Four ways to fix the social data disconnect

For the last 15 years, we’ve been using social data wrong. We think that because social marketing programs create lots of social data these two things — social programs and social data — should fit together. But they don’t.

  • Social data doesn’t prove social success. And yet most marketers use engagement as their top social metric.
  • Social data does offer vital business insights. But few marketers understand how social data relates to customers’ preferences.

This is the social data disconnect. Most companies try to use social data for something it can’t do: proving marketing success. And when they try to use social for something it can do — providing insights — they very often fail.

Social data doesn’t prove social success

Try as we might, we’ve never reliably connected engagement or sentiment or any other social data to the business outcomes executives demand. But we believe that because social data springs from social programs, one can prove the value of the other. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

  • Marketers report social data out of desperation. It’s no surprise we struggle to measure social marketing. Few marketers know how to gauge success. When our vendors, and the social networks themselves, highlight social data in their reports, we simply follow their lead. That’s why 58% of social marketers in a recent Simply Measured survey said engagement is their most important success metric.
  • But social data doesn’t demonstrate business value. Facebook has long known social data doesn’t prove success: In a 2014 white paper, they admitted that over 90% of the offline sales driven by Facebook ads come from people who don’t engage (PDF). And for years, they’ve advised brands that success “should be measured through business results and not via engagement rates.”
  • The result: Executives don’t think social works. Even if we believe social data proves the value of social marketing, our bosses know better. The August 2017 CMO Survey conducted by Duke University found just 16% of top marketers say they can quantitatively prove the impact of social media on their business — and that number is falling rather than rising.

Social data does offer vital business insights

While sentiment and engagement aren’t often used properly, social data can still provide a wealth of knowledge — not just about our customers and prospects, but also about our products, our customer service, our marketing and the rest of our business, as well.

Unfortunately, barely one-third of marketers in a Hootsuite survey said they grasped how social data can help them understand customers’ preferences. But the few brands that know how to turn social data into insights realize many benefits.

  • Better understand their customers. Unilever used social listening to study customers’ preferences for cooking oils — and social market research “delivered its findings in less than half the time and cost of a proposed conventional research approach,” according to the IPA, a UK organization for advertising and marketing professionals. Unilever reportedly saved nearly €1 million in research costs and generated eight new business opportunities that could collectively deliver €500 million in new revenue.
  • Build better products. Mobile phone maker ASUS used social data to gauge what customers wanted from its products — and learned its target customers most valued battery life and camera quality, according to a case study published by partner Digimind. The company used these insights to design the ZenFone Zoom S, a new phone with a two-lens camera and a high-capacity battery that’s received positive reviews.
  • Develop better marketing. Ever since social listening told Dolby its target audience loved Star Wars they’ve promoted their long-standing involvement with the franchise. One fan favorite: Dolby partners with filmmakers to create exclusive posters for each new Star Wars film, like this one for 2017’s “The Last Jedi.”

Education can end the social data disconnect

Maybe you already know that social data doesn’t prove social success, or that it does provide vital business insights. But do your CEO and CMO know this? Do your peers in marketing or throughout your company? It’s our responsibility to educate the people around us.

  1. Stop presenting social data as success. Although CMOs know engagement and sentiment don’t prove business value, many are still addicted to these numbers. One marketer told me his executives latch onto any social data they see, even when he includes more useful numbers in his reports. The solution: Leave these metrics out of your presentations, and deflect any requests for these numbers. One brand told me they now simply refuse to discuss engagement outside the marketing team.
  2. Challenge those who misuse social data. When your co-worker celebrates positive sentiment, ask if they also ran a brand survey to back it up. When a conference speaker presents engagement as success, ask if they can prove they drove sales. When your vendor’s shiny new measurement tool showcases social data, ask them how to rank posts on leads rather than on likes. We must challenge the people around us to stop misusing social data.
  3. Showcase business outcomes, even when it’s hard to. It’s easy to find social data and hard to prove business results. But an imperfect view of brand lift and sales is better than a perfect view of engagement. So use website analytics to track how many email signups or sales came from social channels. Pressure social networks into offering you brand studies. Find any business outcomes you can. Your boss will trust these numbers more than he or she trusts social data.
  4. Use social data for what it’s good for. Bring listening and engagement data to your creative brainstorm. Make sure your customer service team sees these numbers. Put social data in the hands of your R&D and product development teams. Talk to your market researchers about how they can use this information. Social data can give all these departments (and more) new insights and help them do their jobs better.

Social data can offer our companies incredible value — but only if we use it correctly. Follow the four steps above to help fix the social data disconnect.


About The Author

Nate Elliott
Nate Elliott is the principal of Nineteen Insights. He helps brands create great marketing programs and he helps marketing technology companies build great products. As a Forrester analyst and a DoubleClick product manager Nate shaped the growth of digital marketing. Over the past 20 years he's worked with every big online publisher, brand, and agency. Nate believes in the power of integration: To succeed, digital marketing must support the same goals and measure the same outcomes as traditional marketing.