The limitations of social media listening

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We’ve noticed a big push for something called “social media listening” by our corporate clients as of late. Why? Because brands are moving to allocate increased budget to social media and expect to see these dollars translate to sales. They’ve concluded that what the brand is saying does not directly correlate to sales; it’s what the consumers are saying about the brand that does.

There are entire platforms devoted to scouring the Internet for brand sentiment, like Sprout Social, TalkWalker, and Radarly, which according to the latter’s site “analyzes 150 million sources (including social media, blogs, forums and websites), in more than 78 languages across 190 countries every day.” Sounds pretty good, right? Social media listening can be a valuable tool for understanding your consumer, tracking against the favorability of your competitors, and even staying on top of potentially disastrous PR situations; however, in order to hear it, it has to be trackable.

Before we dive into the methods and limitations of the tools created to listen to consumers and measure the favor of a brand, let’s take a look at the various ways social media success can be calculated.

Traditional social media metrics have focused on the results of actions by a page. How many likes, follows, comments, and engagement a page or post receives are top-line measures of success. Imagine the satisfaction, surprise or disappointment you feel when viewing the likes and comments on your own posts; if a post receives a high number of likes or comments, it’s often considered a success. These metrics are incredibly easy to track, but they’re not telling the full story…

Think of the last time you scrolled your social feeds. How many likes did you give out? If you were compelled to immediately comment, did you remember to also like the post? Did you automatically like your close friend’s post, even though you weren’t really that into it? Did you find many posts pleasing as you scrolled, though you were stingy with the hearts? Chances are you viewed far more posts than you interacted with; you may have even made purchasing decisions based upon what you saw, but a brand has no way to collect that data that based upon the traditional metrics listed in the preceding paragraph.

The owner of a business page can dive deeper, accessing even more valuable numbers, such as impressions, reach, and follower demographics. Why do we consider these numbers more valuable than likes and comments? Because these numbers correlate to the number of eyeballs on a post, and where they’re located. Think of a billboard on the highway you travel daily for your commute. The decision to advertise a particular product in a particular place was likely made by reviewing the number of cars traveling the highway, heading to and from a particular location where a sale could be made; each unique car is the “reach” and each time it’s viewed are the “impressions.” Going one step further, if sales of the product are up in the target range of the billboard (“demographics”), the campaign is seen to be a success. If this works for traditional advertising, why doesn’t it serve to validate social media? Because it’s not that simple.

Social media hardly seems new, but it’s still a tough pill to swallow for some corporate marketers. Combine the unknown and often unquantifiable with dollar signs, and you have a lot of convincing to do. This is where social listening tools come in. As we previously mentioned, these tools are designed to track what the consumers are saying about the product. In a world free of limitations, they would report every time a consumer uses a brand name socially, even if the consumer is not using a tag or hashtag; however, the limitations imposed on this space are becoming more and more stringent, hindering their ability to paint the full picture. The ability to report depends upon the rules of each individual platform or channel.

As of July 31, 2018, Instagram changed their API (application program interface), restricting public access to consumer data in the name of privacy and security. Marketing platform Later explains the recent changes in depth in this article. As a result, the only conversation tracking that can be performed on Instagram is activity using tags and hashtags, not key words. Did you hear that? We said your listening platform can only hear tags and hashtags on Instagram, as opposed to anytime your brand is mentioned on other channels. Not super helpful, right? What listening platforms can track well is Twitter. Twitter is a platform based upon conversation, wherein listening currently functions freely. The result is that performance reports from listening platforms will report fully from Twitter, and minimally from Instagram.

We’ll spare you the data surrounding user demographics on various platforms, but if your target audience is found heavily on Instagram, tracking Twitter or Facebook may not be highly relevant. One step further, if you’re a marketer with a heavy focus on Instagram, expect to grow frustrated when your hard-earned results conflict with a listening platform’s reporting. What can you do?

  1. Educate yourself. Understanding how social listening works is the first step. Be familiar with updates to the various platforms. We suggest subscribing to digital marketing newsletters from sites like HubSpot, Sprout Social, Iconosquare, Facebook Blueprint, and of course FML.

  2. Educate your clients. If you are a marketer tasked with presenting social media results, you’ll likely need to answer some tough questions. The best thing you can do is stay up to date (see Step 1) and be able to speak intelligently to the benefits and limitations of various tracking methods. Remember that your client is likely hearing top-line data, such as, “Conversation is down on Instagram!” It’s up to you to fill in the blanks.

  3. Change your strategy. How important is delivering listening-based results? If the answer is “high,” and you’ve been focusing primarily on Instagram, perhaps it’s time to allocate some of those efforts to Twitter. Also, ask yourself what could be done to generate a conversation where you need it; how can you drive your target to tag and use brand hashtags to create trackable buzz? It likely begins in real life, not social media.

In closing, social media listening can be a highly valuable tool; however, while this data is important, it’s not the be-all, end-all. Take action to drive the conversation, and don’t underestimate important data such as reach and impressions. Now that you know the limitations of the tools designed to measure what consumers are saying, we hope you can steer the conversation toward achieving social media success and ultimately, brand awareness and sales.