Taking the Lead on Strategy

Librarians understand the information needs of their organizations and thus should determine how social data can complement existing resources.


For the benefit of their organizations, information professionals need to take the lead in educating clients and coworkers about how to find information and, equally important, how to use it responsibly. This applies to social information as well as traditional sources of information–the librarian needs to be the strategist, the first line of defense, in understanding and recommending how social data should be used.

Granted, this adds another layer of responsibility to professionals who are already stretched thin and who typically don’t have many resources at their disposal. The average librarian can’t simply go out and hire a group of analysts to help comb through social data. But consider this: We live in a world today where people have unprecedented power and ability to speak back to, and talk about in public, the institutions with which they interact. As a result, there’s an incredible artifact of social data out there–on Twitter, on Facebook, on blogs, and in communities–that encapsulates opinions in a way we’ve never really seen before.

The question facing librarians, then, is not whether social data are relevant. The question is, To what extent should they make social data part of their resource base and try to actively understand what’s going on?

Overcoming Obstacles

There are at least three significant obstacles to trying to make sense of social data. First, much of the social data being generated is a mess. People who analyze data on a regular basis–whether they’re librarians or market researchers or public relations specialists–often find it very difficult to make the transition to looking at social data, because social data are unstructured. There’s a lot of “noise” out there, so there’s a high degree of interpretive difficulty, and the tools that are used to interpret some of the data are very immature (and changing quickly).

The second obstacle is that the volume of social data being generated on a daily basis is overwhelming. For example, when Osama bin Laden was killed, there were between 4,000 and 5,000 tweets per second; when Beyonce went on the Video Music Awards and showed she was pregnant, that generated 8,000 tweets per second.

If you’re an information professional for a Fortune 500 company or a law firm or hospital, the lesson you take away from these examples might well be that social information is nothing more than a bunch of people tweeting about pregnant celebrities or the news of the day, and to some extent that’s true. This leads to the third and perhaps most troubling obstacle to understanding social data–the strong confirmation bias. A lot of the Twitter traffic generated by Beyonce’s pregnancy was people simply re-tweeting the announcement to others. But what if the news about Beyonce had been false? If a piece of information is inaccurate but it aligns with people’s political or social or religious beliefs, it can get an incredible “reach” in a short period of time.

To use another example, I heard recently that a bunch of kids went on Wikipedia and essentially made up a country. They posted an entry about its location, topography, history, culture, language, and currency, and by the time they finished, they had put together an incredibly detailed, elaborate entry, complete with photographs and charts. Wikipedia became aware of the entry and took it down in less than 24 hours, but not until thousands of viewers had seen and shared the information. This serves not only as a reminder that there are people who intentionally create false information, but also that there are many, many more people who just pass along information they receive. And because it’s more difficult today to find authoritative sources than it used to be, understanding how to weave your way through the complex web of social data is something everyone needs to know how to do.

This is where librarians come into play, because one of their key roles is to help people understand how to find and recognize legitimate information, to make sure a client–for example, a student–understands the difference between an unsourced Website and a site like Wikipedia which, while still imperfect, is supposed to have clear citations and sources. This distinction is vitally important, because people use social data constantly to form opinions and as a basis for their personal and professional education. Those who work with information have an ethical responsibility to use and share it responsibly, and librarians need to be in the forefront of this movement.

Putting Social Data in Context

In addition to understanding and addressing the challenges posed by social media, information professionals need to determine which social sources to follow and how much weight to assign to them. In this regard, I think it’s important for organizations to put social media in the context of the data they already have.

For example, a yogurt company was trying to get a better read on how people feel about flavors and which flavors are most popular. The company looked at its business intelligence systems and found that vanilla was its top-selling yogurt flavor by a huge margin. Then they used a tool to look at the social Web and discovered that when people talked about yogurt flavors, they talked about pineapple. This surprised the company, because pineapple was only a test flavor in limited production. But it turned out that people liked pineapple so much, they’d go to the store and look for it, and when they didn’t find it, they would tweet about which stores were selling it. If they couldn’t find pineapple at a nearby store, they would go ahead and buy vanilla, which inflated the sales numbers.

Social data, then, are not meant to, and shouldn’t, replace what your organization is already doing. And, to be honest, making sense of social data is hard work, and it isn’t always intuitive. But the reality is that there’s a lot of valuable information out there, and you don’t want your organization to miss it.

There are some very good, inexpensive tools available on the Web that can help you identify topics under discussion and trends that are developing. Even something as simple as going straight to Twitter and typing a keyword into the search box can tell you a lot about the Zeitgeist of the day–what people are thinking and talking about. Part of the process of making sense of social data is just getting your hands on a simple tool and experimenting with things like volume of discussion, sentiment of discussion (although sentiment analysis is typically very imperfect and imprecise) and trending topics so you can get a better sense of what people are talking about and how they’re talking about it.

