-sharing and social networking sites.

In just one month, Glantz says, these efforts uncovered 73 blog posts mentioning scammers who call people and pretend to be from the sweepstakes giant. "We look at social sentiment very aggressively, because we have a sensitive brand to protect," he says.

Monitoring, analyzing and responding to what consumers are saying on social media sites are no longer just activities for big-name companies. With consumers sharing their experiences through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other outlets at "the speed of thought," as Gartner Inc. analyst Toby Bell puts it, this is quickly becoming an essential piece of any company's risk management and customer engagement strategy.

Social media monitoring efforts usually start in marketing or public relations departments. But as they become more important and expand to other areas of the company, the IT department will need to play a role.

"These systems open up opportunities that cross organizational silos, and CIOs are in the right position to understand the technology layers and how the data should connect to the business strategy," says Nathan Gilliatt, principal at Social Target LLC, a research and consulting firm in Apex, N.C.

At a minimum, he says, IT leaders should understand the goals of social media monitoring and engagement initiatives. And as practices mature, they should help to combine social media analysis with data from other systems to gain new customer insights.

The clock is ticking

It's a big challenge not only to draw a bead on what's being said on social media, but also to figure out how to respond effectively -- and to do so within an increasingly compressed time span.

"Companies used to believe a 24-to-48-hour response time was sufficient, but the clock has been reset," Bell says. "If a customer service representative doesn't respond to someone complaining fairly quickly, it looks like I'm ignoring the customer."

"Response has to be in minutes," agrees Jeremiah Owyang, a partner at Altimeter Group, a San Mateo, Calif.-based consultancy. Think of celebrated incidents that brought Domino's Pizza and the makers of Motrin unwanted notoriety -- the former from an employee-made video that offered an unpleasant look at the way pizzas are made, and the latter with a short-lived ad campaign called "Motrin Moms" that some people found offensive.

Both companies waited more than 24 hours to respond to the chatter on social media, and that was enough time for the incidents to enter mainstream consciousness. "Tweets become blog posts, YouTube videos or articles," Owyang says. "Companies have to respond in real time."

If a savvy company sees a Twitter complaint about long wait times on the phone, it might immediately respond with an apology and offer the customer a discount on his next purchase.

"The risks of not being engaged grow as consumers test this with their favorite companies," Bell says. And whereas it once might have been enough to monitor, measure and react to specific situations, it's now imperative to engage proactively and frequently, he says.

Besides, companies that are on the leading edge of social media monitoring are putting pressure on those that thought they could fly under the radar, Bell says.

Consider these examples:

  • Comcast Corp. and Zappos.com are both known for engaging customers on Twitter, particularly with quick responses to complaints. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh now has 1 million Twitter followers, and Comcast's Frank Eliason (a.k.a. @comcastcares) is one of the best-known customer service representatives in the U.S.
  • Microsoft Corp. engages with millions of IT professionals on social media. Using monitoring technology from Visible Technologies Inc., Microsoft identifies 3,000 blog and forum posts per day and then narrows them down to 400 posts that are scored as negative, positive, mixed or neutral. After further review, the engagement team responds to 30 to 60 of the posts.
  • Southwest Airlines Co., well known for its Twitter communiqués to 1 million followers, uses software from Radian6 Technologies Inc. to track social media. That helped it quickly respond to the Twitter storm that arose when film director Kevin Smith complained via a tweet that he was forced off of a flight for being too fat.

Not just twitter search

The field of social media monitoring has quickly grown beyond simple tools such as Google Alerts and Twitter Search to encompass specialized digital marketing agencies and software-as-a-service offerings that provide analytics via a dashboard.

However, the allure of real-time consumer opinion and brand sentiment available on social media -- along with growing alarm over how quickly public opinion can turn against you online -- is leading companies to combine social media data with enterprise applications such as customer relationship management and business intelligence systems. As that happens, monitoring-service providers are adding hooks to enterprise applications.

"IT is just waking up to this," Owyang says. "They're realizing departments are deploying their own systems and doing their own thing, and the challenge is that customer data is being spread out in silos. IT is starting to realize it needs to step up and come to the table with an enterprise view."

Altimeter calls this "social CRM," which Owyang says comprises the following five fundamental processes:

  • Monitoring.
  • Mapping (linking social profiles to customer records).
  • Management (creating business rules and processes).
  • Middleware (enabling data to flow between systems and dashboards).
  • Measurement (using BI tools to identify trends, gauge sentiment and make predictions).

Suresh Vittal, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., argues that social monitoring platforms gather data but don't provide marketing insights. "Marketing teams need a process in place to interpret and analyze data and produce actionable insight," he wrote in a recent report. "This means sharing insights with all front-end and back-end systems like CRM, call centers and Web sites that influence customer interactions." While it's possible to share such insights manually, he wrote, "eventually marketers must budget for systems integration."

Vendors last year began integrating their social analysis platforms with CRM applications, particularly Salesforce.com, Gilliatt says. With those systems, users can create or update entries in the CRM application without leaving the social media analysis tool and send the information to customer support teams. The episode is captured in the customer record for future reference. Most of the platforms also offer APIs for custom integration with other software systems, Gilliatt says.

Recovering a fumble

DirecTV Inc. is a good example of a company that's integrating social media data throughout the organization. The company began investing in social platforms more than five years ago, says Charles Miller, director of digital care and social media strategy, and today it uses several monitoring tools. One is Visible Technologies' online monitoring platform, which, Miller says, converts qualitative comments into a quantitative structure to help measure consumer sentiment and identify trends.

Online monitoring has proved to be an early-warning system that allows DirecTV to respond to problems quickly. On the opening night of the 2009 college football season, Miller recalls, DirecTV's social media group noted chatter about the loss of a high-definition version of a popular sports channel. "Within two to three minutes of spotting this, we notified our broadcast team, who went into immediate channel-recovery mode," Miller says.

Through forums and other online venues, the team advised viewers to watch the standard version until HD could be restored. Simultaneously, it notified customer care representatives of the issue and the resolution. "When this was solved, we directed followers back to the HD channel," Miller says.

DirecTV's IT group integrates customers' social attributes into its CRM system so that data can be mined for insights later. "As CRM social integration deepens, IT will be more and more involved," Miller says.

Social media insights also influence product design. DirecTV's engineering team gets comments about beta offerings from its customer-run online community and incorporates those suggestions in the company's products, Miller says. "We have also built relationships with brand advocates and influencers," he says. For example, he adds, "sharing our mobile DVR scheduler with iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and Palm enthusiasts has been particularly effective in driving adoption rates and getting feedback on the [mobile] apps."

In the future, the key differentiator will be how organizations take what they learn from monitoring social media and share it with product managers, Miller says.

Gartner's Bell agrees. "Even companies that think they don't have a consumer-facing product will be surprised to know they're still being reviewed or reacted to," he says. "And if you [aren't] participating in that, it will have a negative effect."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

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