In many companies, marketers have been first movers in social media, tapping into it for insights on how consumers think and behave. As social technologies mature and organizations become convinced of their power, we believe they will take on a broader role: informing competitive strategy. In particular, social media should help companies overcome some limits of old-school intelligence gathering, which typically involves collecting information from a range of public and propriety sources, distilling insights using time-tested analytic methods, and creating reports for internal company “clients” often “siloed” by function or business unit.
Today, many people who have expert knowledge and shape perceptions about markets are freely exchanging data and viewpoints through social platforms. By identifying and engaging these players, employing potent Web-focused analytics to draw strategic meaning from social-media data, and channeling this information to people within the organization who need and want it, companies can develop a “social intelligence” that is forward looking, global in scope, and capable of playing out in real time.
This isn’t to suggest that “social” will entirely displace current methods of intelligence gathering. But it should emerge as a strong complement. As it does, social-intelligence literacy will become a critical asset for C-level executives and board members seeking the best possible basis for their decisions.
In this article, we explore four distinct ways social technologies can augment the intelligence-gathering approaches of companies. As Exhibit 1 makes clear, social media has little effect on some aspects of the intelligence cycle—in particular, the need to identify priorities for exploration and decision making over the next 6 to 12 months, as well as the use of assembled information to make unbiased decisions. But social technologies can play a surprisingly central role in how information is sourced, collected, analyzed, and distributed.1
From Identifying Data to Mapping People and Conversations
Social media creates a new information map. Competitive analysts today differentiate between primary sources of information (from experts, competitors, employees, and suppliers), on the one hand, and secondary sources (such as published data, articles, and market research), on the other. Social intelligence operates on a different plane, identifying people and their conversations in social spaces. Its logic is that if you can find the right “curators” and experts collecting and channeling vital, accurate information, that eliminates the need for extensive searches of traditional databases and published information. Identifying the right people ultimately should induce companies to join existing online conversations and even shape them. This real-time information may help preempt key actions of competitors or lead to adjustments of strategy.
The costs of navigating without a social-intelligence map can be substantial. Servier, a French pharmaceutical company, is a case in point. Its licensed diabetes drug, Mediator, was also used extensively off-label for weight loss. The drug was withdrawn from the French market in November 2009 after questions arose about its safety, including its role in a number of deaths. For years after Mediator’s launch, in 1976, there had been little news in the press, let alone medical data, that pointed to problems. By 2003, though, online forums were hosting hundreds of conversations among concerned patients. Not long afterward, doctors and nutritionists began weighing in with their concerns about the drug’s safety. These early signals were too weak for traditional Web analysis to spot by simple keyword scanning. But if the analysis had shifted to deeper “argument mining,” diabetes-related conversations among experts would have appeared, perhaps prompting action by the company. A retrospective analysis from French social-media researchers found that by 2006 the conversations mapped though argument mining had shifted heavily to discussions of the drug’s risks.2
The case of Mediator, while perhaps extreme, hints at structural constraints that lurk within many organizations and hinder efforts to identify or act on key information—particularly when it runs against the organizational grain. Intelligence analysts often report exclusively to a single department, such as communications, marketing, or strategy. That can make analysts gravitate toward the approved pattern of thinking within their function, potentially limiting the breadth of insight they distill and sometimes even interfering with their judgment. Curating a variety of perspectives from multiple social-media sources should help internal checks and balances play out more freely and, in some cases, lead to necessary whistle-blowing. To reinforce this diversity of thought, companies can embed analysts across the organization in functions ranging from strategic planning and product development to R&D, customer service, and M&A planning.
As companies make such moves, they will probably need to update the profiles of their competitive-intelligence analysts. Recruitment from outside the company or even the industry can improve the odds that analysts will pick up a variety of signals that now may be missed. Leaders, too, will need to understand that decrypting weak signals may offer better strategic insights than the familiar patterns traditional intelligence sometimes serves up.
From Data Gathering to Engaging and Tracking
Analysts typically spend 80 percent of their time gathering information before they begin to analyze it. Social intelligence radically alters this process. Numerous tools allow analysts to create dynamic maps that pinpoint where information and expertise reside and to track new data in real time. The most effective way of obtaining new information is to engage a carefully mapped network of experts on specific subjects.