Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Research vs. Social Analytics" --- A Social Media Week panel discussion frames some challenges for PR research

A panel discussion on February 13 at Social Media Week New York 2012 was both eye opening and deeply disconcerting for me and some of my friends who care about public relations and communications research. The topic of the panel was “Research vs. Social Analytics,” and it raised some important issues. Many of the panelists’ comments illustrated the dilemmas that both traditional researchers and the social analytics practitioners are facing. The whole premise of the panel, however, Research VERSUS Social Analytics, posits an opposition that exists primarily in the minds of the silo-defenders, virtually not at all for the decision-makers who just want to manage enterprises more effectively.

Since “Research” has had its day (or its half century), it is not surprising that Social Analytics should have its day in the sun. But if you’re going to have a day in the sun, you’ve also got to expect to be examined in the bright light of day.

One panelist made some observations which, if they represent anything like a large proportion of social analytics professionals, may put marketing – if not scientific method – back a generation or so. When asked about ROI of social media, two responses were offered. The terminology of “ROI” was rejected in favor of ROE (Return on Engagement) – as if that change in terminology provided some enlightenment or changed the frame of reference in a useful way. It does not. The question – the ability to monetize (or value) an activity – is a fundamental of economics (of social organization) and a precursor for making policy choices, and it will not be dismissed with the implication that it is not hip. ROE means the return on the investment into the engagement (so let’s call it ROIE, if we must).

After suggesting that “ROI” is a vaguely pre-modern concept, the panelist then asserted that “If a client asks about the value of social media, then they just don’t get it.” This is a comment coming from a business professional, who represents a major global brand, who presumably has a technology or business education, and apparently is under 40 years of age (so therefore should not be constrained by intellectual rigidity). A sweeping rejection of the possible value to business and strategic decision making of scientific method and critical thinking. Apparently, “getting it” trumps evidence. Is this a mentality to which you want to trust a global brand? (It is certainly a mentality to which I do not want to entrust my root canal or my air traffic control.)

Of course, anyone with policy, management, or communications authority has to take into account the effects of the new, digital communications channels – whether it’s old-fashioned Facebook or Pinterest (everybody’s talking about Pinterest this week, so I will too). But that kind of “getting it” is a far cry from understanding What To Do With It. A question, the panelist referred to here, could not address, because the panelist – despite a sophisticated tech vocabulary – is frozen in the Gee Whiz phase. (When this same panelist was asked about research/audience confidentiality and aspects of bias, the panelist simply noted that if you want confidentiality and lack of bias, then you have to do traditional research. But what if I want both insights derived from the social media channels AND a respect for confidentiality and acknowledgement and accommodation of sources of bias?)

So – We Get It. Let’s move on.

Social analytics practitioners, as evidenced on the panel, are still shocked (just shocked) that there are some Americans (consumers, voters, etc.) who are not traceable via social analytics (some more of those people who don’t get it). Dismay was expressed about that PTA president out there (somewhere in America, presumably not attending Social Media Week events) who only has five Facebook Friends, yet (unaccountably) goes out to the PTA meetings, monthly, and expresses opinions, exerts authority, and motivates 250 or more people at a time. Who actually Do Things. Without leaving a digital trace. What are we going to do about such people! The more reflective panelists were hoping to develop a point of view about those PTA presidents.

A thoughtful, and tough-minded, consideration of research and social analytics also has to disabuse itself of the quaint (and insupportable) notion that social media and social analytics somehow confer moral purity. I’m not making this up now. A panelist described how the organization for which the panelist works eschews conventional research, and hires young people of the “right” demographic, to engage in social media, and to have authentic conversations about the brand. (This anecdote was recounted, in public before an audience, with neither self-reflection nor irony.) Apparently, if your communications channel is social, you can hire authenticity (totally unlike how traditional researchers hire focus group moderators or telephone surveyors who couldn’t possibly be “authentic” in the way someone hired to Tweet can be “authentic.”) (I take it that this is another example of “getting it” – “it” being self-delusion.)

The good news is that the greater proportion of the Research vs. Social Analytics panelists at Social Media Week New York 2012 actually tried to deal with hard questions that are provoked by the uncertainties of economic and social life, especially as those are disrupted by fast-evolving technologies.

That social analytics can provide incomparable descriptive power about what’s going on Now (and for the last 24 hours) is undeniable. Panelists agreed that if you have to know what an audience/market is thinking today, none of the traditional research methodologies can match social analytics. While there is a certain pious deprecation of short-term thinking, the reality is that many organizations often (not always) need to make decisions in consideration of what people are thinking now. Arguably, we can do this better than ever.

Another panelist at Research vs. Social Analytics offered a simple insight, but one that can be enormously powerful in shaping how organizations learn from the social media channel and use the social media channel for marketing, politics, public health, and other communications. This panelist reminded us of an insight that the social media channel has brought to the fore: The customer experience does not begin with the sale.

We always knew that there is a lot of word-of-mouth going on out there. But until we could listen to and watch the social media channel, we had only the vaguest and anecdotal sense of what that word-of-mouth was. Today, we can know – pretty much in real time – what a lot (certainly not all) of the word-of-mouth/keypad is. Social analytics is providing new and useful insights into the ebb and flow of conversations long before and after the transaction moment. An early benefit is how many organizations can use social analytics and media as an effective CRM tool – effective for its “life-like” spontaneity and immediacy. An evolving benefit is the ability to gain actionable insights from expressed word-of-mouth further away from the CRM moment.

Another panelist, through some traditional research, gained the complementary insight that many people who have been involved and loyal to a brand for as long as five years, will not, after having an atypical bad experience with the brand, complain or communicate to the brand. This consumer is, however, likely to share their bad experience and their damaged sense of loyalty with their personal networks, online and offline. In other words, companies and brands may often not get the opportunity to use the social channel for CRM if they are only prepared to deal with direct complaints and criticisms.

That immediacy of social analytics is its weakness as much as its strength. One panelist told about a client who had made an enormous social media/marketing investment to support an event, and then wanted to know if it was “worth it.” (This client obviously didn’t “get it” – but in any case . . .). So this panelist did what could be done: the organization ran an automated sentiment analysis on all the social media content surrounding the event. Now, my “traditional” research friends, deeply experienced in automated monitoring – and familiar with the many tests for accuracy of automated sentiment analysis – all know that you’re lucky if sentiment analysis is 70% accurate. If the best the social analytics practitioner can do is offer a traditional research tool that is (let us say) not perfect, just how much progress have we made in either research or analytics?

The threshold for common sense and consensus was evident in recurrent observations casting Research and Social Analytics as common, related endeavors on a continuum, not as opposing ideologies. An interesting analogy used a few times was that social analytics is the “tip of the sword” – if you really want a stab at full understanding, you’ve got to plunge into the phenomena deeper with the hilt of your intellectual weapon, that is, traditional research methods (incorporating, but going far beyond social analytics).

Perhaps reassuring – perhaps not – one panelist bemoaned: What you need is smart people to understand what the social analytics are telling you! Yes, indeed.