Online insight monitoring is not a silver bullet!

24th Jun 2011

Cutting through the hype surrounding online monitoring tools, such as social media monitoring, Flemming Madsen explains how to harness the potential of listening to online conversations.

With so much of the debate around markets and products now taking place online, marketers are increasingly relying on analysis of the online debate for insight. This is hardly surprising: by correctly analysing the online debate we can understand the extent of the imprint left in the minds of customers and stakeholders by various channels of marketing communications. However, there is an important element that needs to be considered in this analysis: influence.

Traditionally, consumer-focused market research has attributed equal weight or influence to all voices or respondents. This is not surprising, given that in the past, the assumption that everybody’s response is equally important was accepted when those being influenced by an individual were neighbours, friends, family or work colleagues. Today, it’s a whole different ball game. Write a review of a car, restaurant or baby food online and you could be impacting millions. The challenge is establishing whom and what really has influence.
Influence is a complex and dynamic area. Relying on what we think we know about key influencers is no longer appropriate. People often confuse popularity with influence, and one cannot be used to measure the other. Influence is important because when voices mentioning brands are adjusted for influence it is possible to correlate share-of-noise into share-of-market.
The different layers of stakeholders – and their influence
So how do companies harness the potential of ‘listening’ to online conversations? The answer lies in developing a real understanding of the impact of different online information sources:
  • Popularity - Popularity concerns how well known a source is. As humans we tend to overrate the importance and relevance of those we hear about all the time, and similarly underrate those with whom we are not so familiar.
  • Influence - We can define influence as the impact a source has on a particular issue, and a source does not have to be popular to be influential. It is who listens to the source that is significant and who they then impact, not how many listeners they have.
  • Relative influence - is the influence-to-popularity ratio of a source. The cost of engaging with a particular stakeholder is largely related to their popularity and hence a popular celebrity may significantly increase the cost of a campaign yet yield less success. On the other hand, it may be easier and more cost effective to engage with a less popular stakeholder with high relative influence – delivering a comparatively higher return on engagement than their popularity would lead us to believe possible.  
Influence is topical
Sources of influence will vary according to the topic under discussion. For example, someone who is a respected commentator on politics is not necessarily going to have the same degree of influence when talking about knitting. So it is important to make sure that the insight monitoring methodology or service being used gives different weighting according to the context or topic.
Measuring influence
I strongly believe that influence can be measured and that a scientific approach is vital: we humans tend to over-rate the influence and relevance of those with which we are most familiar, but gut-feelings do not stand up to close scrutiny.
For calculating influence, I suggest the input-output analysis technique invented by Nobel Prize-winning Wassily Leontief. This can be used to calculate the influential (and therefore, most important) voices as well as providing a weighting of influence to all other voices or stakeholders.
Understanding influence is crucial when using the online debate to predict business outcomes or the results of traditional polls, for example. By analysing changes in awareness and preferences among top influencers in a particular market, it is possible to predict a change of perception and purchasing attitudes among consumers due to the impact these influencers have. In other words, if more key influencers are talking about a product, then it follows that there will be an upturn in sales and equally the results of traditional consumer polls can be predicted as public opinions are largely formed by influencers.
Business outcome
This links neatly to the key question that I am often asked: "Once we’ve got this information, what do we do with it?" My advice is to keep it simple and start with what already exists. I recommend mapping insight monitoring against known key performance indicators (KPIs). For instance, one of our customers uses its online insight results as direct input into its monthly reporting to senior management, as well as seeing how it correlates against regular voice-of-the-customer surveys.
Measurement of specific market campaigns, customer satisfaction, and comparison against competitors are other examples. Ask other departments what intelligence they would like, but to which they may not currently have access. After all, there is little use in pointing out market trends to a department if they have no intention of utilising it, or if it does not map on to their specific focus or objectives.
Similarly, it is important that online insight monitoring is not an answer for everything. Sure, it provides a continuous ‘listening in’ of the online conversation, hearing what people are really saying rather than being prompted. But traditional market research is better at measuring the reaction to abstract or hypothetical ideas, or providing intimate, highly detailed information that interviews provide.
In reality, traditional research and online monitoring are likely to co-exist for a long time to come and the latter certainly provides the instant finger-on-the-pulse that so many companies want. However, without understanding the true nature of influence, then they may be limiting themselves to a fairly crude tool. The good news is that understanding influence is now very much possible.
Flemming Madsen is founder and executive chairman of OnalyticaFlemming established the company in 2004 with an initial focus on Social Network Analysis before shifting his attentions to the analysis of the online debate following an assignment with the UK Government’s COI.

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