How social listening can power your product development

6th Jul 2015

Over the last 18 months or so, the market for social media monitoring tools has started to mature and move into the early mainstream. This has in turn led to a proliferation of deployments, with organisations putting social listening tools to good use in a number of different applications.

On the one hand, according to Jennifer Sussin, a research director at Gartner, adoption has now started to move beyond the traditional social media fan base of retail and consumer packaged goods into sectors such as government, healthcare and financial services.

But on the other, as companies become more sophisticated in their approach to such offerings, they have likewise become more open to suggestion about different use cases – although these inevitably vary by organisation and sector.

This means that many are no longer simply monitoring online conversations around their own brand names, but are in some cases now using social listening tools to support new product and service development activities.

Their appeal in this context is that they can provide marketers with live access to unprompted consumer input from multiple social channels on everything from brand strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to wider cultural and industry trends.

The latter can prove particularly useful because, by exploring what customers talk about besides your brand, it may be possible to spot certain patterns and links such as coffee drinkers love to talk about dogs. This find could, in turn, help to generate new product development ideas or lead to profitable new brand partnerships.

But the analytics functionality included in social listening tools also makes it possible to filter data in terms of geography, demographics and even sentiment - although the latter is far from an exact science.

Product development insights

Such filtering can prove especially profitable in identifying key influencers and product advocates, who may be persuaded to take part in pilot programmes, online testing activities or even product launches.

A good example of such theory in action is Procter & Gamble’s Super Savvy Me online portal, says Alexei Lee, head of social media and promotion at marketing agency Strategy Digital. The site encourages consumers to participate in product trials and promotions and encourages stickiness by enabling them to access related health and beauty content from guest contributors, blogs and forums. These are subsequently monitored by the brand, which picks up on trends and preferences it can then factor into its product development.

Another key advantage of analysing social conversations, meanwhile, is that you can explore large volumes of qualitative data in real-time in order to spot trends in how audiences perceive your brand and products – or those of rivals.

For example, you can use social listening applications to track what kind of content works best for them when attempting to engage their audience, or how wide and deep their reach is. You can also use common gripes about specific product features, or the lack of them, to inform your own product or service development.

On the other hand, social listening tools can also help you find out more about your own customer requirements as well as discover new applications to which your own products or services are being put in the field, in ways that could be built on.

As Strategy Digital’s Lee points out: “This kind of insight is invaluable when it comes to product development - especially in the software industry – to marketing strategy, research and development, or even product range diversification.”

As an example of how social listening can positively help to inform product strategy, he cites Wispa, which Cadbury relaunched for a limited time in 2007 following pressure from a Facebook campaign, before bringing the chocolate bar back into full circulation a year later.

Another instance is Blackthorn Cider, which agreed to reverse a change to the taste of its drink after a social media backlash from its core customer base in the West Country based around complaints that the move pandered to Londoners and had turned it into an alcopop.

Optimising usage

But, as with any tools, there are certain considerations that must be born in mind if you want to get the most out of them.

For starters, says Brían Taylor, digital managing director at digital marketing services provider Jaywing, “the key to unlocking value from listening tools is to create advanced query strings” rather than undertake broad-brush searches. Otherwise the danger is that the huge quantity of information produced makes it almost impossible to find what you are looking for amongst the “more generic noise”.

“Few brands have unlimited resource and the temptation to listen to everyone on social can be strong,” Taylor warns. So if, for example, a drinks brand is keen to discover summer events to target, it will quickly find that simply listening into brand names or lunch associations inevitably generates a “meaningless word cloud”.

Instead, the secret is to narrow the search down to understand common components of a summer picnic or family brunch in a bid to unlock new trends, consumption times, patterns or combinations that could prove useful to product developers.

Another consideration is not just listening to what is being said, but also to what is not, because it could signify a gap in the market. Taylor explains: “Marketers should look at this ‘negative space’ and ask themselves if there are certain topics that no brands are owning but are fighting for a share of in a crowded marketplace? Ultimately an absence can be just as informative as what is already there.”

But it is also worth bearing in mind that, while one of the core strengths of social media is the speed with which feedback can be gained, it is also one of its weaknesses.

One tool in the toolbox

Carly Donovan, manager of design and development agency Deloitte Digital, explains: “There’s a bit of a debate going on at the moment as to the accuracy of social listening. The idea is that, if you’re getting feedback from people immediately, it might generate other comments in a similar vein. So it may not accurately reflect the majority of your customer base - it could just be a relatively small pool that appears larger than it is.”

As a result, she recommends always using such tools in conjunction with feedback from other channels and more traditional market research activity. “It’s just one tool in the toolbox and shouldn’t be relied on for everything,” Donovan says.

A further point to think about carefully is what processes need to be put in place to ensure that social media data sets are not treated in isolation but are integrated with information from other channels.

Gartner’s Sussin explains: “Social media is often dealt with by digital or innovation teams that are separate from marketing or customer services teams. But the danger is that if you look at data sets in silos and draw conclusions from that, they’re not necessarily very valid.”

This challenge extends to putting effective two-way processes in place for sharing relevant information with other parts of the organisation such as marketing, product development and sales, as well as for garnering their feedback.

But as Lee says, while social listening tools can be “hugely beneficial” for gaining consumer and product-related insights, a key problem is that they simply do not provide “as much control over data quality and method as other more traditional approaches to audience research” such as focus groups, testing and surveying.

Therefore at this point in time at least, he concludes, they should really only be used as a means to “support rather than replace thorough product research and development practice”. 

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