The roots of business intelligence relate to customer connection. From the early days of BI, organizations have tried to understand the attitudes and intentions of consumers so they could improve products and services, price them appropriately and plan operations and finances accurately. From sales forecasting to customer retention, demand planning to trade promotion management, critical BI data revolves around the consumer. True, supply chain analytics, budgeting and other areas are relatively independent of consumer data, but best-practice companies covet accurate sources of data about their current and potential customers. For a long time, we have used post-sale data to discern what's going on with the customer. ACNielsen, IRI and other data providers built large businesses based on data collected at the scanner belt in the supermarket and other retail outlets. We've always known that, while interesting and informative, this post-sale data tells us nothing about the consumers who did not buy the product or service, nor does it tell us anything about the thought process that actually led up to the consumer's decision.

I remember working with a consumer packaged goods customer that made two versions of their product package with two different UPC codes. Because the product was vendor stocked, they could ensure equal placement of each of the two packages on the store shelf. Later, they used scanner data to discover which package their customers preferred. Needless to say, we all felt very sophisticated about such uses of experimentation and data at the time!

Let's fast forward to today. A new, vital source of data about consumers has emerged, and it comes directly from consumers themselves. This new source of data is the actual thoughts and comments of consumers, expressed in social media. By social media, also called consumer-generated media, I mean blogs and micro-blogs (like Twitter and others), videos, review boards, online forums and other social channels. 

In its Q2 2008 North American Technographics Media and Marketing Online Survey, Forrester Research found that 37 percent of U.S. online adults are "critics" who post product reviews, comment on blogs or contribute to online forums. Twenty-one percent are "creators" who post original content in blogs or Web pages, and 69 percent are "spectators" who read blogs, forums and review sites.

Separately, in June 2007 eMarketer pegged the worldwide population of consumer-generated media at 148 million, growing to 170 million in 2008. Finally, in its 2008 State of the Blogosphere report, Technorati found that large numbers of bloggers publically discuss products and brands online: 37 percent of bloggers post reviews of products frequently, and 45 percent do so occasionally.

The bottom line is that a lot of people are online, a huge percentage of them are engaged in consumer-generated media and a very large percentage of them discuss the brands and products they love - or hate. This is the source of data on consumer attitudes and intents that we in the BI industry have always craved. If we want to know whether consumers prefer package A or B, read their blogs!

While the volume of consumer-generated media is impressive, it's important to understand that the online nature of social media produces a velocity of conversation never before seen. Johnson & Johnson learned this in a dramatic way when it released an online marketing campaign called "Motrin Moms."

Case in point: on a Friday in November, Motrin released a video on its Web site. The subject of the advertising campaign was women who carry their babies in a sling and the physical discomfort they may be experiencing due to this practice. The goal of the video was to appeal to such women and offer them the pain relief of Motrin. Within hours, Twitter and the blogosphere exploded with commentary about the video and its perceived (by some) denigration of certain aspects of motherhood. The reaction was such that it caused J&J to remove the video on Sunday and publically apologize on Monday. Yes, over a single weekend, the volume and sentiment of the consumer-generated media brought down a well-planned advertising campaign. Consumer-generated media has enormous power.

But there's no reason to fear CGM. Let's review a basic strategy for approaching this opportunity. Social media is very different than traditional marketing. The figure illustrates some key differences.

In a nutshell, you can't get directly to social media using the approach of traditional marketing. Social media is more open, more grassroots and more organic than traditional marketing. The research, planning, implementation strategies and tactics are new and different. If you can become comfortable being less in control than before, you can make great strides with social media marketing. With that in mind, I see four steps to CGM maturity: listen and learn, analyze and understand, engage and, finally, integrate.

Listen and Learn

The key questions in the first step are: Is anyone out there talking about my product/service? What are they saying? Are they happy, not happy or indifferent? Who are they? What sites/communities do they frequent? Are they influential? 

There is a set of metrics for quantifying the dialog about your brand. These metrics include the sentiment of the content, the reach and pull of the author and the relative value of the site. 

The social conversation about your brand isn't always straightforward. The language people use online is often casual and euphemistic. For example, statements like "Those wheels are bad!" can actually mean the tires are fantastic. A category of software can navigate this world for you automatically. These are sometimes called social media monitoring or brand reputation management platforms. Solutions range from simple monitoring tools to full enterprise suites that include advanced BI functions. Some solutions even help you manage your participation in the dialog.

Analyze and Understand

The key questions in the second step to CGM maturity are: What are the perceived characteristics of my brand? What are the perceived characteristics of my competitors' brands? Where is the white space? What is not already owned? What are the opportunities to improve brand perception? 

A good social media enterprise solution will show you the terms and concepts that are most associated with your brand and product as well as with your competitors' brands and products. If you sell salsa and discover the term "fresh" more clearly associates with your product, be happy. But if the term is associated more with your competitors' product, you need to find a marketing strategy that shifts consumer perception. This leads to a subtle concept worth touching on: your marketing campaign to move the dial on concepts such as "fresh" can be a traditional marketing campaign, a social media-based campaign or both. Regardless, its impact will be noticed first in consumer-generated media channels. Long before the scanner belts register a blip in sales, your customers will be expressing themselves online. Use this early feedback to modify and fine-tune your marketing strategy and tactics.

It's worth noting that some terms and concepts are in the "white space" - important product characteristics that are not owned by you or by your competitors. Yet, brands that identify these attributes first and work toward association have a competitive advantage.

Engage

In the third step, we move into community participation, which can be a challenging transition for traditional marketing cultures. As you tune into the dialog, you will find some "haters." Listening and learning will tell you that some of these people have a lot of influence. You will also find advocates: people who adore your product, want you to succeed, wish you well and defend you against the haters. You have opportunities with both audiences:

 

  • Your product advocates are levers for your success. When you arm them with information, reward them for their loyalty and respect them by considering their input and using it, you magnify their energy on your behalf. Give them some love and measure their impact.
  • The haters need and deserve respect, too. You'll find the truly irrational are not articulate, can't support their argument with facts and are generally not influential. Your social media monitoring tools can help you find the influential critics. Engage them directly, honestly and transparently. If your enthusiasm for listening and addressing issues comes through, you can turn critics into advocates.
  • The people on the sidelines and the indifferent will see all of your efforts directed to the advocates and the critics. They can be positively influenced by your transparency and honesty.
  • The trick with engagement is control. Yes, I previously said social media provides far less control of the message than traditional marketing methods. Just the same, you don't want hundreds of people in your company responding to hundreds or thousands of consumers online in random ways. Support your initiatives with customer relationship management-like tracking to make sure you don't under or over-respond. It is also helpful to provide facilities for pre-approved content to handle frequently occurring situations. 

Integrate

The last step is to integrate the social media approach - content and metrics - into your core line-of-business activities. 

Social media adds value to the marketing process as we have discussed. Engagement is the beginning of integrating with the sales process. Consumer-generated content can influence product design and development, product support and investor relations.

Most of your current and potential customers are online. They are engaged with social or consumer-generated media. They are discussing the brands and products they love and the brands and products they hate. They have influence and power to affect your company and its product sales. Winning companies are developing strategies and tactics to listen to, learn from, analyze, understand and engage with this powerful new channel. The ball is in your court.

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