Social media listening can deliver far more benefits than businesses currently obtain.

Achieving the full benefit from social media listening requires a change in business managers’ mindset from a data-centered frame of mind to a focus on “meaning” of the content. In short, business managers must “think like an anthropologist,” argue a trio of experts in a Harvard Business Review article. The article was written by Susan Fournier, Boston University professor of management; John Quelch, a Harvard Business School professor; and Bob Rietveld, co-founder of a Netherlands-based marketing analytics firm. It should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in social media listening and analysis.

Social media listening can provide critical competitive intelligence. It can reveal how the public feels about a company and its products, how consumers view competitors, and what kind of products consumers desire. Yet despite the potential of social media listening, it remains underutilized.

“Social listening promises the Holy Grail in business: superior understanding of customers. Why, then, do managers fail to fully exploit it?” the article authors ask.  While aggregated data from social media monitoring can be helpful, it’s the actual social media content that delivers the real and extraordinarily valuable customer insights that businesses need, the experts maintain.

Why Firms Don’t Exploit Social Media Listening

Information science professionals who typically analyze social media data are trained in organizing and interpreting hard data. These analysts characteristically seek data that confirm predetermined views rather than seeking unexpected insights that change perception and perspective, as an anthropologist would. As quantitative analysts, they often lack an appreciation for meaningful context and are wanting in the knowledge, skills and methodologies used by anthropologists and other social scientists to develop truly important insights.

Other issues: Many organizations turn to social media monitoring only during crises and the data frequently remain within marketing departments rather than being shared with top managers and across the organization. While quantitative analysis should not be abandoned, greater emphasis on the qualitative aspect of social media listening will produce more valuable insights.

“In order to ‘appreciate the qualitative’ and extract meaning from it, managers have to think like anthropologists and jettison many of the scientific principles that underlie traditional hard science research,” the experts write. Anthropology-like insights are often the stimulus that transforms established businesses into disruptors that create whole new product or business categories.

One Post Can Make a Major Difference

Unlike aggregated data studies where a representative sample size is de rigueur, a single social media post can have profound implications for product development and business processes.

Here’s an example from the article: A pharmaceutical company found a Flickr image of a man wrapping a part of his leg in foil after applying the company’s pain relief ointment. He did it because the medication left stains that couldn’t be removed from certain fabrics. That one photo revealed a problem the company didn’t know about. The patient’s lone social media post prompted a change in the product formula that solved the staining problem and improved customer satisfaction.

In another example, a software developer released a new desktop application with great fanfare. Its PR department placed news articles in major media sources worldwide and achieved extremely high figures for clip counts and reach.

In addition to measuring media mentions, company representatives reviewed customer feedback. They discovered that a few early adopters spotted a flaw in the software that Beta tests had not uncovered. The engineers investigated, acknowledged the problem, developed a software fix, and issued a patch within 48 hours to solve the problem.  Insight from media monitoring and quick response prevented a potentially mammoth product crisis.

Changing Focus from Data to Insight

Changing the focus of social media listening to qualitative analysis in order to understand the real meaning and import of the content will necessarily change how social media listening is performed. Automated sentiment analysis software that grades sentiment of social media posts as positive, negative or neutral cannot understand context or find the “gems” of information that a well-trained human analyst can. Human analysts who have social science skills must read and/or watch and listen to social media posts and conversations in order to uncover and interpret the consumer insights about the product or business process.

Information, ideas and insights shared by consumers should not merely be reduced to data; it should be analyzed by humans for actual meaning – deciphered and acted upon.  Consumers’ stated opinions and insights must become a critical part of all media monitoring reports. That means actual quotes, insights and desires, not just data. The reports must also include candid recommendations directed to decision-makers on needed changes to products and business services based on consumer input.

Then social media listening will achieve its optimum benefits.

Bottom Line: Taking full advantage of social media listening requires a change of mindset – a change that places greater emphasis on insight and less on data. In this new mindset, a single post can prove momentous and decisive in identifying issues and in improving a product or service.