Main image of article When Big Data Meets Social Media
shutterstock_192467753 Big Data is no longer novel. Companies are sifting through their terabytes with greater ease and expertise. Many of these power users have focused on a particular component of Big Data: social media. Whether Twitter, YouTube, Facebook or Instragram, people are using these platforms to talk about their experiences, leaving behind tons of data in the process. But all that data is unstructured, and you will need Big Data skills to exploit it to best advantage.

Where to Start

“Not only is data being created at warp speed these days, we have access to more external data—like social and open—than we know what to do with,” said Tamara Dull, director of emerging technologies for SAS Best Practices, a branch of SAS. Responding via e-mail, Dull offered some basic starting points to anyone seeking to analyze data from social channels: “Think big. Start small. Look at your business. What pressing issues are you facing that can be addressed with data? Figure out your most important questions, then decide which data sources—internally and externally—are best suited to answer those questions.” “We're at a point where it’s not simply about pulling a lot of data, but really understanding why something performed well and how to replicate that,” added Heidi Besik, group product marketing manager at Adobe Social, also responding via e-mail. “This requires a comprehensive approach to the metrics that are considered, going beyond what we traditionally see with ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ and looking at things like time-of-day engaged, audience profiles and time-spent-viewing for a medium like video. “ Who has access to the data has also changed. “Historically, it was enterprise IT. It was their job [to put] together the relevant information and put it in an environment that was clean and trusted,” said Darren Cunningham, VP marketing at Snaplogic. Once the data had been cleaned, the analysts went to work. Now the marketers want that cleaned, analyzed data—and they want it now. “All have a social media strategy in place. The question is: is it working?” Cunningham said. “Marketers don’t want to wait for IT to do it for them.”

Real-World Use

So how does a company actually use social media? Does it work like radar, giving you insight into your market? Or can it be used as a diagnostic, allowing you to figure out problems with initiatives and programs? “You can get some basic radar from basic channels, ” Cunningham said. When you mix channels, though, you need a more sophisticated diagnostic tool. “Integration is the forgotten component.” All social sites have APIs that IT can use to write code and get data. Meanwhile companies are building platform strategies, using the integration pre-built into the sites they want to track, Cunningham said. They want to tie the data back to their enterprise’s existing IT system, linking those customer signals to the company’s database of record. (At that point, this also becomes a “governance conversation,” as rules about data privacy become an issue, he noted.) Any action a prospective customer takes online—be it a purchase, a website visit, or a search—is a signal that can be linked to the company’s record of that customer’s past purchases. That fusion of presence and record can indicate the likelihood that customer might buy something, and that is the signal a company is trying to find amidst the noise. “Today’s social media tools give you the ability to look ahead (through the windshield) and behind (through the rear-view mirror) simultaneously—without causing any accidents,” Dull added. “The prize goes to those companies that can look both ways, make an assessment of the landscape, and take action quickly.” “The diagnostic element is the big opportunity moving forward,” added Adobe’s Besik. “We believe social is on a similar path of sophistication as we see with a channel like desktop Web—a data-driven approach where brands make decisions backed by robust analytics on what’s working and what’s not.“

Where to Look

But which social media channel aligns best with a company’s goals? “It depends on what you want to achieve with social media. Each platform has its strengths and weaknesses,” Dull explained via e-mail. “To get started, the two questions you need to ask is: (1) who is my target audience? and (2) which social platform(s) most effectively reaches this audience? You will want to use the social platform(s) that have already proven to be successful with your target audience.” Which social media channels matter? B2B marketers rely more on Twitter than Facebook, Cunningham noted. B2B marketers also like investing in LinkedIn, which can “target specific titles and companies,” he added. YouTube is also emerging as a channel of consequence, as potential clients are watching videos of products and services they might be interested in, Cunningham also noted. “Marketers have to stay on top of various channels.” “A makeup retailer looking to reach a younger audience might prioritize channels like Snapchat and Facebook, whereas a company selling enterprise software would gravitate more towards LinkedIn,” Besik commented. “Brands have to determine the right mix; however, there is a difference in the amount of data provided by each of these platforms. More mature channels such as Facebook, for instance, provide better engagement metrics. For some time, Snapchat was a leap of faith for brands looking to reach younger audiences but we've seen recent efforts by Snapchat to make more data available as they look to better monetize the platform.”

Social Data

Social media is facing its own wave of consolidation. Microsoft is acquiring LinkedIn. Facebook bought Instagram. For social media platforms and the companies who analyze content, there’s been a rise in competition based on data, said Cunningham. As the technology matures, he continued, there is going to be better integration between platforms when it comes to delivering, processing, and tracking social media. “We now have data analytics that can help brands identify needles in the haystack, producing actionable insights and taking much of the guesswork out of the equation.” Besik added. “We are moving to a point where social media channels have become some of the most targeted ad networks around.”