With more than $200 billion in spending power and opinion leadership positions in many product segments, Millennials are increasingly using social media to communicate to companies about the products or services they buy. Savvy companies have taken notice, and they have implemented social media marketing strategies that enable them to engage with their customers, prospects, and even competitors on social media.

As important as such direct communications are, there are other social media conversations—those among consumers—that are nearly invisible to companies but are infinitely more insightful and actionable.

On Twitter alone, just 3% of the tweets that mention brands or companies use company identifiers. The other 97% can fly under corporate radar, never to be seen or acted upon.

Companies that mine that hidden world of social media chatter gain invaluable market intelligence into consumer opinion of their brands and competitors. Social media listening also identifies sales prospects, brand advocates, and detractors that never engage directly with the company.

But how is a social media listening process designed and implemented? It's not uncommon for some brands to garner literally hundreds of mentions per hour on social media, so diligence is required to monitor, sort, route, aggregate, and engage messages.

Casting the Net Over Open Water

Considering the vast quantity of content produced each minute on social media, isolating relevant messages is daunting. Fortunately, filtering software can monitor selected channels automatically.

However, such programs are useful only when marketers understand the best approaches to implementing them effectively. Setting too many keywords or vague terms yields chaotic results. Instead, think like a successful fisherman who selects the net with the optimized mesh size to catch the most profitable fish while allowing smaller species to slip through the gaps.

The biggest mistake to avoid is trying to do too much, too fast. Instead of searching for every possible relevant term, stick to company and brand identifiers; then add competing products and industry terms until the software returns enough results to yield intelligence, but not so many that they cannot be processed.

Elimination filters can be as useful as selection filters. For example, it is almost always recommended to automatically eliminate any messages that contain profanity. Over time, other keywords that are indicative of irrelevant messages will come to light and, as soon as they are discovered, should be added to elimination filters.

Triage and Routing

Once relevant messages are identified by social media software, they must be triaged so they can be routed to the most appropriate responder. Before implementing a triage process, however, define message categories that correlate to specific areas of focus.

Categories will vary depending on the goals and the intricacies of the company, its products, and stakeholders. Examples of categories to consider are advocates, detractors, education seekers, support seekers, and sales prospects.

Categorizing and routing messages accurately relies on expertise in the nuances of each social media channel and careful consideration of the psychology and goal of the original writer. That facet is unlikely to be automated any time soon; it can be achieved only by a team of trained professionals. Technically savvy marketers who are intimately familiar with company's products, consumer behavior, and social media communities are necessary to successfully triage messages.

Routing a message to the correct responder can get tricky when motivations are unclear. An angry message that seems to originate from a detractor may in reality be a frustrated request for technical support in disguise. Similarly, a question on compatibility may be an immediate sales prospect, call for support, or the beginnings of a brand advocate.

Appropriate routing isn't always clear, and that's why there is no substitute for a professional triage team. Many companies choose to outsource that function to companies specializing in social media listening for faster ramp-up and easier scalability.

First Responders' Filling the Sales Funnel

Who is the best person to respond to social media messages? Naturally, that depends on the nature of the message. Technical support questions need to be answered by support experts, and sales questions by qualified salespeople.

The biggest mistake companies make in responding to social media messages is hiring "social media experts." Though understanding the space is important, what's more important is expertise in dealing with people and identifying opportunities.

The first goal of responding to relevant messages is to solve the problem at hand or provide motivation to continue championing the brand. The end game, however, is to drive sales.

Regardless of what a responder says to a consumer, the question driving the interaction should be, "How can I move this person further into the sales funnel?" When SaaS or other products involving recurring revenue models are involved, keeping the customer actively within the pipeline is the goal.

That requires skill, expertise, and intuition—not just a familiarity with using social media. Handling prospects on social media also requires consideration of the norms and culture of each channel, but not at the expense of experience in customer service, sales, and technical know-how.

Aggregating the Marketplace of Ideas

The Internet at large is the ultimate platform for free speech, and social media is the benefactor of the unfiltered expression cultivated by Usenet, Internet Relay Chat, and Web forums. That culture has created an unprecedented level of candor among consumers for expressing themselves; marketers are unlikely to duplicate such candor in controlled studies.

As a result, social media offers the most unfiltered window into consumer perceptions, attitudes, and desires available.

Although the immediate goal of social media responders is to engage consumers on an individual level, they must absolutely catalog and quantify as many aspects of their interactions as possible. The wealth of unfiltered information is there for the taking—but only to those who take the time to capture and collate it. A wide variety of software is available to complete that task, but the key is to train responders to log it so researchers can mine it.

Once the market's heartbeat is mapped, it can be used to guide almost every component of operations. New-product design, available features, pricing, timing, even positioning and branding are all improved when advised by the market's perceptions and attitudes.

The path to unprecedented success is paved with actions known to resonate with consumers, and that knowledge is sitting on the social media vine, just waiting to be picked.

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image of Marcel Florez

Marcel Florez is senior vice-president at N3, where he oversees worldwide social media listening and Cloud sales teams supporting some of the largest technology companies in the world.

LinkedIn: Marcel Florez