Almost half of all Americans have interacted with a company via social media. In fact, 28 percent would rather engage with an organization on social media than visit a physical location.

Almost half of all Americans have interacted with a company via social media. In fact, 28 percent would rather engage with an organization on social media than visit a physical location.Click To Tweet

It’s no secret that brands should use social media as a communication tool. From engaging with happy customers to placating disgruntled ones, using platforms like Twitter and Facebook is necessary to strengthening relationships with consumers.

Yet, despite its pervasiveness in marketing strategy, social media is an underutilized resource for gathering data – beyond Twitter Analytics and Facebook Insights. Social media can yield a deeper understanding of who your target audience is, what’s important to them and how they feel about your brand. These insights can serve as a guide for bigger marketing decisions- if you unearth and use the data correctly. After all, the most crucial step in digging for data is knowing how to use the shovel.

Here are 5 key considerations for collecting social media data.

Qualitative data is key

Say there are 1 million people talking about your brand on Twitter. Of those, how many would you consider your target audience? Behind your social metrics, real people are doing the clicking. Useful qualitative data often lies latent in corners of Facebook and Twitter that marketers don’t think to track.

Twitter bios fall into this category. Here, audiences write their own personas. A bio can tell you the physical location, gender, occupation and interests of the people that are having online conversations about your brand, all in 140 characters or less.

This data can offer surprising insights about your customers. For instance, Dollar Shave Club, the popular male-focused razor delivery service, saw 26 percent of social conversation stemming from a female audience in 2016. Social media data can uncover niches within your main audience, allowing for better segmenting and targeting.

Listen to position your brand

What is driving the conversation happening around your brand today? And, more importantly, are people saying what you want them to say?

Marketers should consistently track keywords, sentiment and language used in association with their brand online. One way to measure this flux over time is to align social keywords with your KPIs. Is price satisfaction a pillar in your marketing efforts? What about millennial appeal? Studying these data sets will allow you to discover actual perception versus the desired perception of your brand.

What’s not being said is just as important as what is

It is important to note that social volume does not always equal value when it comes to social conversation. Often, little to no social chatter around a brand is just as dangerous as negative chatter.

For instance, over the period of almost a year, downtrending Abercrombie and Fitch was mentioned fewer times per day than bankrupt PacSun. Even though social media is a poor sales predictor, it can indicate public interest. This data can be useful when benchmarking against your competitors. How much and what is being said about the brand next door’s store? How is the industry performing in all-up conversation?

While not a bulletproof method, keeping a pulse your competition can help you predict the weather with radar technology instead of binoculars.

Social media is the world’s biggest focus group

Social media is the world’s largest, most honest focus group. Yet most brands are not taking advantage of social media as a platform to test new ideas. Collecting audience feedback through social channels prior to the launch of a new product will allow you to gather customer reactions before it hits the shelves.

Count on your audience to voice their opinions more freely from behind their laptops and smartphones than in a face-to-face interview. Word usage, brand associations, emotional statements and overall sentiment can serve as a playbook for launch strategy. Traditional, built-in analytics cannot ascertain this kind of information. These insights are not only valuable to marketing, but product development as well.

Mind your software and algorithms

Algorithms and tracking software lacks a component that us humans often take for granted: common sense.

Sarcasm is an example of an element that traditional social listening tools have a hard time deciphering. Certain conversational norms, popular humor and even spelling errors will evade the nonhuman mind. Software also cannot detect the work of trolls. The goal of a troll, particularly in social media, is to incite and fan the fires of discord on social media channels.

Take the #BoycottStarWarsVII hashtag from late 2015. The controversial hashtag caused widespread outrage throughout the Twittersphere. Upon further inspection, it was found that 94 percent of tweets containing the hashtag expressed opposition to it. The remaining six percent was made up of trolls that sent the hashtag into circulation. Thus, the racist hashtag was not reflective of mass opinion.

From cyber hostility to incessant posting, a troll’s involvement can skew data in the wrong direction. Tracking software and algorithms are a valuable asset, but they can’t replace a discerning human mind.

If you’re using social media solely as a communication channel, you’re missing an opportunity. Leverage social media to understand your audience – who they are, and what they care about.

About the Author: As co-president and co-founder of Fizziology, Jen Handley works with film, TV, talent and brand clients to help them understand audience reactions to marketing and products, and devise new strategies for them based on research. Handley leads ongoing technology innovation efforts and the company’s focus on new product development.

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