How to Find New Competitive Knowledge in Social Media
"Buzz volume" is one of the metrics offered by a new generation of social-media-based tools that are transforming the way corporations gather intelligence about customers and competitors. "Consumer sentiment" is another: You can now get a reading on how customers are feeling about your products or services, your customer service, or your prices.
By making use of social media's openness and users' willingness to discuss just about everything online, these tools open endless possibilities for social-media-aware companies to source, collect, analyze, and distribute what is now called social intelligence. But don't expect to be able to neatly fit those sources of information into your old intelligence-gathering process. They require new kinds of expertise and a new mind-set about data. They also require the company to actively engage clients and external experts in social-media conversations. Merely listening quietly and gathering information isn't enough anymore.
In the old days, corporate intelligence gathering meant painstakingly gleaning information from experts and competitors' reports, subscribing to expensive online data aggregators such as Factiva or Dialog, and scanning unstructured documents from the media. Analysts typically spent 80% of their time gathering information before they even began trying to make sense of it. Once the sense-making began, intelligence experts used standard, outdated methods such as SWOT analyses and created lengthy internal reports. Not a very fast process, and the results were rarely compelling for senior executives. Even after the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the combination of clunky tools and executives' low social-media literacy hampered companies from extracting valuable insights.
A number of companies, B2C and B2B alike, now realize the potential benefits of monitoring conversation flows from social networks. An illustration is Nestlé's new Digital Acceleration Team, which was announced last month.
Increasingly sophisticated tools and new research methods, which include mapping networks and rating users' influence, can make analysis of social media a powerful complement to what we call "static" data and traditional intelligence methods. For example, research by NM Incite shows how a major telecom company's recent analysis of more than 120 million blog entries, 10,000-plus discussion boards, and 90,000 Usenet groups, as well as CNET, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, revealed a number of insights, one of which was that in order to grow, the company would need to more thoroughly educate consumers about its technologies.
There are several ways in which a company's actions and thinking need to change as it starts drawing on the knowledge embedded in social technologies. Here are some suggestions to kick-start the initiative:
- Embed social-media intelligence analysts throughout the organization: To prevent analysts from leaning toward only those patterns of thinking that are deemed acceptable within specific functions, companies should embed analysts who understand social media across the organization in functions ranging from strategic planning and product development to R&D, customer service, and M&A planning — and not just in communications departments. The challenge for companies is immense as they need to rapidly increase the level of social literacy throughout the organization.
- Look for online "curators." Experts who collect and share "best of" resources on specific subjects are analogous to museum curators who carefully choose which pieces to display. In social media, curators do a good job of keeping track of people's conversations as they occur in online social spaces and quickly channeling that information, in some cases using tools such as Storify to distill conversations. For example, the World Economic Forum in Davos uses Storify to put together summaries of its events. Canadian financial cooperative Desjardins wanted to learn about new electronic currencies, so it tracked a UK community dedicated to crowdfunding and sought experts in Africa on mobile-payment practices. The company prefers such information-gathering methods to relying on market-research firms. If you can find the right set of curators to follow, you can reduce your reliance on searches of traditional databases and publications.
- Map it. Social tools enable analysts not only to find individual pieces of content, but also to link different types and sources of information. For example, by analyzing who interacts with whom, an organization can understand who the key influencers are and which relationships are important. Numerous social-intelligence tools allow analysts to create ever-changing maps that show where in the blogosphere, or the internet at large, a company can find the information and expertise it needs. Newsmap provides an interactive map that features, in real time, the news reported by the media globally. Maps not only highlight the main patterns, they also reveal weak signals. Decrypting weak signals may offer better strategic insights than the familiar patterns analyzed by traditional intelligence. Analysts can use maps to chart the ripple effects as information moves from user to user within and across companies.
- Micropublish. Intelligence reports are tricky. Ideally, they should be customized for each executive, but time constraints prohibit intelligence teams from meeting individual needs. They also tend to be dated by the time they arrive on decision makers' desks. New tools allow analysts to gather relevant information rapidly, even automatically, and package and distribute it in the form of micropublications. Desjardins, for example, uses Flipboard to provide information that users can tailor to departmental needs.
- Add new talent to the team. Companies should invest in upgrading the skills of their competitive- and strategic-intelligence teams. Often, this means that companies will need to recruit new talent from outside the company or even the industry, bringing in people who can think differently, pick up on subtle signals, and avoid strategic blind spots.
- Engage with the community. Analysts must have the curiosity to reach out for new sources of knowledge. They can do so by creating communities of experts online (LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups, Twitter lists, Google Circles), but also by actively engaging their followers and connections into conversations. Thousands of such social-media conversations emerge every day, and many turn into regularly recurring conversations.
Making these changes in your intelligence-gathering approach will not only let your company make the best possible use of the new generation of tools and tactics, it will also allow you to bring real-time, quantitative data from real people into the discussion of your competitive strategy, leading to better corporate decisions.
by Martin Harrysson, Estelle Metayer, and Hugo Sarrazin