Why Social Media Analytics Can’t Tell You About Your Customers

Author

Ava Seave, Contributor

December 31, 2014

“Don’t for a minute think that what social media analytics are showing you is a representative picture of how your customers as a whole see you,” cautions Alexandra Samuel VP of Social Media at tech company Vision Critical . Since the most enthusiastic users of social are atypical as customers, she says “then it really calls into question about how much you can rely on analytics to tell you what your customers think or do or behave or what they associate with your brand.”

In a recent interview, Samuel and Andrew Reid, President and Founder of the company, talked about their new study “What Social Media Analytics Can’t Tell You About Your Customer.” The study establishes differences among social media user segments — “Enthusiasts”, “Dabblers” and “Lurkers” — by their posting habits, their posts reading frequency and their physical world behaviors.

Cautionary Tale

And it is a cautionary tale about the dangers of using social media analytics out of context. The study concludes that to find out the “why” behind consumers’ actions, companies need to actually talk to their customers. Of course, this is not a surprising conclusion from a company whose core product is all about establishing long term research relationships with customers through establishing communities.  Fair enough. But the data they collected helps to understand how wacky some decisions might social media analytics are the only inputs.

Vision Critical’s research makes a convincing argument that because social media updates come from unrepresentative minority, social media analytics are very bad at telling you both how to market to most of your audience and (counter-intuitively) they aren’t even reliable in telling you how to engage with most of your customers through social media.

How wacky?

  • 85% of Facebook updates come from 29% of the Facebook audience
  • 56% of the posts come from people who post more than twice a day
  • 68% of the people who don’t post much (less than once per week) still visit Facebook every day

The data came from participants who gave Vision Critical direct access to their Facebook data and answered survey questions.  The participants were recruited from three brands’ online communities (two media businesses, and one apparel brand) and Vision Critical’s own nonbranded panel.   Each of the brands contributed about 900 participants, with the nonbranded panel contributing another 16,500 participants.

Resonating with lurkers

Samuel and Reid don’t discourage companies from learning about the enthusiasts/influencers by using social media analytics. “But before you use those influencers to carry your message, or before you hand them a video or an image of something you want them to share,” says Samuel, “make sure that image and message is going to resonate with the lurkers, and the dabblers who they are sharing it with, because that’s the vast majority of your audience. And there is no point in activating influencers to spread a message that is going to fall on deaf ears.”  For example, the study shows that 49% of enthusiasts  have comparison shopped with their mobile phones versus 36% of  lurkers. Vision Critical’s practical advice in the study? “Don’t let social drive over-investment in mobile.  Your social dashboard may show people clamoring for fancy new apps, but the larger part of your social media audience may care more about the desktop shopping experience.”

Social media analytics are crucial in  measuring the virality of specific messages, tracking the growth, ebbs and flows of online audience and identifying and leveraging the enthusiastic users who are the influencers. But, says Reid,  “You hear about certain sporadic examples of brands looking at some of their social media analytics, and making big, bold moves.  And if it is all about impacting a social campaign, great. But if you are going to launch a campaign, or you are going to introduce a product to the market, or any kind of plans that will affect your global customer base, that’s where social is inadequate.  It’s one of the important inputs to look at, but it’s not the be all end all.”

Particular insights about media

One part of the study looks at the relationship between social media usage and media habits. “I think one of the big take-aways here that was really surprising,” says Samuel, “was how different the media habits of these different social media audiences are. This is one of the areas where we think media companies are probably one of the industries that most need to pay attention. If you’re thinking about how to activate people while they are watching your TV show but you discover that the TV tastes of different social media users are radically different, that really challenges you to rethink. What kind of social media strategy do I want to use if I know a whole bunch of people watching the show are never going to post on Facebook in a million years?”

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