Why social listening platforms are failing

Social listening services promise to capture and analyze the buzz about a particular brand on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

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3d render of man listening to megaphone.

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With startups pouring into the emerging marketing technology market, the simple fact is that not everyone -- not every category -- is going to be a winner. Now Forrester has come up with a startling finding that one of the first marketing technologies to come along and help define this segment is failing to deliver results.

"Listening to data gleaned from social media channels, ratings and reviews, and forums has existed for a decade, yet most CI (customer insights) pros still cannot demonstrate the value of monitoring social data," says Forrester analyst Allison Smith, in a January report.

Listen Up

The marketing technology category is called "social listening platform," and it promises to capture and analyze the buzz about a particular brand on popular social networks. Armed with this data, digital marketers can track trends and identify customers across Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. It should go without saying that social listening platforms don't come cheap.

More often than not, though, social listening platforms fail to deliver on expectations. Forrester regularly sees companies point the finger at the inadequacy of the tools, not at a marketer's inability to wield these tools. Hence, organizations often switch costly platforms year after year, in hopes of finding the right tool.

"Forgetting that it is a poor craftsman who blames his tools, and that they themselves deserve some of the blame, many CI pros point to 'bad' data gathering, 'poor' sentiment tools, or 'unreliable' reporting and analytics as reasons why their listening efforts fall short of expectation," Smith says.

Yet therein lies another problem, the Forrester report suggests: the expectation itself.

Converting Data to Revenue

What is the expectation? More importantly, how do you convert a social listening platform's data findings into sales? In truth, most companies don't know the answer to these questions. "Social data answers a business question, but without asking a question, it's just noise," Smith says.

While a social listening platform can spew out quantitative data, such as the number of likes and impressions, qualitative data is much harder to come by. "Social data is vast, never-ending, unstructured, sarcastic, and full of emojis and hyperbole," Smith says.

Along with quantitative data, it takes the human eye to unearth nuggets -- as in, actionable insights -- buried somewhere in the Bizarro World that is the social media landscape. Technology alone isn't going to do the trick. In a Forrester survey last summer, 42 percent of respondents said the top challenge is uncovering actionable insights from social data.

Of course, social listening platform vendors also shoulder part of the blame. In their quest to seize more of the marketing technology pie, they're rapidly expanding service offerings with features such as engagement and community management features.

"But unified suites are rarely best in class for individual technology categories," Smith says, adding that social listening platform Radian6 lost its leading edge after being acquired by Salesforce in 2010.

Give Me 3 Steps

Forrester cites three ways social listening platform vendors are trying to expand their service offerings rather than through mergers and acquisitions: integrating with feedback vendors, partnering with media-tracking vendors to get an omnichannel view, and going beyond keywords into complex queries in order to get a better handle on what's being said over social networks.

So what should marketers do? It's important to understand the value and limitations of a social listening platform. While it plays an important role in the marketing tech ecosystem, it requires other parts and people to glean actionable insights that will help marketers achieve concrete goals. Conversely, if marketers hope a standalone platform will simply save the day, they're in for a rude awakening.

"We've said it a thousand times: CI pros aren't failed by social listening technology providers, they fail themselves," Smith says.

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