Marketers, especially those with a significant presence on social media, now have almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to data and intelligence about how consumers interact with their brands and messaging.

Instead of repeatedly interrupting audiences’ conversations with their own messages, brands can use social listening platforms and other forms of data to better understand the things that interest their targets, and then craft content that adds to the conversation in relevant ways.

“Today’s social listening and search data are yesterday’s demographic studies, but they’re better because they capture people in their most natural environment doing what they normally do,” says Marcus Collins, chief consumer connections officer at the ad agency Doner. “Data aggregated on millions of people can give you a really good pulse on what is happening.”

However, as more marketers are becoming aware, vanity metrics, such as likes, re-posts, and comments, no longer cut it with the C-suite. In fact, CFOs said they are concerned about many of the data points presented by marketers because they aren’t based on concrete outcomes like sales and don’t show the full picture of successes and failures, according to a March study by Viant. Experts say it’s up to the marketing department and its outside agencies to ensure the higher-ups get and understand the right social intelligence.

“Customer sentiment is a key proactive social intelligence metric that gets shared at the highest levels of the organization,” says Colin Browning, head of social business for the life insurance and financial services company MassMutual. “Additionally, we regularly monitor feedback on website issues and share those with the appropriate development team to help monitor for bugs and obtain feature requests.”

To ensure the company gets the right insights from its social engagements, Browning explains, MassMutual splits its intelligence architecture into proactive and reactive views.

“Our proactive social data view is to analyze social posts for MassMutual mentions for known programs, as well as to maintain baseline intelligence on our competitors and the general life insurance industry,” he says. “This enables us to understand how programs are performing in the market, understand customer sentiment, and understand performance in the context of the competitive environment.”

Much of the proactive social intelligence is included in weekly and monthly reports to keep the company up to speed on customer financial trends and needs while also helping to shape messaging and content strategy, Browning says.

“Reactive listening enables us to better respond to key customer needs or issues in a real-time basis,” he notes. “This includes monitoring for spikes in customer service needs that could indicate a slowdown in customer service, as well as for PR or executive-related events. Reactive listening is always-on, real-time, responsive-based intelligence.”


Seeking the ‘Whys’

Jeff Bullas, a global marketing consultant, influencer, and digital entrepreneur, believes social intelligence should not only note brand sentiment but also provide insights into the “whys” behind any trends or movement.

“The wisdom of the crowd is pretty powerful these days and social media allows us to get to [whys],” he says. “Brand sentiment should be shared with the company board and then always followed up with a deeper dive to understand what’s driving that sentiment. You see a lot of brands and all they’re doing is chasing metrics and forgetting what the real goal of social should be — to build engagement with great content and ensure you’re generating the metrics that improve sales.”

Marketers and their agencies should also help the C-suite keep social intelligence in perspective, especially when it comes to the day-to-day swings in impressions and sentiment, says Ryan Sweeney, director of analytics at Ignite Social Media.

“Social can act in very volatile ways,” he explains. “Algorithms are always changing and certain conversations can blow up one day, trigger a panic, and the next day something else happens. It’s really important that marketers keep their eye on the brand and overall company objectives. It also helps to analyze performance in multiple cadences, for example generating reports both weekly and longer term.”

Marketers also need to understand and convey to other departments that the anonymity provided on many social media platforms can bring out trolls and critics who may not truly reflect the perception of a brand.

“It is easy to dwell on the negative on the social side, often because it can be so jarring,” MassMutual’s Browning says. “It is important to ensure that you filter these negative comments appropriately and remember that it is still a very, very small percentage of what you see.”


Quantitative vs. Qualitative Social Intelligence

The biggest advantage of digital in general, and social in particular, is that every consumer interaction can be captured and measured. However, some engagements require a more nuanced evaluation, Ignite Social Media’s Sweeney says.

“What we tell brands is to have a good heathy mix of quantitative and qualitative,” he says. “You have to have the numbers to back up the bottom line at the end of the day. But you also want to take into account the emotions and opinions of the audience, what they are reacting to, and how they are reacting to it.”

In many ways, marketers shouldn’t take an either/or approach to social intelligence, Doner’s Collins says.

