CAMBRIDGE: Many businesses are listening to what their customers are saying on social media but are then failing to act on what is a potentially rich source of strategic insight, two leading industry figures have claimed.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Sue Fournier, professor of marketing at Boston University, and Bob Rietveld, head of Dutch marketing analytics business Oxyme, said managers often simply circulated such results within marketing departments having labelled them 'for what it's worth'.

But that was to ignore the possibilities offered by a continuous flow of current data that companies didn't even have to pay to get hold of.

"With proper care and handling, insights harvested from social listening can become as robust a source of strategic inspiration as any must-have diagnostics on the dashboard," they declared.

That meant taking steps to ensure the quality of the data, subjecting it to market-research protocols for reliability and validity and understanding idiomatic language use. Recent Admap articles have charted some of the developments in this sphere, such as coding conversations by emotion and algorithms that learn as they go.

Social listening data then had to be correlated with other data streams. The authors cited the example of research they had carried out for a transport company in which they had found that complaints shared on daily Twitter feeds tracked 90% with the content of customer-service comments registered by phone or mail, so highlighting the worth of social media as an insight source.

And even when correlations were not so clear, social listening could uncover new findings. Thus, while objective research had shown consumers were unable to tell the difference in taste between beers, online comments showed that consumers believed they could identify their favourites.

"Perception, not reality, was what mattered in this space," said the authors, who argued that the "social-listening data allowed a marriage between the quantitative and the qualitative" and led to the brewer in question changing its branding programs.

Marketers were also advised to avoid a narrow focus on ROI and to think about the wider impact of their social media campaigns through such activities as sharing of stories and advocacy.

In addition, to make the best use of social listening, internal structural changes might be needed to ensure social listening analysis was disseminated across the company.

Data sourced from Harvard Business Review; additional content by Warc staff