Stick it in a histogram or plop it in a pie chart, data units mined from social networking sites often can be more difficult to categorize than the usual demographic information direct marketers collect in their data mining expeditions.
That might be due to the fact that the psychographic data on those networks involves a bit more finesse to understand than simpler facts such as Prospect A lives on Avenue Q. Sometimes, social networkers might even be maintaining fake profiles—without a smidgen of factual information about themselves, warns Jeff Williams, data analytics team director at Wayne, Pa.-based direct marketing agency DMW Direct.
Keeping that minefield for data mining in mind, social networking sites are still replete with veins of consumer-insight gold. Marketers should extract that treasure, but carefully, say DMW's Williams, Rich Grosskettler, interactive services director and Katrina Zubey, data analyst; as well as Dylan T. Boyd, vice president of sales and strategy for Portland, Ore.-based e-mail marketing firm eROI; and Kent Lewis, president of Portland-based search engine marketing agency Anvil Media.
The quintet provides direct marketers with eight best practices for collecting data from social networks.
1. Respect social networkers' privacy, even if their profiles are publicly visible. Opt in or double opt in is always best, says Lewis, "So people know what they're getting into. So, for example, if I wanted to harvest my Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter profiles to gain customer insights, I would want to have some sort of disclaimer about how I'm going to be using the data somewhere."
Williams says social networkers are often so honest in their profiles because they have an expectation of a certain level of privacy. While the information disclosure benefits marketers, he suggests marketers mainly interact with people they know or use information without names and identifying features to create pictures of their ideal customers.
2. Use the data to create prospect profiles. Williams suggests that marketers collect aggregated, anonymized data to understand what consumers like or dislike about a particular product or service. Then an offline campaign, employing a list from a data solutions firm with good penetration at the individual level, can help marketers leverage what they learn online where they formulate "strategies and get an idea of what the typical person looks like and where they are, psychologically speaking," he explains.
While the most obvious source of this social media graph data may be Facebook, Lewis points out that YouTube viewers and video uploaders can find plenty of data by simply clicking on the "views" button and expanding it. For instance, for a video that he uploaded in 2006, "Big Gun Recoil—Test Firing Middle East Version," its more than 267,000 views came from 25- to 44-year-old men from the United States. (Lewis adds that more information is available about the people who commented and were YouTube subscribers. Many video commenters also include Twitter in conversations.)
3. Append social media data to house files. Lewis says there's always the possibility that marketers take Facebook's advice and invite their friends—by uploading their e-mail lists, no more than 500 addresses at a time. This may not work for big brands with millions of e-mail addresses, he believes.
Boyd provides another option. Marketers can take their in-house customer relations management data and reverse append it as they would, for instance, for a change of address. What he does is "reverse append it to a Web-based location system that tells me, using the [application programming interfaces] of ... up to 50 different social platforms—from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, all these interesting areas that have open social graph data."
4. Know the quality of followers, friends and connections. Twitalyzer and Trst.me are just a couple tools marketers can use to determine whether their fans on social media are engaged brand fans or just subscribers, Lewis says.
5. Befriend influencers. Once marketers figure out which fans of their brand are influencers—those with the highest number of Twitter followers, YouTube subscribers, LinkedIn connections, Facebook friends, etc.—marketers should get to know these VIPs, Lewis says.
Lewis cites the Facebook page of Lion Brand Yarn, a more than 130-year-old yarn maker. For the most part, all of its 108,000 fans are influencers, he says. They vote on the patterns and colors. They comment. They share information with their friends outside of the page. "But here's where the rubber hits the road," he says. "[Lion Brand Yarn page] Facebook visitors are 51 percent more likely to convert than an average [Lion Brand Yarn] site visitor. ... So they're a highly activated subset of their customer base—highly activated. These people are contributing product ideas. They're seeing their ideas come to fruition. They can't stop talking about it."
6. Expect the unexpected. Zubey cites a Facebook study that found newly engaged women were unhappy compared to single women or those in a relationship. This is an example of taking Facebook status updates at face value. Wondering if that study was reliable, Zubey suggested the women may, in fact, be happy but stressed. Adding in another factor, Williams says to watch for sarcasm.
In other words, considering humans are writing the comments, perhaps humans should interpret what they see (i.e., Tweeter @BPGlobalPR is clearly not the spokesman for British Petroleum.)
7. Add social media icons in other channels. By adding the Facebook "like" button on his company homepage, Lewis says he's basically turned his website into an e-newsletter. That simple click turns an anonymous visitor into a known entity, he says. Some companies are making "liking" their brands a requirement to, for instance, view a popular video (e.g., Nike) or access some other valuable content, he adds.
8. Create a proprietary social networking site. Then all the data's right there, Grosskettler says. He cites babycenter.com, a site for parents, which "is a member of the Johnson & Johnson ... family of companies," according to the site.