Want to protect your brand? Listen more, but measure less

In our obsession with all things metrics, we're forgetting something.

If you’ve ever logged in to a social-media-monitoring dashboard, then you know the chaos and raw frustration that lives on the other side of that "welcome" screen.

There are statistics and metrics. There are graphs and charts. There are keywords and more keywords. There are endless streams of mentions that take hours to peel through and update faster than you can scroll. 

The pressure to deliver colorful graphs that show numerical improvements in the number of mentions, followers, friends, fans, likes, tweets, and retweets…is enough to make your head spin.

However, any communications professional worth his or her salt will recognize that these numbers represent very little value in steering communications strategy and protecting the brand.

In a search of the social web, the average corporation will identify 3,500 daily mentions of its products, executives, and subsidiaries each day, and consumer-facing companies will see a daily average of 10,000 to 20,000 mentions of their brand and products. These mentions come not only from the usual social media suspects, but also more obscure blogs and discussion forums – and even comments on the digital forms of traditional media.

These mentions represent conversations that can affect reputation — as long as you can find them.

With an increasing fascination with big data, a social media landscape that grows by the millisecond, and communications professionals desperate to wrangle it all so they can continue to protect the reputation of the brands they represent, monitoring services are offering an attractive proposition: let the technology do it for you.

But in our obsession with all things metrics, here’s what we’re forgetting: for PR folks, what makes data so powerful isn’t the data itself, but how we humans interpret and digest that data, who is influencing the conversation, and the actions we take because of what that data is showing us.

Here’s a real life example:

We did some work for a large consumer brand, whose products are well-known and appeal to a wide demographic. They came to us for help monitoring a developing issue centered on the publishing of a book that was critical of their industry’s practices and its impact on human health. Our client wasn’t being called out specifically, but the industry as a whole was being examined.

Our approach was to track the conversations happening on the topic on the social web, looking specifically at the people who were influencing those conversations the most; gauging influence with a human’s intuition and research. We set-up our own algorithms to start searching the chatter about the book and the author’s views on the issue, and we assigned a crisis-experienced editor to find and interpret the conversations they saw coming through.

A few weeks into the campaign, one of the editors called. An unusual data point had popped up in that day’s report that, once he investigated, led him to a petition being started on Facebook asking for a ban of one of the client’s products unless an ingredient was removed. This had nothing to do with the original brief; however our editor did a little digging and saw that the drivers of the petition fit the client’s most important demographic and that the potential impact on the client’s reputation could be large.

The company had no idea it existed, but its discovery gave the communications team plenty of runway to develop a strategy and, as we PR people know, time is more valuable than gold. Incidentally, the petition had nearly half a million signatures before it ran its course. #TrueStory.

Since the data point had nothing to do with the issue we were looking at, most technology-driven monitoring services would have overlooked it since it wasn’t part of the original brief, or it would have been buried in mountains of mentions. In our experience, of the thousands of social media mentions a company might get in a given day, fewer than 20%, on average, are of reputational value.

But what if they missed it? What if they did nothing?

I think we can all agree that technology is helping us explore new frontiers that would have never been possible without it. And that computer-generated stats and charts and graphs have a purpose.

But technology on its own is not enough.

As communications professionals, our job is to promote and protect our brand’s reputation. Being armed with a page full of stats about the number of retweets we receive in a day isn’t going to do that.

What will? Knowing what conversations are happening across different platforms, the influencers who are causing those conversations to gain or lose momentum and, most importantly, what’s actually being said.

And right now, only an experienced human looking at the data can tell us that.

Frank De Maria is CEO of Social 360.

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