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Listen and learn
Monday, 23 February 2009 15:08

The rise of social media has presented communicators with a fresh challenge: how to monitor what’s being said. Neil Gibbons reports:     

"I am going to expend significant energy over the next three weeks trashing Comcast.”
Michael Arrington was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore. In April 2008, after 36 hours of internet downtime and less-than-helpful calls to his service provider, he let rip on microblogging site Twitter. Within 20 minutes, a Comcast executive in Philadelphia had called him, asking how he could help. The executive explained that he monitors Twitter and other blogs to get an understanding of what people are saying about Comcast. Soon after the call, a team was dispatched to Arrington’s place and the issue was resolved.

A cynic might suggest Arrington received unusually attentive treatment – he is, after all, editor of the hugely influential site TechCrunch –but the fact is, he was heard. If nothing else, the case signals a determination among corporations to keep a beady eye on social media, and respond to what’s being said.

But is it really necessary to engage with the geekosphere? Has social media evolved to an extent that opinions expressed online can influence perceptions in the outside world? “Yes,” says Nigel Middlemiss, knowledge director of reputation analysis firm Echo Research,“because this is where a lot of the sentiment round companies now aggregates. It’s where reputations are built or damaged in a more granular way than is typical of conventional media.” It wasn’t always this way. Paul Miller, head of digital strategy at communication intelligence firm Cision UK, says that, as recently as two or three years ago, it was only really the technology, politics and media sectors that needed to take social media seriously. “That’s now changed,” he says. “Now it is easy to address almost any idea relating to your business across any kind of social media.”

How (not) to respond
Nigel Middlemiss of Echo Research offers some sage advice.

  • masquerade as a disinterested observer when you are not!

  • storm in with a display of indignation

  • adopt a clinical neutrality which fails to interest or engage.


  • employ a measured tone-of-voice and accurate content

  • show a sense of humour when appropriate. It helps to defuse situations

  • show them that you’re not just a ‘suit’

  • refer to third-party and independent sources to prove your point instead of you

  • offer to make amends.

What characterises social media is its fluidity.Content posted on a social network such as facebook can be picked up by a blog, which might link to a photo sharing site, which might be linked with a micro-blogging site. “This is similar to the way a news story might have gone from a local paper up to a national then over to TV and radio news,” says Miller. “The difference is that it is far
quicker, far more global and involves many more platforms and outlets.” No wonder some companies remain intimidated
by what’s out there. But Fergus Hampton of research agency Millward Brown Precis tries to frame social media in familiar terms, so that clients “don’t regard it as the Wild West”.

“Companies should ask four questions,” he says. “What are people saying? Does it matter? What should I do? And then, did it work? At the moment, social media is under-utilised because companies don’t quite have that comfort factor.”


Eyes wide open: (left to right)  Fergus Hampton, Monika Maeckle, Tom Nixon and Paul Miller keep a close eye on Web 2.0


What’s to be gained?

While there are those who only monitor web chatter to fight fires and ward off danger, Middlemiss suggests that smarter players can make use of what they find. “Web 2.0 is effectively an unmoderated and free focus group, with a huge mix of comment
and exchange,” he says. But opinion can only be weighted when you’ve identified what type of person is voicing it. “at means their age, gender, profession, geography. But also their ‘attitudinal’ attributes: their values, motivations, expectations, mindsets, reputational take. Then you can segment all the different profiles into groups and draw conclusions in a proper, evidence-based way."

If this sounds like a nightmarish addition to your workload, it needn’t. ere are tools to crunch, nalyse and understand all the data, says Chris Reed, head of the digital and social media team at PR firm Fishburn Hedges – some more useful than others: “As with any infant industry, some offer gold dust, and others just fools’ gold.” As a starting point, he suggests spending some time getting familiar with the free online tools Of course, the market is also awash with paid-for services. For a comprehensive low-down on what’s on offer, Reed points to ‘Online Reputation and Buzz Monitoring Buyer’s Guide’ by e-consultancy. He proposes key questions to help companies sift through service providers: how big is their data set? What blogs, messages boards and media do they check? Over what timescale can they look back? How often do they update their service? How quick are they to innovate, and offer new tools? How easy is it to drill down from top-level information to get to the individual blogs which might illustrate what the data is telling you?

