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Social intelligence maturity & understanding data sources

Over the past decade, social data research methodologies have undergone a significant transformation. We’ve moved from what was once seen as a way to count brand mentions or view ‘what people are saying about a brand when they’re not in the room’ to creating repeatable and scalable methods to understand people and their behaviour. For example, from using social data to determine the success of a campaign or track a hashtag to using social data to understand how people frame concepts, products, and services; predicting future trends and sales; or even identifying how psychographic personality dimensions can impact communication persuasiveness.

Simply, the social intelligence industry has matured.

However, generally speaking, there is still a misunderstanding on how the industry works. Many of us access social media data via social listening or audience intelligence technology. We rely on this trusted third party to find, access, and return the available data about the topics we are researching. Meaning, we don’t really know the in’s and out’s of data access ourselves - what’s possible (or not possible) and this can cause major confusion.

We know that conversations are happening all across social media sites, you’ll have seen the infographics about what happens on the internet in 60 seconds - and many people want access to as much of that data as possible. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Data Access Isn’t Universal

We can only collect publicly available information from social media and internet sites. Each of the main social networking sites has different API and data access rights. The access that we get to social data can also change at any time, we’re not in control. In 2019, there was an outcry when Instagram changed their terms that completely changed how and what data we could get from the site.

No data source provides the same level of access and you’re not guaranteed to be able to access data in the same way in future. You can check with the data sources or your social data tech provider to see what the access to different social media sites looks like.

But, it’s also noteworthy to point out that different social listening platforms collect data in different ways. While many of the big social networking sites provide API access, some social listening providers go beyond the terms and conditions to “scrape” additional public data from the sites. So, if a technology vendor during the vendor evaluation process tells you they have more Facebook or Instagram data than anyone else, it’s likely that they are scraping the data.

This is somewhat of a “grey area” in social listening. The tech provider is operating outside the terms of service of the social networking site. There have been quite a few court cases about different breaches but most do not hold up in court. Setting legal precedent that scraping public data beyond APIs is not illegal on social networking sites.

It’s up to individual organisations and their governance teams to decide on how they want to handle that data governance challenge. I am having more and more conversations about governance as enterprises align how they want to move on data access going forward. But, there is always a constant outcry to access more of Facebook and Instagram data. There’s a few reasons why so much emphasis is placed on Facebook and Instagram data but I tend to think that there’s too much importance placed on these data sources.

The Skewed Need for Facebook and Instagram Access

There is a perception that social intelligence is useless without Facebook and Instagram data, but that thinking has a very narrow view. Many have a skewed view of these data sources because of the importance of using Facebook and Instagram to communicate with audiences. But, there’s a big difference between social media and social intelligence research.

Social media is often seen as a communication channel, where brands can directly engage, excite, and connect with audiences. The new advertising channel that’s two-way engagement. In this vein, the need to access data goes hand-in-hand with content and campaign management. We need to prove our campaigns work and reach their objectives. So, we need access to this data and it’s believed to be very important.

But, it’s not just because we have official communication channels on these platforms. Facebook and Instagram are said to have 2.85 billion monthly active users and 1 billion monthly active users respectively in early 2021. That’s a whole lot of people that we want to know more about, and dare I say it, target.

The potential audience and the fact that brands are already spending time and money on the channels increase their perceived importance. But, they are not the only data source. They’re not even the best data source (in my opinion).

Going Beyond Facebook and Instagram

One of the biggest complaints we hear is that social data is too Twitter centric. It’s not that there’s no value in Twitter data (there is, check here for recent case studies) but there are some who believe that the over reliance on Twitter data causes a biased view of the conversations going on in the internet.

I’m not going to disagree completely with this. Different data sources (social networks, media sites, forums) have different personalities, and you can find different types of conversation happening in them.

It means you need to think about each data source separately. While we’ve been so used to sitting at our tech and writing a boolean query or running a search and waiting to see what data comes back, this is not an optimum way to run projects. We need to start thinking more about the data source we’re using.

It’s true that there’s more Twitter data due to the open nature of the platform and data access opportunities. There’s lots that you can find out with that data. From tracking trends, analysing customer service and customer experience, understanding networks and the flow of information between them, and many more use cases.

Twitter has also risen as a place to understand audiences. The open sourced nature of the platform means that we can find out more about groups of people, what makes them similar and different, what will make them pay attention or what’s likely to motivate their behaviour.

Other data sources have other benefits too. My personal favourite is review sites. I’m also a lover of forums. But, these are anonymous sources so while you can’t get audience characteristics in the same way you could from Twitter, there’s still a lot of context you can get about needs, motivations, and behaviours.

There’s more to social data than Facebook and Instagram. It just takes a little time to understand each source, the nature of the source, and what use cases it’s good for. We also need to have more serious conversations about data access and data governance. It’s not the sexiest subject in the world, but everyone using social data should be aware of how the data is accessed and indexed - we need to set social data governance.

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