“Everything qualitative can be quantitative and everything quantitative can be qualitative,” he says, citing as an example consumer comments about a brand. “If people have stopped saying A and are now saying B about the brand, that’s awesome and that’s a qualitative change. But to what fidelity that is happening, at what volume, and whether that’s a precursor to actual change in overall consumer behavior can be quantitative as well.”

Whatever the metrics, they must be in lockstep with real-world business objectives, Collins says.

“Of the utmost importance is identifying what success is,” he says. “Particularly in the digital and social world, we look at data such as retweets, comments, likes, and shares. Those things are all well and good but only some of them end up being proxies for changing consumer behavior. The core function of marketing is to focus on the metrics that drive consumer adoption.”


New Tools for Social Intelligence

The good news for CMOs is that the money now pouring into social media marketing has triggered an influx of new tools and technology to enhance both engagement and analytics. However, that doesn’t mean complex consumer commentary will soon be keyword-filtered, categorized, and included on a spreadsheet, notes Vicki Brakl, VP of integrated marketing at MNI Targeted Media Inc.

“For one thing, the language on social is different,” Brakl says. “It is often filled with abbreviations that are code for something else, or a phrase that means more in ‘Urban Dictionary’ than it does if read at face value. An example of this would be something like, ‘These new shoes are sick!’ To get accurate measurements, there’s a need for AI [artificial intelligence] or some type of human element to review content and ensure whether something is positive or negative. We need to be able understand the true feelings of the commentary.”

The latest tools are already making a big difference. When Kia Motors America rolled out the Niro automobile in late 2016, it also introduced a new social media chatbot to engage prospective customers more effectively.

“We wanted a new marketing channel that would be better able to communicate all of the unique selling points of this car, which is a new kind of crossover,” says Nathalie Choy, national manager for digital, social, and CRM marketing at Kia Motors America. “We launched the NiroBot to allow one-to-one marketing at scale.”

The success of NiroBot led to the creation of Kian, a chatbot for Kia’s entire lineup, in November 2017. Presented in a mobile-optimized format familiar to users of text-based apps like Android Messages and Facebook Messenger, the chatbot uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to answer consumers’ questions about interior and exterior color choices, price, local availability, and even financing.

“We need to understand the true feelings of the commentary on social media.”

— Vicki Brakl, VP of Integrated Marketing, MNI Targeted Media Inc.

“Rather than send consumers to a website and force them to learn how to navigate it, they can simply ask questions like, ‘Does this come in red with a black interior?’ and ‘What’s the horsepower?'” she says. “It reduces the friction as they look to educate themselves on our product in a way that’s more familiar.”

The chatbot, Choy says, also provides one key intelligence point that is often lacking in other social media programs: intent. “With a chatbot you know that they are looking for, say, a Stinger and they want it in red with a black interior,” she says.

Since its rollout seven months ago, Kian has provided the type of numbers that both drive ROI and get noticed at the executive level.

“Users of our chatbot are three times more engaged than regular website users,” Choy says. “They’re doing activities that are more funneled; they’re looking at offers, features, and price quotes; and they are closer to purchase. They demonstrate stronger intent in their chatting.”

The chatbot also provides additional insights into a consumer’s path to purchase, which can be used for everything from new messaging to customer service. “We know how apprehensive consumers can be when it comes to automotive purchases and leveraging technology to empower them is a win/win,” Choy says. “We can learn more about our consumers while the consumer feels like they’re getting educated. Ultimately, they will feel more confident in their purchase.”

Ignite Social Media’s Sweeney urges marketers to be more open to social media commentary not tied to specific products or campaigns. “Oftentimes you’ll have consumers not focusing on the content of the post, but instead talking about some other issue involving the product or brand,” he says. “That’s good information and shouldn’t be discounted. Several clients of ours observed some really cool themes that popped up in the comment thread, and we’ve been working with them to take those topics and craft new messages from that.”

Those seemingly random consumer insights should be included in the intelligence that is shared with the rest of the company, provided they could be benchmarked, along with other data points, against overall company objectives.

“That will help ensure that what social is providing to C-suite stakeholders is valuable,” Sweeney says.