Across the world there are about 1.5 billion conversations an hour on social media platforms. Social media users share 30 billion pieces of content – comments, opinions, information videos, podcasts and photographs – each month. Yet just 15 years ago, none of this existed.
This means businesses have potential access to huge amounts of data about their markets, customers and competitors. The challenge is to turn these social media conversations from simple noise into intelligence from which they can extract insights, understanding and warnings that will create or protect value.
Many businesses recognise that social media might lead them to a better understanding of what their customers think and want.
However, they struggle to understand how they can get the right information that will help them get ahead of the competition and make money.
To do that requires an expert analysis of social conversations and online behaviour, as well as an understanding that this is about much more than simply listening to the crowd.
It requires clarity about what a business should be monitoring, how to interpret the information received, and how to protect against the risks social media can present. This is social intelligence.
Producing this social intelligence means applying data, technology and people to pick out the nuggets of intelligence, which, when stripped of emotional conversations, are invaluable to a company.
These nuggets are then developed to provide an understanding of what is behind the conversations, as well as the links, the networks and the location of this information. They can then be cross-referenced with other snippets that may be dotted about on the web – not just social conversations. These could include telephone numbers, email addresses, relationships to websites, domain links to friends or aliases that people use.
The intelligence is then pulled together to produce information about a particular topic, word or phrase, that is verified to determine whether it is revealing a genuine development rather than just hot air. This then gives an organisation a way of determining the value of a trend, and whether it is something that should be incorporated into its strategy.
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The first benefit of social intelligence is the way it can be used to identify micro-trends that have not yet gained momentum.
Armed with this intelligence, a company can get ahead of the competition as there are significant profit margins to be realised in being the first to provide a service or product to the market. This applies not just to business-to-consumer transactions, but also in business-to-business.
By using social media to understand your customer’s customer, you can develop better products that will enable them – and you – to profit, in a classic win-win.
The second key benefit is in the way it allows an organisation to test strategies.
With social intelligence, businesses can compare the outcome of different approaches and identify the best strategy. One Dutch company, for example, recently used social media to work out the best way to communicate its financial results.
Social intelligence can also help businesses plan and predict demand more effectively. PA Consulting Group was able to use social intelligence to determine the future occupancy rate of a large hotel for a specific period of time, achieving a 98% accuracy rate.
A third key benefit is the way social media gives businesses the power to collaborate with employees, customers and suppliers to innovate and build new “digital businesses”.
One major pharmaceutical company has used social media to gather ideas from a worldwide network to develop a novel solution to an intractable medical problem. Involving future customers and suppliers in this way gives businesses greater confidence that, when they go to market with new products and services, they will be well received.
Fundamentally, social intelligence provides answers to questions that are critical to business strategy – and which board members need to know – but which companies often struggle to answer.
The question may be as simple as understanding how competitors compare in terms of the perception of their levels of customer service; it may be about providing evidence of how best to reach a particular target market; or discovering what products customers might want but that the business does not currently offer.
Equally, the business may need evidence to back up a major investment, perhaps with a new supplier, but needs to know how it is perceived by existing customers.
As a result of the volume of data and the sophistication of the analysis, social intelligence can provide more information and better information than traditional market research.
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Social intelligence can also provide better competitive intelligence. In today’s ever tougher business climate, knowing what your competitors are planning, and their successes and failures, is more important than ever.
Advanced social media analytics give a business the opportunity to make a broad study of its sector as a whole, encompassing clients, suppliers, competitors, potential competitors and key advocates.
This analysis can then be used to develop “influence strategies” – the blueprint for a set of consistent, reputation-enhancing signals communicated through the online channels that are most appropriate, whether that is the press, blogs or forums such as LinkedIn groups.
Along with opportunities, social media brings risks to companies.
The speed and volume of information that is published on social media can cause significant damage. With 78% of people saying they trust what they read on social media, a misleading comment can damage a company’s reputation in seconds. Here again, it is vital to have the intelligence to understand where this information is coming from, the motives behind it, and how to counteract it before it gains potentially dangerous momentum.
Another key risk from social media is cyber security. Social media can be used by hackers to acquire personal information about employees, then use it to befriend them. Having built a relationship, the criminal may be able to deceive the employee into revealing how to access to their company's systems, and so opening the door to cyber attacks.
However, this information can also be used against hackers. Cyber criminals or their associates may leave their "footprints" on social media sites. This can make them easier to trace, and thus prevent or mitigate attacks.
PA Consulting Group worked with one company that was under attack and used social intelligence to locate the hackers within an hour and shut down their activity.
Businesses need to understand social intelligence, both its benefits and the risks. Once they do this, they will see that this exciting development can fundamentally change the way we do business.
There is a huge prize to be secured in better products, competitive advantage and increased value, but the winners will have to embrace and integrate social intelligence into everything they do.
The opportunity is there for the taking.
Nathan Sage is a social intelligence expert at PA Consulting Group.
This was first published in March 2013