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Insight/ Online Media

Tip Of The Social Data Iceberg

by Erik Sherman
Contributing Writer
CMO.com

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Now that’s the spirit: During a six-week period this past holiday season, a single emailed Christmas gift guide promotion from Kirkland's Inc. doubled recipients’ dollars per transaction over average performance in its 300 stores across 29 states. That added $8.7 million in incremental sales and $4.6 in incremental margin, while capturing 330,000 new email addresses--gold for the retailer, which stopped conventional direct mail. So what made the campaign such a winner for the Nashville-based home décor retail chain?

It listened to social media.

Kirkland's Facebook page and the MyKirklands.com community site taught the company more than it could have ever guessed about its business and practices. Monitoring customer remarks, Kirkland's learned how to avoid a hitch in its sales process that suppressed results in a previous email coupon promotion. And customer suggestions in September actually drove item choice for the gift guide. "We get a lot of feedback from our customers through social media that helps develop [email] promotions going forward, as well as promotions in the store," said marketing vice president Mark Krebs, in an interview with CMO.com. Feedback on promotions, coupons, and collateral also led to two 2010 campaigns that together netted 390,000 new email addresses.

Many companies see social media merely as channels to talk to customers and respond to the stray complaint. Maybe they track volumes of posts mentioning their brands and the associated sentiments. And yet Twitter, Facebook, discussion forums, YouTube, blogs, and other platforms offer far more than what most are mining their data for. For example, these tools can be used to spot trends, follow chains of influence, analyze comments, and uncover important consumer associations. A growing number of savvy CMOs and their teams realize what’s at their fingertips. For those just starting to grasp the possibilities, here’s what you should know.

Perfectly Imperfect Data
In theory, social network data should be suspect. Participants are self-selecting--not random samples of the population, and most active comments come from a small portion of users. According to social media monitoring vendor Sysomos, in 2010, 22.5 percent of Twitter users accounted for 90 percent of all its activity.

However, this is business, not theory. "It's hard to ignore if you're crawling the Web and looking at 50 million opinions on one topic and you're seeing trends," said DeeDee Gordon, president of innovation at Sterling Brands, an OmniCom-owned consultancy that counts MTV, Time Inc., Royal Caribbean, Coach, and Visa as clients. "You want to talk to the people who matter--the people who use your product and are passionate about your product."

Like many companies, Vienna, Va.-based marketing automation software vendor Eloqua uses Net Promoter scores—a customer loyalty measure—as a critical business metric. "Ninety percent of our revenue comes from existing customers," director of content marketing Joe Chernov told CMO.com. "As a whole, customers that engaged with us on social media have a 450 percent higher Net Promoter score than our average customers." Any trend among them is, by definition, significant.

Furthermore, people active on social media might influence others and outweigh those who are less vocal. Insights can be startling. Gordon told CMO.com that companies in the music industry can find performers whose fans and followers are "statistically in line" with established acts. That type of information can help a label identify a potential future act. Or a company like Starbucks can identify up-and-coming artists mentioned most often with the brand and then use the information to help reach potential customers and choose music that sell well in the stores.

Next: Mining associations for better marketing.

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At its most dramatic, trends spotted in social media can have an enormous impact on entire business strategies. For example, recent online buzz about consumers not wanting too many ingredients in their food started to panic food companies, according to Mark Langsfeld, CEO of Fort Washington, Penn., social market research and analytics firm ListenLogic. "Everyone on the Web is saying they want no more than five ingredients [in foods]," Langsfeld said. "We don't know why. The food companies are freaking out."

At issue? The five-ingredient rule would force exclusion of many preservatives, so products quickly go bad on shelves. But early warning gives manufacturers additional time to consider reformulations and to gauge the potential impact. For example, how closely does the five-ingredient crowd correspond with a company's core markets? Observing correlations can help deliver the answer.  

Trends in social media can also indicate the health of a marketing campaign. Eloqua, for example, wanted to establish a new category of software—revenue performance management—so it examined how often people on social media mentioned its brand with the term "revenue," versus a major competitor. Although Eloqua had intensely blogged and created videos, its competitor had twice the mentions. That real-time trend convinced the company to switch SEO firms and ramp up its content creation. In one quarter, its search results pulled even.

Online bank and brokerage ING Direct USA, headquartered in Philadelphia, uses social networks to make informed media buys. Placing TV ads is competitive because advertisers and programmers focus on similar demographics, John Owens, ING Direct’s head of marketing, told CMO.com. Any edge helps, so ING Direct focuses on shows that get social media attention because, he said, engaged viewers are more likely to see and remember ads.

"If you get 70 to 80 percent of your spend in the right places and can beat the other guys on the last 20 percent, you're going to do well," Owens said.

Data Dumps
Suffice to say, no single social network will provide everything you need. "We don't pull it from any one data source," said Lisa Dreher, vice president of marketing and business development for the Farmington Hills, Mich.-based U.S. division of IT services company Logicalis Group. The company uses a tool that consolidates conversations from different social networks and combines it with profile data to identify the most appropriate people.

Sometimes, however, getting to the information is easy. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn all have programming interfaces for extracting raw data. In addition, third-party services exist that process data and make it accessible. However, for some types of social media, like blogs, turning what you collect into something useful can be difficult and time-consuming. Matthew Russell, vice president of engineering at data analysis tool vendor Digital Reasoning and author of Mining the Social Web, told CMO.com he has seen cases where only 0.2 percent of blog data was actually the English text that mattered. The rest was programming code and boilerplate content.

In addition, the information you get can mislead. For example, a person might write a sarcastic or ironic note about a product. How does a computer detect that linguistic subtlety when automating a sentiment analysis?

Unfortunately, too few companies actually ask questions about their data. "The big mistake people make today is that they don't ask, 'Why?'" ListenLogic's Langsfeld said. "The Web is live, so your company has to become live in the way it thinks about analysis."

"Getting the data is not the problem. Doing something insightful with the data is the tricky part," added Tim McMullen, executive creative director at Nashville integrated advertising agency redpepper, which works with Kirkland's on its social media analysis.

Insight means connecting marketing activities and data with business metrics and needs. "You'd be surprised how many companies manage big, gigantic marketing decisions based on feel of what's happening to the business, not direct correlation," McMullen said.

He uses the analogy of following someone's footprints in the snow. The farther ahead the person, the less you know about specific behavior. Perhaps a mile down the way the individual you track fell. "They just led you off a cliff because you weren't looking at the bigger picture," he said.

Part of a solution is for companies to be flexible in how they approach the data they analyze. Hold as much as 20 percent of a campaign budget aside, and you may have the resources to address rapid unanticipated changes and opportunities.

Another part is to look at data in context. "You'd be surprised how many people would freak out and stop a promotion because less than 5 percent [of the audience] complained about some aspect of the promotion," McMullen said. "But if a 95 percent success rate was happening, would we stop what we were doing?"

That's one reason why Kirkland's has been successful. It analyzes social networking data and compares it to store traffic, number of transactions, conversions, and ADT. Now it’s using the data to convert once-a-year holiday gift buyers into more frequent purchasers. "We kicked off a marketing campaign after the first of the year to hopefully have those customers shop in more than the fourth quarter," said Krebs, whose thoughts are now turned toward Mother's Day.

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