Hofer-Shall said he sees a "spectrum" of social media analytics products, with one axis being the contrast between self-service tools and full-service consultants. "Almost everyone is somewhere in between," he said.
Radian6, now a division of Salesforce.com, provides tools for running queries and creating monitoring dashboards. Radian6 is not necessarily the best tool in any of the categories it has entered, but it covers the broadest range of the basic scenarios, Hofer-Shall said.
At the other end of the spectrum, some of the more sophisticated market research services like Converseon include a heavy dose of consulting, where clients may be handed a bound or PDF-formatted report, including a human analyst's interpretation, on top of whatever the software may divine. The consulting operations may also provide a dashboard, but a customized one rather than a do-it-yourself kit.
Whether consulting services or software as a service, social media analytics are typically procured as services, often by marketing departments, and with little or no involvement from the enterprise technology organization. However, there are some emerging examples of how social data and enterprise data can be combined for more effective results, such as HP's correlation of social signals with sales and service metrics. CIOs who have not yet paid much attention to social media analytics, because of its outsourced nature, ought to at least be thinking through the possibilities.
"Is IT really involved? Definitely not. But they're starting to be involved a little bit," Hofer-Shall said.
Sponder, who previously was best known as an authority on Web metrics and search engine optimization, said he is no longer as interested in search, now that he sees the potential of social media analytics. "The Web is about what's being said all over the place, not necessarily inbound traffic to your website," he said.
However, the tools for social media analytics still have some growing up to do, he said. Many of them were designed for public relations and marketing people who merely wanted to extract a listing of brand and product mentions that they could scan manually.
"The marketing, PR, or communications user tends to want to look at things in an exploratory way," he said. "It's good to find out what people are saying out there, but it can't be scaled and can't be automated" when you take that approach, he said. "It's nice to know about buzz, but there is not anything you can do about it."
More sophisticated approaches to the problem apply natural language processing techniques, seeking to make computers understand the content of an article, or a tweet, or a comment, not just index it. Sentiment analysis technologies that score content as positive or negative are becoming common, but they are only the beginning of what is possible. One of the startups he finds interesting, Recorded Future, specializes in extracting references "next month" or "next week" or a date in the future so that posts can be tagged as relevant to an upcoming event, product release, or deadline, allowing its analysis to target things that haven't happened yet, where there might still be an opportunity to change the outcome.
"Any time you put another dimension into the data, you're improving it quite a bit," Sponder said.
Social media data has tremendous potential as a source of market intelligence, but it's also important to recognize its limitations. For example, one Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative study showed that social media data had a high correlation with offline word of mouth for the automotive industry, but for beauty products there was hardly any relationship.
"The use case may very well be industry dependent," Sponder said. "You may think you are listening to the voice of the customer, but you may just be listening to a couple of irate Twitter followers."
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