Posted by  Ruby  Published on  23 Jan 2015
  • Data Strategy

When people talk about social media in business, they tend to talk about its potential as a marketing tool. Otherwise, when it’s applied internally, it’s seen as a way for HR and the rest of the executive team to improve collaboration, innovation and engagement among employees.

Yet, it is also a major benefit to product managers and product developers.

Social media creates the biggest focus group in the world, significant because it captures actual behaviour rather than opinion. It is able to pull together unfettered comment about products and services from customers about what they really think, both good and bad.  And it’s the bad that’s the ‘good’ bit.

The ability to be able to listen, respond and fix a problem is a powerful tool in organisations’ quest for product or service supremacy.  It enables organisations to solve a problem that has dogged them for years: how can you quickly work out when something is wrong and put it right, before you’ve lost your customer goodwill along with their pounds, euros or dollars?

There are a welter of tools out there to help monitor social media activity and that number is growing daily, but there’s still some work to do to gain the true worth of social media and apply it to enhancing existing products and services. But the benefits are obvious and enticing: the better and faster the information you have, the better the decision you make and ultimately the more money you’ll make.

Everything we do online has a possible value: every search, every blog, tweet or product review. It can give evidence and confidence to back some complex or risky decisions.

Of course, there are some challenges to watch out for.

Firstly, there’s the silo effect. Yes, there are lots of social media tools, but the danger is that these are applied separately to a specific channel or to a different department. Only by integrating all the product data available from internal and external sources through analytics will you be able to build up a coherent picture of customer attitudes.

There’s also the problem of knowing what to do with the data once you’ve collected it, because it’s only by analysing and interpreting that data that any value is released.  More data does mean more complexity and you have to work at it to unleash a return on investment.

An article a while back by Wim Westera, a professor of digital media at the Open University of The Netherlands, also pointed out some interesting things to watch out for. He says that although evidence is growing that it’s not just the digital natives who are social media junkies, there is likely to be a bias – if you are looking at Facebook or Twitter for example, there is probably going to be more people in their twenties and thirties. You also need to acknowledge that you are doing the equivalent of listening into a conversation on the top of the bus in some cases. It’s gossip. And we all know how unreliable that can be.

Thirdly, this form of communication is without context. People fire off tweets or comments without thinking about it. There are superficial one-liners. One of the greatest benefits of social media is that it helps us get closer to customers and what makes them tick. But Wenders warns that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that this is a true picture of the customer – it’s not a complete picture. And, for some people, adopting different persona online is part of the attraction of the internet, all messing with the idea of marketers’ target groups.

Most social media users are aware that their data is being traced, and some may deliberately behave in unexpected ways.

While most of us surely cannot be bothered to employ any of these tactics, what it does highlight is that useful tool as it is, the internet and social media don’t tell the whole and complete truth. For a complete picture you need to combine your social media analytics with your traditional offline data.

For social media analytics to be successfully applied and inform product development and enhancement, it’s important to strip away the internal politics. Marketing (or any other department) doesn’t own the social media analytics. It needs to be shared between departments and relevant people. And that means product development, customer service and marketing need to be talking together from the outset.

Focus is also important. There’s a danger you could be swamped by data, stymieing any action. It’s key to decide upfront what the main business imperatives are rather than a scattergun approach collecting every mention of your organisation.

There’s no doubt that social media analytics can play a key role for spotting faults in existing products and for pinpointing future product enhancement and opportunities. It’s vital for companies to listen and respond to what’s happening in social media. But it is only part of the story.