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I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the National Conference on Health Communication, Media and Marketing conference in Atlanta. Social media has been one of the main areas of focus at this conference over the last couple  years. My presentation was intended to inform the audience about emerging strategies and approaches to social media monitoring and analysis. Many Federal Government agencies have now embraced social media as a communication and marketing platform, but few have leveraged its power as a platform for researching public sentiment and behavior.

I used a project I’m currently directing for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Investigating the Use of Social Media for Environmental Health Communications – as the foundation for the 30 minute talk. Our project is providing groundbreaking research on how the public is using social media to discuss and share health information.

As use of social media has exploded over the last few years, companies and government agencies have struggled to keep pace with the constant flow of information and opinions.  Not only are organizations struggling with how to monitor social information, they’re also not sure how to analyze what they are monitoring. As a result we’ve seen a new market called social intelligence take shape.

Social Intelligence

Social intelligence is the process of monitoring, collecting, and analyzing social data to inform business decisions. I.e. “Let’s see what people are saying, see what meaning, insights, and patterns we discover, and act accordingly.” Social intelligence attempts to make sense of the endless stream of tweets, comments, posts, and other social data. This market generally involves three components: social media monitoring, social media analysis, and social media strategy.

I should note that the term social intelligence is not new – see original definition on Wikipedia – but it is relatively new in context we’re using it.  Much the way social networking is an old term given new meaning through the context of the Web and social media. It seems that Zach Hofer-Shall at Forrester is one lead voices in this area. Nielsen and McKinsey are also using the term to describe their new joint venture – NMIncite.

Social Media Monitoring

Listening platforms

Listening platforms refer to software created to allow organizations to monitor social media information. The term “social media monitoring software” could be used interchangeably. There are dozens of companies in this space now. Some are full-featured solutions to monitor all social media (or anything else on the Web) while others focus on specific platforms such as twitter. Obviously the latter are much less useful for organizations that need to see the big picture.

Forrester recently put out a great paper analyzing some of the best enterprise-level solutions. The only drawback to the report is that it’s limited to products targeting the “enterprise” market, i.e. companies over $1 billion in revenue. Unfortunately this approach leaves out great products like Scout Labs. Forrester needed some criteria to narrow down the 100+ potential vendors in the market, and that probably was the most logical selection criteria to use.

Social Media Analysis

Social media analysis comes in a variety of flavors. Listening platforms usually provide dashboards with aggregate trends and statistics. At the most basic level social media analysis involves analyzing these types of aggregate usage statistics. Many listening platforms promise to deliver more qualitative research in areas like user sentiment and tone, by using natural language processing (NLP) . However, anyone with experience using these platforms understands that limitations of NLP for social analysis.

An area that listening platforms tend to do well with is identifying key influencers – at least from a quantitative standpoint. Key influencers – whether they be bloggers, or twitter or Facebook users – are usually identified by the number of times they use targeted keywords, and by the size of their following. We then need to do some qualitative analysis to determine who are the true influencers.

We can take social media analysis to the another level by conducting a content analysis. Content analysis (AKA media analysis) typically involves manual data coding. This is a very labor intensive process but the flexibility, detail, and accuracy cannot be replicated by any software. Our team conducted a content analysis of social media data for a CDC project that I currently manage. The end result of a detailed content analysis will include statistics and usage patterns that aren’t possible with automated software – e.g. accuracy of posts and sentiment towards specific topics.

Social Media Strategy

Social media strategy should be based on organizational and project goals, but also as a result of what is learned through social intelligence. By conducting environmental scans and implementing ongoing social media monitoring organizations can learn a lot about how they should be leveraging new media to meet their target audience’s needs. Additionally, information gleaned through social intelligence will often drive larger marketing and business decisions.

I recently attended a presentation by a marketing executive form the Red Cross. A great quote she had was “social media is our canary in the coal mine for reputation management.“  I think this quote speaks well to the power of social intelligence.