The Overlooked Power of Social Networking

What is Familiar …  

Social networking has been widely embraced in recent years, especially by the young.  Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, and others, have become major powerhouses of the internet, accompanied by many thousands of blogs and personal websites.  Sometimes social networking is used to create or connect communities of friends, families, like-minded individuals, clubs, and organizations.  It can be a vehicle for sharing information and education.  It also provides a very public forum for self-expression, which can range from the ordinary to the odd or extreme.  Thoughts and reactions that formerly were private are now out there for anyone to read.  Average people can easily publish pictures, music, and videos.  The new smart phones make posting on the social media as easy as texting to a friend.  Low cost website hosting, which supports free, and relatively easy-to-use blog and content management software such as WordPress, has made it easy for individuals to create a web presence.  Somehow, through the magic of internet search engines, and people who spread the word in person or electronically, isolated posts may get discovered and “go viral,” without any formal efforts to publicize or advertise.  Of course the conventional media are watching and in turn will often publicize whatever is getting attention on the informal channels.

The Arab Spring showed the world how social media, texting, smart phones with built-in photo and video cameras, and worldwide telephony could be the communications backbone of a successful revolution.  One of the ways the besieged governments tried to hold onto power was to shut down the communications infrastructure.  Ultimately this worked against them, as it proved to the world the repressive nature of the regimes and fueled the disenchantment.  Meanwhile, the revolutionaries searched for and found cracks in the armor so they could get their communications out.

Despite the admitted power of social networking, there are many “old fashioned” people who are uncomfortable with it.  They look at typical posts and comments and see 99% trash talk and junk.  They don’t understand why anyone would prefer to text, typing on a Lilliputian keyboard, rather than making a phone call (except of course for texting under the table during a business meeting).  They may have heard that social media are essential for business networking, but then they dipped a toe into the waters and got limited or no results.  They may have heard stories about young people who posted raucous accounts of their college beer bashes, only to have those read by prospective employers, who may go so far as to demand their Facebook logins and passwords.  They may also be concerned about the predators who troll the internet for the innocent, the gullible, and the over-exposed.  These people see little positive value in social networking, and may dismiss it entirely or make a point of avoiding it.

These perspectives on social media are common knowledge for anyone following major trends.  However, there are other significant dynamics relating to social media that are not so obvious.  Here I would like to discuss one of those, and you may not have given it a lot of thought.

What You May Have Overlooked …

Despite all the positives and negatives, there is real power in social networking that many overlook.  The social media are great repositories of sentiment, and this sentiment can be mined and analyzed.  What’s more, because the social media are highly dynamic, changes in sentiment can be monitored with virtually no lag time.  We are seeing more and more evidence of this in the conventional media, where, for example, a number of television shows now report on the “pulse of the day” based on monitoring the social media.  As we know, government agencies are also watching, looking for “chatter” that might alert them to nefarious plots.

This is a matter of statistical significance rather than absolute accuracy.  Twitter includes a positive and negative sentiment detector in its programming interface.  Even if it is only 70% accurate it has analytical value.  For example, if a news story about a company or product surfaces, a volume spike in the chat (or lack thereof), and the direction of the sentiment, might give a company useful intelligence in terms of how it should respond.  A company can also use such studies to measure the effectiveness of advertising, and the interest in and reactions to various products and features.  Despite the margin of error, this information is available well before the sales results come in, and at very least provides another data point to correlate with those results.  Comparative studies among products, companies, political candidates, and popular entertainment are all possible.  There are indeed many practical uses for data mining in the social media.

What might make this especially attractive to businesses is they don’t need to use clandestine means to get this information.  No hacking is required, just good software programming.  Social media are public to a large extent.  Yes, there are private groups, and endlessly overlapping Venn Diagrams of “linked” individuals and entities, which seem to illustrate the “six degrees of separation.”  However, people who want to get their feelings and reactions out, especially about public events, companies, products, and high profile individuals, want to express themselves in a public forum.  Most large companies and other entities have presences on social sites, where any user can comment, and these act as a kind of sentiment magnet.  Twitter also has mechanisms that enable users to flag Tweets as relevant to a specific entity.  The sheer volume of social media content in the public forum often guarantees statistical significance, even when the analytical tools have a large margin of error.

The only downside is that the social media represent a skewed demographic, favoring the young with time on their hands or the disenfranchised.  Yet they also reflect those who are technologically savvy, and who are willing buyers of technology such as smart phones and trendy automobiles.  Many companies target their product offerings to this group.  Moreover, as time goes on, the social media are gaining in popularity and are being adopted by a broader demographic.  Companies are reaching out on their Facebook Pages and YouTube Channels to wider audiences, even if the tone remains youthful.

These public data can be retrieved and analyzed using specialized software.  Not only that, depending on the particular social medium, data fields are available to refine the intelligence, such as language, internet/hosting source, type of phone or application used, and geographic coordinates.  All in all, there is real power here, and organizations are starting to exploit it.

A new take on the Survey?

A highly respected colleague of mine specializes in the techniques for constructing effective surveys, which can serve as valid input to powerful predictive analytics.  The techniques are based on science, math, and statistics, as well as lessons from experience.  He has demonstrated the efficacy of this form of business intelligence as offering a substantial amplification to returns-on-investment for business initiatives.

He and I have been discussing the value of adding a social media data mining front end to this kind of business intelligence.  This would not replace formal surveys, which of course provide highly focused input – but rather would offer an additional input that has its own advantages.  First, social media provide “immediate” feedback.  Second, they don’t depend on volunteers willing to respond to a survey request.  Both approaches have benefits, and a future study of interest would be to compare differences in their dynamics, their relative strengths and weaknesses, and their potential synergies.

A key advantage of data mining in social media is that it can be automated – from the raw data collection all the way to a real-time dashboard of dials and graphs.  This can be done with relatively simplistic algorithms, and yet be informative.  If we take the automation further, artificial intelligence can be introduced and evolved so as to yield highly refined results.

Russell Kennedy Partners has developed software to gather comments and posts from Facebook and YouTube, and Tweets from Twitter, for the purposes of re-use in advertising and market analysis, and is currently in the process of building a more powerful analytics module which includes additional sources, designed for corporate clients in the entertainment, health, fitness, beauty, and professional services industries.

Copyright © 2011-2012  Patrick D. Russell
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