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Beyond the 'like': Extracting value from social media data

Drew Turney
Technology Journalist

Drew Turney writes about technology, science, film, books, pop culture and the crossroads between any or all of them

Drew Turney
Technology Journalist

Drew Turney writes about technology, science, film, books, pop culture and the crossroads between any or all of them

Even smaller operations can mine social media data and use those insights to build a better business.

To most of us, the unique selling point of social media is the attention it gains and the interactions it sparks. With the right strategy, many businesses have transformed that attention into revenue. But big data offers far deeper insights into customer behaviour that can help make a real difference to your marketing.

We've all heard the statistics about how much information the human race is generating. In 2013, 90 per cent of the information in the world had been generated within just the previous two years.

This mountain of data presents almost limitless potential to better understand patterns of customer behaviour.

A hand holding a tablet with social media icons drawn around it.

How data diving saves lives

Science and research has taken the lead when it comes to mining insight from social media. Facebook updates, Twitter posts and more are being used in everything from helping to combat the spread of ISIS and its ideologies to measuring how happy a population is.

One of the most ardent adopters of social media research has been the healthcare industry. In one recent study, data scientists searched tweets from an eight-month period for mentions of asthma and found an increase of social media mentions corresponded to a rise in hospital admissions.

Future outbreaks, the researchers suggested, could be identified in near real time, giving hospitals time to prepare, or even helping to give health authorities the means to issue warnings and preventative advice quickly.

As the lead researcher on the asthma study said, “This work paves the way to address signal extraction and prediction for other chronic conditions and goes beyond current work that mostly looks at infectious conditions.”

But even if you aren't a health or security agency, new and valuable intuition about customers and competitors is there for the taking.

As we continue to move away from our deskbound PCs and connect on the go, mobile data can assist in adding another dimension to the insight. Call metadata from mobile phone providers has already been used to study personal mobility, urban planning, health detection, the spread of infectious diseases, extreme situation monitoring, crime and privacy issues.

Putting data to work

But how do we turn social media tweets, updates and likes into actionable data to help identify and target potential customers? And do it cheaply and in near real time? One way is to look beyond the hashtags and other common markers.

Say you want to open a small business in a given location. Start by doing some social media research to see if potential competitors have a strong presence in the area you're considering. It might prompt you to consider a different neighbourhood, where your potential market isn't as well served.

Or you can go deeper still. The heavy social media users who patronise that competitor might also reveal their ages, where most of them live and what else they like.

Metrics analysis platforms can synthesise and reveal patterns like this, giving you an invaluable overall picture of your market while keeping individual users' details anonymous.

If you discover a lot of your intended customer base are fans of a particular coffee shop, it might be smart to open your own business close by.

Social media analytics are also helpful beyond business planning.  Depending on the platform you use, you’ll be able to see likes, shares, followers, mentions, as well as new customers acquired, sales and leads. And of course, looking at social media for consumer sentiment about your business is invaluable in helping to improve your products and services.

Useful social marketing tools

The major social network providers themselves all offer analytics tools. It can be as simple as using Google Analytics on your own site to see what people are searching for that leads them to your service (social media is a common source for leads).

Just like Facebook’s Pages Insights program, Facebook Audience Insights does something similar across the whole network – delivering information such as ages, location, language and more that can help you target campaigns and promotions to people who have a better chance of being interested. Using granular data to target an audience means only the people who will be interested in a campaign will see it, helping increase the chance of engagement. It's all collected and delivered from within the platform and with everyone's identity protected.

Gnip – now owned by Twitter – delivers information about what people are tweeting, delivered in near real time as the filters and APIs mine the service. Twitter itself allows users to see information about trending topics, tweet reach and popularity, but Gnip lets businesses find more specific data. It can assist in finding emerging trends and potential influencers, and even help pinpoint the most influential product fans at a specific time and location.

As well as managing all your social media posts, the power of the in-built analytics tools in a service like Hootsuite make it a clearinghouse for your entire social media engagement. Hootsuite, for example, allows you to schedule content, gives you a complete overview of key Facebook and Twitter metrics, lets you measure how long it takes your team to respond to comments, and gives in-depth near real time reports. All valuable data to help engage audiences, share insights and show your social return on investment.

Most importantly of all, many of your competitors have probably already started on social data mining of their own. Don’t be left behind.

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