There is a tool by a company called Simply Measured that is very easy to use, and it creates good charts and graphs. It can tell you a lot about, for example, how many people are talking about a topic compared to last month or last year and what questions or concerns are driving the conversation. If you want to understand what people are talking about with respect to Occupy Wall Street or the presidential debates, using this tool or something similar can be very helpful.

In the end, there simply is no substitute for just giving it a try and finding out what you see. The people who are best at this are the ones who are willing to hit their head against the wall for a while until they’re able to come up with some insights, and then they drill down and drill down and drill down some more. It really takes a kind of scientific approach.

Developing a Strategy

No matter how you decide to proceed, you’ll need to develop a social media strategy. The strategy needs to be tied to the overall mission of the organization–period. That said, there is considerable value in testing and learning and taking the approach that you may not know what’s going to happen or whether it’s going to be worthwhile, but you’re going to see what you find out. A lot of organizations are already doing this, and doing it very effectively. They’re taking what they learn and using it to build a case for something else.

Keep in mind that just because you have a comprehensive social media strategy, not every social media tactic needs to be the same. The Marketing Department will have different needs and requirements than Finance, and Finance will have different needs and requirements than Human Resources. Within a law firm, different practices will have vastly different information concerns. The strategy, then, should be uniform in terms of how you intend to use social media to understand your brand, inform your business, create connections with customers, and foster innovation, but how you implement the strategy is going to depend on where you sit.

While there are no real industry standards at this point to measure the effectiveness of a social media strategy, there are ways to measure the impact of what you’re doing. For example, if your organization is heavily engaged in philanthropy, you can discover whether your philanthropic work is affecting the way people talk about you, whether you’re getting credit for sponsoring a concert, and whether people are talking about you differently after you’ve just spent six months trying to engage people around a particular issue. If you’re a retail company, you can start to understand whether people who saw certain content on your Website or Facebook page actually bought products from you.

The challenge is that many of the measurement tools are very immature and are just starting to converge, so it’s quite a time-consuming process and will continue to be so for a period of time. Also, keep in mind that even if a topic or issue is popular, not everyone out there will be taking the information as gospel, and many of the social monitoring tools rely on text analysis algorithms, which are notoriously inaccurate. They may have only 60-70 percent accuracy rates because of the slang words and sarcasm and jargon and abbreviations that human beings use to communicate with each other.

Taking a Leap of Faith

If you want to borrow strategies from other organizations that have been successful with social media, look at higher education. Many universities are using social media tools to better understand what kinds of relationships they can build with students throughout their life cycles–while they’re still in high school and completing the application process, through their time on campus, then after they graduate and become alumni. Businesses are using social media to identify and understand their advocates–the people who like and talk about their products. Business leaders want to interact with their advocates and thank them, but they also want to understand what makes advocates want to share their feelings.

Zappos does a phenomenal job with social media. It’s really a service company from the inside out, and it’s built around creating the best customer experience possible. Dell Computer is very sophisticated with social media. They’ve invested a lot in listening to people and understanding what they’re talking about, which allows them to see early warnings about product or service issues before they even begin receiving calls through their call centers.

Financial institutions have been using social media to try to understand how they’re being discussed by the Occupy Wall Street movement in comparison to other institutions. They’re asking, Is our reputation being affected negatively by this? If so, is it any different from the other institutions? Are we getting off a little easier, or are we getting the lion’s share of the blame? What’s driving the conversation?

As these examples illustrate, there are lots of ways to use social media data. The issue facing librarians is whether to take a leap of faith and incorporate social data into the information resources they make available to their organizations, or just keep doing what they’ve been doing. I’m definitely an advocate of taking a leap of faith, because the way we collect and curate information has changed so much that anyone who is going to make a profession in the library sciences needs to be educated enough to have supported opinions about how to deal with social data. Whether or not they choose professionally to make this a big part of their day, they need to dive in and understand as much as they can.

It’s very easy to dismiss social media as too much noise and not enough signal, as just a bunch of people talking about their lunch. But the truth is that it’s going to become–indeed, it already is–a huge information resource. Librarians are in an ideal position to determine how organizations can best put that resource to use. SLA

SUSAN ETLINGER is an industry analyst with the Altimeter Group, a research and consulting firm that focuses on disruptive technologies. She specializes in social media analytics and strategy, helping clients develop plans that support their objectives and organizations. She can be reached at susan@altimetergroup.com.

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