Concerns over social media monitoring have once again come to the fore following an alarmist response in a UK daily newspaper to the news that Twitter is opening up its archives to businesses. Are the concerns justified?
The UK newspaper The Daily Mail has some ‘previous’ when it comes to alarmist articles targeting social media. Its infamous feature, How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer, marked a particular low point in coverage of the emerging platforms and technology.
And 18 months ago, it responded to growing corporate interest in social media monitoring by penning the similarly sensationalist, How 'BT Sarah' spies on your Facebook account: secret new software allows BT and other firms to trawl internet looking for disgruntled customers.
So in some senses it’s little surprise that last week’s news that Twitter would be opening up its archives to businesses to mine for data, would be met with a similarly kneejerk response. But is there a ring of truth in its accusations? Should brands be wary of using social media monitoring?
In its article Twitter secrets for sale: Privacy row as every tweet for last two years is bought up by data firm, the Daily Mail voices privacy fears surrounding the partnership between DataSift and Twitter, and is critical of Twitter for allowing businesses to buy archived tweets.
DataSift’s Historics monitoring software allows brands to extract insights and trends from over two years’ worth of tweets, whereas traditionally existing monitoring tools could only provide brands with 30 days’ tweet history to view. Businesses using the platform can now also view additional data surrounding tweets, such as sentiment, topics and location, as well as use the data to target influential users.
With the increasing trend of users taking to Twitter and Facebook to gripe about brand experiences, as well as the appeal of access to unfettered, genuine customer feedback, businesses are increasingly utilising social media monitoring tools to gauge sentiment and, if necessary, respond to boost levels of customer care. As such, DataSift’s proposition is likely to prove extremely popular.
However, as first company in the EU able to offer access to two years’ worth of archived tweets, it has also come under fire from the Daily Mail and a number of privacy groups. The watchdog group Privacy International told the paper: “People have used Twitter to communicate with friends and networks in the belief that their tweets will quickly disappear into the ether.
“The fact that two years’ worth of tweets can now be mined for information and the resulting ‘insights’ sold to businesses is a radical shift in the wrong direction. Twitter has turned a social network that was meant to promote global conversation into a vast market-research enterprise with unwilling, unpaid participants.”
Graham Cluley from security firm Sophos added: “The news will surprise some. Twitter has found another way to monetise its service, having partnered with a firm which will make it simple for market researchers working for big companies to search and analyse the last two years of your Twitter updates. You thought that tweets you posted months ago had vanished, or were simply hidden away so deeply and awkwardly on the Twitter website that they would be too difficult to uncover? Think again.”
When the Daily Mail originally posted its story about social media monitoring two years ago , the tool was still in its relative infancy.
Commenting at the time Linda Weatherhead, spokeswoman for Consumer Focus, said: "Consumers are extremely concerned about how their personal data is collected online and they need clear information about how to keep it private. If people’s online activity is being monitored they should be told and no information should be collected without a person’s consent. Websites need to make it clear to people what information about them is being collected, what it will be used for and who it will be given to."
Now it is an increasingly common practice, (incidentally even the Daily Mail itself using all manner of monitoring technologies).
Indeed, Justin Bowser, head of online business at HTK, believes that customers are now more au fait with social privacy rules. He says: “The data privacy concerns surrounding Facebook throughout 2011 and Google’s very recent data privacy changes have firstly shown people that information shared on social media services isn’t really that private but have also demonstrated how simply they can manage their own data – it’s pretty straightforward to set a Twitter profile as ‘Private’ if you want to.”
Andreas Pouros, COO at Greenlight, believes that there is nothing immoral about the practices of Twitter. “They collect it and their computer systems use that data to improve and provide the consumer with a better user experience, such as more relevant ads in Google,” he suggests. “In all the cases we are aware of, the personal data remains personal as it is only visible to automate the decisions of the computer systems and are never shown to actual people including staff of these companies and third parties. This is also nothing new, and has been happening for years both on and offline (such as with credit cards, club cards and now Oyster cards).”
Hal Stokes from Essence agrees that the issue is a storm in a teacup. He says: “Older users are adopting the views of the younger ones who have grown up with a culture of online openness, which is only increasing. In reality, most users are unaware of the debate and realities of how online privacy affects them. I can't see that there's much Twitter or anyone else could do in terms of privacy that would stop the masses from using it.”
Damaging to businesses
So will the negative press surrounding the story force businesses to abandon their social monitoring activities? Nathan Murphy from media monitoring company Repskan certainly isn’t concerned. “Businesses generally use social media monitoring to listen or engage with their customers or to help understand how effective marketing campaigns have been. This benefits both the customer and the company as this data enables them to deliver better service, products more in tune with their customers and help ensure their advertising campaigns reach only the people who are interested in what they have to say and improve the value exchange that they deliver.”
While there will undoubtedly still be some consumers disconcerted by the use of monitoring tools – even though the vast majority have become accustomed to what is/isn’t private on the web – brands believe the benefits of monitoring the social web to identify potential issues far outweigh the risks.
Furthermore, Bowser believes the story brings a greater level of awareness that businesses are using social monitoring tools to improve their marketing and customer service efforts.
“The social business will become the norm through 2012 with more businesses realising that two-way social network conversations with customers (and really listening to what those customers are saying) can be invaluable,” he says. “Businesses not using social media monitoring really need to start now, or fall behind. I don’t see consumers complaining if businesses are using ‘publicly available’ information in smarter ways to target the right information and offers at the right time.”
Murphy doesn’t believe the issue is one that the public or businesses should worry about. “People using that data are more interested in understanding brands, perceptions or other insights they can extract from a large data-set. Allowing brands to access this historic data if anything reduces the personalisation of the data as the volume accessible is far greater than if companies used custom crawlers to analyse tweet information.”
He adds: “Businesses generally use social media monitoring to listen or engage with their customers or to help understand how effective marketing campaigns have been. This benefits both the customer and the company as this data enables them to deliver better service, products more in tune with their customers and help ensure their advertising campaigns reach only the people who are interested in what they have to say and improve the value exchange that they deliver.”