Noise to Signal: how to develop business intelligence in social data and how to find the consumer voice

It’s easy for research and marketing executives to get excited about social media.  There is an overwhelming abundance of human conversation available online; comments, posts, tweets, blogs, message boards, reblogs, shares, retweets – ad infinitum, it’s an all you can eat buffet. If you’re a brand or marketer looking to increase revenue, this has to be a great place to look for insights, right?wtw_marketing_post_graphics_1

In response to the exponential growth of big data in marketing, companies are searching for the value of unstructured consumer conversation online. But there is a problem.  A big one, but it’s not an obvious one. The problem is that marketers have taken over the conversation online, it’s no longer truly the consumers driving it, thus we’re creating false positives.  

We are doing such a good job with our content marketing strategies that we can hardly hear the organic consumer anymore, and now we have to develop better ways to filter, identify and track that authentic consumer voice.

It’s true that there’s critical business intelligence in consumer online conversation – only if we can find it. Every day, we see the evidence of this chaotic tidal wave of written words, video and imagery; faced with the seemingly endless flow of data, we start to believe our own hype. We tell each other, “Much of what I need to know about my audience is right here. All I have to do is listen and I will know what product to make, what advertisements will work, what strategies will grow my brand.”  But that’s not true.

In order to better understand this, I sat down with John Eaton,SVP, Social Intelligence & Business Development at Ipsos SMX to better understand what data actually means beyond the marketing hype. Here’s what he had to say:

Fixing a Client’s Social Reputation

I remember in “early” social media days (circa 2007) selling the power of this new medium,  I’d say to clients,  “Look at all these consumers out here having a conversation about your brand. Some of this conversation is negative and not good for your business.  I’ve got the perfect solution for you – all you have to do is drown them out by pushing out enough neutral and positive sentiment messaging; you can own your share of voice, and by extension your search results too!” And it worked really well.  

Today, if a viral discussion starts popping up from somebody who dislikes a brand, we don’t fan the flames by arguing against it, we just talk about anything else. We talk about product packaging, the target audience’s favorite sports, top ten ingredients of trendy recipes. To get wider distribution we throw in sweepstakes and prizes. Before we know it, the original negative conversation is diluted and lost in a sea of brand-driven messaging. The company’s customers are much less likely to bump into the bad stuff online. Good idea, right?  I expect that most of the readers here are quite familiar with this.

And we’ve gotten really good at it. In fact, we’ve discovered that we can do more than publish content around specific events or crisis moments.  We’ve now decided that in order to grow and protect our brands, we have to talk, talk, talk all the time – constantly. Now we marketers punctuate our incessant flow of brand generated content with targeted bursts of promotional energy whenever there is a key event or problem. It’s like an arms race in a crowded flea market.  Imagine yourself in that crowd trying to buy a potato.

The World Cup

Take a look at the sheer volume of online brand-driven discussion during that year’s World Cup. There were over thirty major brands generating millions of posts, tweets, comments, and Instagram moments. The volume is not just from the brand output alone. Marketers work very hard to make their content shareable.  Social marketing success is measured on the reader’s response and engagement (how many people retweet, like, follow, reblog and share).


Types of Conversation in Social Channels

If you want to understand the consumer voice online, you have a daunting pile of noise to deal with. Social intelligence capabilities are improving, uncovering the “why” under the “what”, and we need to be able to separate consumer content from “Big Promo”.

The Scale of Useful Online Social Media Conversation

All of this mass of information is swirling around in social channels, vying for the attention of human beings who are online for their own reasons – maybe following the World Cup, or looking for the right shoe. With billions of people talking online, we make the assumption that there must be an endless supply of delightful insights from consumers. Right?

“As our analysis capabilities get better, we find the signal to noise ratio problem is worse than we thought.” –– John Eaton, SVP Intelligence, Ispos


The Right Data

The chart above shows that there’s a big problem, but it’s not as if there is an elephant in the room. As John points out, what’s depicted above is hard to see without knowing how to look for and at it. What’s more, it’s growth is outpacing what we thought was possible a few short years ago.

As marketers, we want to listen to the consumer, but we are talking so much we can’t hear them anymore. We need the right data. Social media research can uncover the real value of consumer discourse; where online social conversation links to business value.

Solutions are hard to find, the problem is so new. It might be interesting to develop category benchmark measures of an authenticity ratio – in essence, a measure of the strength of the “authentic consumer signal”. Social media research will soon deliver on the promise of this powerful feedback channel. In the meantime, for those of us looking for business intelligence in social data, finding the authentic consumer voice is harder than ever.