Are you listening? Are you in on the conversation? Do you have the tools to compete?
Today, brand marketers know that if they’re not visiting social sites where customers are talking about their brands and their products, they are missing out on critical insights that can build a brand, drive topline revenue and spark innovation. Everyone, it seems, realizes the need to get in on the social media conversation, listen to what is being said, and, to the extent possible, direct the discussion.
Social media listening and analytics have become essential tools for marketers. In the fifth annual Social Media Marketing Industry Report published by Social Media Examiner, over 3,000 marketers responded to a survey on the use of social media. The question wasn’t whether they were using social media to grow their business, but rather how they were using it. A full 69% of the marketers who were polled said they used social media to gain critical marketplace insight, including 71% of B2B companies and 66% of B2C companies.
So what is social media providing that drives business impact? Social media tools are being leveraged primarily to build brand advocacy, generate sales through social insights and drive solution innovation. Here is how the tools are being used in these critical areas:
Building Brand Advocacy
It’s not surprising that marketers are learning a lot about their brands by monitoring social media and leveraging the insights they gain. Brand sentiment ebbs and flows over time, and in this on-line, all-the-time, 24-7 world, the sentiment surrounding a brand can overflow or even dry up within hours or even minutes. Marketers know they have to pay close attention to the volume of social mentions of their brand and products, especially in comparison to competition. Companies increasingly track the momentum of critical marketing campaigns by viewing key themes that show up in the social media conversation and how they evolve over time. They drill down on what is being said about their brand, who is doing the talking and who is garnering the greatest number of followers.
This data is like gold. It helps businesses establish highly targeted marketing activities to “influence the influencers” or to develop messaging strategies that will draw attention or “buzz” to their brand. Major sporting events and awards shows that are watched by millions can generate volumes of conversations and insights that provide instantaneous feedback to a marketer who is prepared to monitor on-line, real-time, contemporaneous conversations and find out what is important to both prospective and existing customers. For instance, a leading sport shoe producer analyzing social buzz during the 2010 World Cup, used that real-time information to fine tune an advertising strategy for a new product that was being launched. 
Social intelligence also helps marketers uncover new sales and services opportunities. There is something about the medium that makes customers not in the least bit shy about expressing their honest opinions. Potential new customers who have expressed dissatisfaction with a competitive brand may be expressing in social conversation that they are ready to switch products. If you aren’t listening, that’s a lost sale. Conversely, social conversations can help marketers identify which of their existing customers are unhappy and may be poised to defect to competitors. Social listening tactics are essential if marketers are to be targeted in their customer engagement strategies, keeping current customers happy and attracting new ones. Avaya, for example, was able to identify a $250K phone system deal simply by monitoring what was being said about the company on Twitter. 
Driving Solution Innovation
Marketers also use social technologies to understand what customers think about their products and services, and in the process, they can identify the positives and negatives. Innovation can then be focused on accentuating the positive, eliminating the negative and overall driving a more satisfying customer experience. The on-line buzz about a competitor’s offerings can also provide insights that can drive product improvements and help marketers develop successful communications strategies. And this can be a lot less expensive than conventional market research. McKinsey reported that “Generating insights by engaging directly with consumers on social platforms or by observing what they say about products and features can cost as little as one-fifth as much as conventional research using focus groups or surveys.”  For example, when launching the South Beach line of weight loss products, Kraft used insights derived from on-line communities to help refine product concepts and packaging and develop the most effective merchandising and marketing tactics. 
In Conclusion, Listen, Learn, and Act
Social media platforms have evolved from fun places to watch and listen to real-time tools that can be used to pry essential marketing insights out of social conversations. The toolkit of social media analytics is growing in size and sophistication. Businesses are now using “graphical dashboards” of key social metrics in order to identify spikes in social chatter that may signal a call to action. They are using “influencer maps” to identify the individuals who have the greatest “social authority,” i.e., the people who are directing the conversation and drawing the highest levels of engagement and the greatest number of followers. Businesses are also using “word clouds” to highlight frequently used words in order to understand key themes that may be emerging in the social conversation. Businesses are also adopting “geolocation maps” to identify where social conversations are taking place. They are getting direct feedback from customers through on-line forums and communities.