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Avoiding the social media complacency trap

Why social media dashboards aren't a substitute for deeper customer understanding using digital ethnography

Considering how fast social media came upon us, social media marketing has reached an interesting point in its evolution: complacency. Not in the media itself, nor in how users are behaving online, or in how quickly new spaces are popping up and evolving – but in how marketers are becoming comfortable in how they are using (and not using) social media.

This complacency is driven by marketers’ need to create short cuts in analysis and implementation without necessarily understanding the ground-level view of what it is they are analysing and implementing.

Speed trumps understanding

On the face of it the very premise of trying to speed up assessments and actions in social media seems absurd: we are trying to cut corners from the fastest, quickest medium we have.

It might be our problem is that we need to make quicker judgments based on even more condensed information. However, a more considered strategic approach might be to ask: What are the social realities (environments, behaviors) of our audiences and how should we interact appropriately?

The complacency in analysing social media is widespread. Many marketers have scrambled to sign up with social media dashboards to help distill the perceived “noise” in social but at what cost? 1,000 folks re-Tweeting “X is horrible compared to Y” means the brand manager for Y likely sees 1,000 negative hits because of the pejorative used in association with their keyword.

Even more egregious is that though some dashboard tools provide the opportunity to look into conversations, in reality few brand managers or researchers actually bother to look. They miss the actual comments by their most ardent fans!

Social dashboards can offer a narrow field of vision

Dashboards famously love Twitter – but that certainly is not the only place your audience lives. Only the most annoying Facebook friends post wild, public posts with no privacy.

More often than not, the bulk of pertinent, interpersonal discussion happens in succinct core communities online such as a long-held forum or messageboard for car enthusiasts or the young mothers of a hamlet who use a Facebook Group to discuss playdates and local services. These niche discussions defy most of the generalised observations about the web – and more importantly they defy the crawlers and software robots that your expensive dashboards utilise to feed you information.

In a recent demonstration of a popular dashboard utility used by many large agencies and brands, a representative conceded technical issues aren’t what keeps most message boards out of the dashboard’s reach, but that a forum’s Terms of Service could keep them invisible.

So in other words if you represent a brand of petrol additive, you’ll never know about the views of automotive enthusiasts and if you manage a nappy brand then the young mums helping each other are out of reach.

Avoiding implementation short cuts

Implementation is also, disappointingly, where complacency has taken hold. Marketers seem entranced by tools that allow them to cross-post in both Twitter and Facebook at the same time, allowing them to save seconds per post, even if it makes their responses in one channel or another look nearly incomprehensible and untailored to each respective audience.

Can you imagine this same desire in other advertising mediums? The tube station movie poster is not reproduced as a postage-stamp-sized ad for mobile spaces – it is redesigned (and hopefully reconsidered) completely to take advantage of each channel.

Too often, even from a campaign perspective social media is “tacked on” at the end, far after the concept has been created. By all accounts it is as if we have both admitted we do not fully understand the medium and yet also have it “all figured out” enough to quickly cross-post and patch in social solutions.

How to research more meaningful customer insight

The best way to combat complacency in both assessment and execution is to truly listen to your audiences first.  Taking a cue from qualitative methods, perhaps the most comprehensive and truly representative technique to use in observing social channels is ethnography. By exploring its communities in detail a brand can:

  • Identify: important insights; platform behaviors; influence of environment; messaging phenomenon; archetypes; content lexicon and more.
  • Learn what audience(s) it already engages and how this differs from the ones it really wants – allowing social media to strategically make those one and the same.
  • Discerning which social channels you do not need to consider at the moment; that knowledge alone is invaluable and is the strategic way of finding efficiency in social media.

A proper deep dive prior to a campaign, or in fact annually with ongoing monitoring in-between can provide profound strategic insights. It can also fuel those expensive dashboards as you find new and viable keywords and vocabulary to look for, avoiding the oversimplification in exchange for a better tuning of the device itself. These dives also help implement in a very real way as the marketer in charge of responding now has a far more intricate cultural knowledge of the audiences they are interacting with.

Good digital ethnography is not prohibitively costly, but identifying both communities then subsequently piecing together content from sources such as: blogs; review sites; picture boards and networking communities does take time and skill.  Patterns start to appear that traverse platforms and yield true understanding to the trained eye.

Utilising digital ethnography means exploring the realities of the social web – as opposed to the attractive but woefully incomplete brevity that dashboards and toothless implementation gives us.

We believe it's important, as we face new social landscapes, that we do not immediately respond with complacency and a desire for efficiency and instead take the time to listen and seek out the right audiences.

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