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Paul Banas, a senior category insights manager in the Oscar Mayer division of Kraft Foods, won't say what new products have been created in response to social media research because some of them haven't been released yet, but he discussed how he uses social media as a research tool in an interview this week. His story shows how a marketer's use of social media monitoring is different from how a public relations manager or webmaster might use the same basic tools.
While he can't claim to be in charge of the company's social media analytics efforts--which are distributed across the many divisions of the food conglomerate--Banas describes himself as "a passionate advocate."
Social media analytics "really got me jazzed as a researcher," Banas said. "It gives me a vast data set, bigger than any data set I ever had, and it's being refreshed constantly." Coming from a traditional market research background, he was used to working with relatively small survey panels and focus groups. And because social media allows him to tap into spontaneous conversations on the Web, it sometimes delivers different insights than he would get from those other tools.
"It's the difference between if I asked you a question, versus just listening to a conversation," Banas said.
His approach as a marketing strategist is different from the way the public relations and corporate communications teams within the company--who discovered social media monitoring long before he did--approach the data. "The thing I'm most interested in is a deeper understanding of the consumer, rather than putting out fires here and there," he said.
The kind of social media monitoring that tracks brand and product mentions tends to be less useful for his purposes, since about 95% of the conversations he cares about are unbranded--meaning that people are talking about bologna, but not necessarily about Oscar Mayer. A corporate communications specialist might want to be alerted to someone saying bad things about the brand or spreading a false rumor about its products. Banas is searching for longer-term trends, like changes in consumer tastes, and clues to how well the brand the company wants to project is reflected in consumer perception.
"What this research allows us to do is explore the fuzzy front end of basic user wants or needs, like what are the flavor trends, what are the usage trends," Banas said. To answer similar questions outside the digital world would require "some ethnography with a consumer, where we're going into someone's house, looking in the fridge, and asking 'Why did you buy this?'"
Banas works with MotiveQuest, a social media monitoring firm that delivers its analysis more through consultation than automated dashboards. Kraft makes use of some other social analytics tools such as NetBase as well, but Banas said he does not consider himself a power user of such analytic tools.
Instead, he looks for analytic help on a consulting basis "because I'm trying to take it beyond just tracking an individual keyword," and doesn't have time to learn how to invest in self-help tools. "I think I'm smart enough that I could probably figure it out myself, but I also have a lot of other responsibilities. I'd rather work with somebody who knows this soup-to-nuts, and can bring it to bear on my business issues," Banas said.
Keywords are still important for his research, and he works with the MotiveQuest consultants to improve their targeting over time, he said. "You know, I'm interested in conversations about bacon, but I'm not necessarily interested in conversations about Kevin Bacon."
Although he agreed to serve as a reference for MotiveQuest, Banas said he continues to experiment with other services, looking for those that can provide different insights. "I don't think anyone has figured out the best approach or the best uses for this--and on the vendor end, I don't think anyone's figured out the best business model to meet clients needs."
Banas believes social media monitoring techniques are getting better at "bringing actionable insights to the table, rather than focusing on levels of buzz," but the next step will be proving it in terms of a return on investment. "We need to take it beyond just a consumer understanding" and figure out how to translate that into sales, he said.
"We've gotten a bit of a pass so far, because we can say this is all brand new stuff, and we need to try new things," Banas said. "But at some point, folks are going to say, 'Yeah, but is this really all paying off for us?'"
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