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BW Businessworld

Tools At Your Service

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If only listening on the web were as simple as putting the company geek on the job of trawling the favourite haunts of customers and seeing what they are saying, a daily report aided by a few Google Alerts would have been quite enough. But customer conversations can sprout in the strangest nooks and corners of the web, spread and multiply at lightning speed, which makes them difficult to track manually.

Today, there are tools and apps that can scope out the social sphere, and many are simple and free. Google Alerts, SocialMention and ViralHeat, for instance, report mentions and can be readily used. Facebook offers a lot of good analytics once your page crosses 400 likes. 
The problem is that many of these tools only perform one function and are not enough. Some track mentions, some measure the sentiment of the mentions, others track interventions, and still others set benchmarks against what the competition is doing. Unmetric’s CEO and cofounder Lakshmanan Narayan describes how benchmarking tools such as their’s can even pinpoint how many minutes a company is taking to respond to a query online versus its competitor. For instance, it found that Southwest Airlines took an average of 15 minutes to respond to a tweet, whereas JetBlue and Delta took an average of just 12 minutes. Then there is Nielsen’s NMIncite Social Media Brand Equity Index, which maps the performance of 462 Indian brands across social networks, hundreds of online forums, blogs and product review sites. 

Diving Into The Toolbox
Rajesh Lalwani, founder of Blogworks, a strategic social media consultancy, says tools are of three kinds — those that track conversations, those that set benchmarks and those that are essentially visualisation tools. “Unfortunately, all these three categories of tools are working independently, each type of tool pulls data differently, results don’t match up, and this makes the task even more complicated,” says Lalwani. “The next level of development for social tools is going to be simplifying these tools. How do you get the benefits of what each tool finds and combine it in a way that is simple and integrated and more manageable without losing the richness of the data,” he says.

Max Hegerman, senior vice-president and head of digital at JWT India Group, says the agency is working to bring to India a tool called SAP Social Analytics by Netbase, which dives deep into conversations and actually even monitors things like how passionately people are talking about a brand. 
“Many Indian companies still aren’t looking at full-fledged monitoring tools,” says Apoorv Durga, senior analyst at the Real Story Group, which identifies and evaluates social media tools to advise clients on finding the best fit. “Quite a few just use Twitter clients such as Tweetdeck to listen on the social web. Others use techniques such as Google Alerts.” 
While there is nothing wrong in using these basic solutions, paid (and often expensive) tools are adding on more capabilities, many of which are hard to argue with.
Picking The Right Tool
Full-feature social media monitoring tools span a broader set of activities, addressing customer service, analysing consumer behaviour, and understanding competition, reputation management, and more. The problem, of course, is picking the right one. 
“These tools represent a diverse and rapidly evolving marketplace in which vendors can go in and out of fashion in a single season,” says Durga. He lists Salesforce’s Radian6, Attensity, Attentio, Oracle’s CollectiveIntellect, Sysomos’s MAP and Heartbeat, Visible Technologies’s VisibleIntelligence and SDL’s SM2 as some of the most popular tools. The scope of what they end up capturing varies, but typically it includes content from regular websites, sections of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, major blogging platforms, comments from YouTube, and so on.
Customers of social media monitoring tools set parameters on the topics relevant to their businesses and the tools generate a trial dataset of results to analyse these deeper. “They can answer questions like: what do people think of our product? Who are the celebrities trending up or down right now? Who are the people influencing our marketplace currently? But all don’t execute every job equally well,” explains Durga. 
Social tool vendors readily claim to be able to monitor millions of sources, but more is not always better.
“Apart from collecting data,” says Durga, “a worthwhile tool must manage that data, present it in a useful manner, and allow for dashboards, alerts, analyses and reports. To pass muster, a tool must be scalable, covering an increasing number of sources easily; it must allow response and engagement; it must adapt to social media campaigns and let queries be made; and on top of all that, it must be stable and secure.” And, the sources covered must be relevant rather than just being a large number., which is India-specific, may not be covered by many tools. And integration with a company’s website or other protected sources may also be difficult for some tools to achieve. This is how it works: “Once a tool is selected, the user needs to decide the sample space or what is most commonly known as ‘dataset’,” says Durga. Like most search engines, these tools trawl a variety of content sources and create their own indices. In many cases, vendors actually buy this access as a service from content providers, says Durga. Once they have raw data, vendors and their content providers carry out basic data management activities such as identifying spam, de-duping content, and normalising data. From this repository, one can create a sample space or a dataset by generating queries. Once the relevant dataset is made, one can start monitoring and analysing it. The major function of these tools can then be broken into two sets of activities: the background (primarily data collection and processing, which happens behind the scenes) and the front-end (data management and querying).
With Indian firms beginning to seriously use social tools, proper evaluation is imperative. 
mala((at)pobox(dot)com, chitra(dot)narayanan(at)abp(dot)in
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 10-09-2012)