The early days of business use of social media (about two years ago) were characterised by companies merely replacing one channel – traditional media – for another – social media. Their messaging remained largely broadcast in style. But since those first experiments, listening has become a vital first step to any business engagement with an audience on social media.

However, the proliferation of social channels, the number of subscribers and the frequency of contributions means that, unless your organisation works in a highly specialist area, aggregating input from all the channels has grown beyond the ability of mere humans, writes Andrew Charlesworth at

“There’s just too much to listen to, so tools are required,” says Angus Fox, director of social collaboration software company Multizone.

Some of these tools are relatively simple, such as the Tweetdeck or SocialMention, which is like Google alerts but for social media: feed in your brand name and it spits out what people are saying in real time.

For those who are interested in trends rather than real-time data, TwitterStreamGraphs shows how subjects trend over time. By searching Twitter activity for your company’s name you can see when and where problems are occurring.

There are also sentiment analysis tools, which attempt to monitor whether your brand is liked or disliked on social media, or which way public opinion is swinging on a subject like, for example, the acceptance of nuclear energy.

However, experts advise that the output of these tools is to be taken with a large helping of salt.

“The most accurate sentiment tool we analysed was at best 50 per cent accurate,” says Charlie Osmond, managing director of social media agency Fresh Networks. “You’d have as much success tossing a coin to gauge your online sentiment.”

Nick Halstead of social media developer MediaSift rates sentiment tools even lower: “Sentiment tools are inaccurate 95 per cent of the time because computers can’t understand sarcasm.”

Consequently, human interpretation is still seen as vital for gauging the temperature of online audiences.

“We put all the metrics through to a woman in Helsinki who adds a big dollop of Finish common sense,” says Mark Squires, Nokia’s director of social media. Often, it is not just what is being said that is important to know, but also who is saying it.

“Probably the biggest early indicator of a potential crisis is how influential the person raising a fuss is,” says Akhil Srivastava of IT consultancy Infosys. “The bigger the network the critic has, the faster the negativity can spread.”

So there are tools to map influence, as well. For example, Mentionmap lets users discover more about the community commenting and who they influence by analysing their connections. And Tweepskey shows on an x-y axis a Tweeter and the connections between clusters of followers, helping users visualise the importance of followers.

When companies have listened and it’s time to respond, there are plenty of tools for managing output as well as input. Hootsuite is a social media dashboard for managing messages and feedback. Twical is an open source calendar-to-twitter web service, allowing users to upload, add, mute, delete, edit and tweet calendar events. CoTweet enables multiple Twitter accounts to be used by different people so companies can run Twitter-watch shifts.

“If there are multiple audiences you need multiple personalities,” says Andrew Haughton, senior manager for strategy at consulting firm Deloitte.

Responding to social criticism off the cuff is not advisable. Preparation is everything.

“Be ready for the unexpected. Drill,” advises Multizone’s Fox.


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