We live in an age of information overload. Nearly 40 million Tweets are sent every day, detailing everything you’ve ever wanted to know about your customers (as well as a lot that you never cared to know). However, none of this information is useful to your company if it isn’t harnessed to make informed decisions that will affect the bottom line. If organizations want to compete successfully in this information age, they must be able to collect, analyze and visualize any and all information that would tell them more about their customers, prospects and company. And the newest frontier for data collection is the vast universe of social media.

Facebook members, Twitterers, bloggers and all the information that they channel are multiplying by the second. Facebook had 112 million visitors in December 2009, according to comScore. With so much data being created on the social Web, companies committed to the use of data for core decision-making must harness the knowledge of the social networks.

Data on the social Web comes from real people in real time. This makes it unstructured, and thus more difficult to integrate into a larger data system. However, it also offers companies the benefits of speed and intimacy in its communications with consumers.

The quickness of the social Web should not be underestimated. Social media users can disseminate information to thousands of followers – and receive responses – within minutes. A company looking to use social media for its own gain must be just as fast, or risk seeming out of the loop. This is one of many areas where quality data visualization comes into play. A dashboard in an easy to read format can let you identify customer service issues, consumer attitudes, conversation volume or brand-related trending topics in seconds – allowing a speedy and appropriate response to be sent to the right users in the right network at the right time.

When visualizing data, you have many options for what you “see.” Everything from the number of mentions of your brand name at a certain point in time to the social network connectedness of the users mentioning your brand can be analyzed, depending on your needs and goals.

For example, online gathering spaces can act as free, real-time focus groups for your advertising and R&D teams. Monitoring public sentiment about your company online can be useful to the C-suite and other decision-makers for creating a broad corporate strategy. Customer service and customer relationship management teams will be able to quickly pinpoint problems – especially if they’re major enough to appear as trending topics – and solve issues on a personal level. PR pros who know how to aggregate and analyze social media correctly will know exactly when to jump in with reputation defense if your company is stuck in a social firestorm.

Social data analysis tools are being under-utilized if they are only used to see what is being said about your company and its products. Decision-makers across the enterprise should also know who is saying what and to whom in order to prioritize influential and well-reasoned social networkers over those with smaller audiences and those who are consistently negative. It’s crucial to know how customers influence one another and group together by interest; if you can see the connections, it will be that much easier for your company to swoop in with the right message at exactly the right point.

Of course, incorporating social media into your business intelligence system does have its drawbacks, the most obvious of which is the added complexity of unstructured data layered on to your traditional data sources. It’s hard enough to keep data clean and current in a traditional name/address/phone number customer database; with consumers creating multiple profiles online – some for work, some for play – getting a clean and complete profile is a daunting task.

Some companies find it easier to create whole new intelligence systems simply for housing social data. Comcast – now famed for its use of Twitter as a customer service tool – has a custom-built a customer service system called Grand Slam solely for social data.

This stop-gap approach may work in the short run, but all BI must eventually be integrated into something that strategists at your company can see and make decisions from. Social media data by itself will only take them so far. It’s when social information can be applied to other data sets, and vice versa, that your C-suite will truly be able to see what social media does for your company and how to use it to boost your bottom line.

Much of your social data can be automated when a system is up and running, but it will take a team of experts to truly get a handle on the sheer amount of data coming in. A single point person will not do, particularly when you are integrating multiple data sources across silos. You need the whole company working together to create and manage a BI process that incorporates social media data in a flexible, customized, intuitive way. If you can’t see your social data, you’re driving blind when it comes to planning for your company’s future.

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