Just don’t expect miracles. The technology,while workload-slashing, can only do so much.“Regardless of how sophisticated the software,there’s no substitute for intelligent professionals who understand your business objectives,” says Reed. “They will be able to estimate the importance of the sentiment and irony, and identify the misidentification of a brand name in a way that even
the most sophisticated programme simply can’t.”

Keeping perspective

Getting hold of the data is relatively easy. It’s making use of it that requires a cool head, says Monika Maeckle, VP of Media Services and Product Strategy at BusinessWire. “In the book
‘Groundswell’, by Charlene Lii and Josh Bernhoff, the authors correctly point out that one of the frequent mistakes made by companies is focusing on the technology and the tool rather than the communications goal,” she says. And only once that goal is understood can a company answer the obvious killer question: to respond or not to respond? “is completely
depends on the situation,” says Maeckle. “Sometimes responding can fuel the fire, sometimes it can put it out.”

Wading into the fray is tempting. But a common error, says Tom Nixon, director of Brighton-based social media agency Nixon-McInnes, is responding to opinion without understanding the rules of engagement – if your reply is too defensive it can be
worse than not responding at all. Take computer manufacturer Dell. In 2005, customer Jeff Jarvis began writing in his personal blog, BuzzMachine, about his lengthy quest to fix a $1,600 computer, an ordeal he said included countless e-mails, some unanswered, and phone calls to Dell’s customer-service line. His posts elicited this email from Dell: “Hey Jarvis. I honestly think you have no life. Honestly? Do you have a life or do you just spend it trying to make Dell miserable?
“I’ve been working with Dell the past three weeks researching trashy blogs that worms like you leave all over the frigen [sic] blogosphere and I can honestly say Dell is trying to take a step towards fixing their customer service.”

Naturally, this reply – said to be the work of a summer intern “caught up in the emotion” – was copied and pasted around cyberspace.

“Wading into the fray is tempting, but a common error is responding to opinion without understanding the rules of engagement – a defensive reply can be worse than none at all.”

Best practice

Things are very different now. Dell has set aside budget for a large, dedicated team of social media monitors. Now, buzz about the company is closely monitored and a traffic light system operated to determine how urgent it is for a piece of Dellrelated
social media to be responded to. The company also uses Twitter – not just as a way to influence, inform and debate with customers and partners but as a sales channel, pumping out offers for new products. Nixon warns that overt selling can go down
badly, though. The key rule, he says, is to think about how to provide useful input. “Social media is essentially human conversations that happen to be taking place on line,” he says. “How would you like someone in a pub who works for a big,
say, technology brand, overhearing you and a mate talking about that technology and trying to join in your conversation and sell you something? But if they joined in the conversation and offered help might be more receptive.”

He cites the example of car hire firm Avis. Monitoring online opinion, it learned a number of common concerns – such as the absence of sat nav devices in cars and hard-to-find pick-up points at airports. Armed with this knowledge, the company
went away, made changes and then re-engaged with bloggers, explaining the improvements. At the heart of this campaign was its new blog, humbly named the We Try Harder blog (www.wetryharder.co.uk). e campaign had a massive, positive effect and led to the firm winning the SOCAP award for innovation in Customer Service at the National Customer Service Awards 2007.

If you know what’s being said and have a strategy for engaging, you can manage your reputation, even reversing negative perceptions. As Comcast-bashing Michael Arrington exclaimed in his blog: “Wow, Comcast are doing at least one thing right."


Free monitoring tools
Chris Reed of Fishburn Hedges looks at the free online media
monitoring tools:

  • Google blog search and Google news – “Both deliver as-it happens coverage on RSS feeds”
  • Technorati – “It illustrates the relative importance and authority of a particular blog based on the number of inbound links”
  • Blogpulse – “It offers a very useful trend search facility, as well as keyword searching”
  • Yahoo Pipes – “This is much more technical, can trawl through pretty much every web 2.0 site and delivers results into an RSS feed”
  • Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Del.icio.us – “Their search engines are really useful”
  • Adictomatic – “If all you want is an at-a-glance search, you can’t go wrong with this. Complete with cute robot, it simultaneously searches the search engines for you”