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The future of Social Business analytics isn’t where you think it is.

October 14, 2014 by Olivier Blanchard - 6 Comments

When I started working on Social Media ROI back in 2010, one of the dilemmas nagging me at the time was whether or not to devote any time to discussing (to an appropriate degree of practical detail) digital tools. On the one hand, it seemed difficult to map out how to integrate digital measurement practices into a social business measurement framework without illustrating the process with everyday examples. On the other hand, given the nature of digital tools, I knew that if I showed any screen shots of measurement and analytics software in use at the time, the book would have to be updated every six months just to keep up with changes in tech. I opted to keep the toolkit piece open, and mention social media analytics tools only in passing. Method was more important than tech anyway. It was the only way to ensure that the book would still be relevant a decade from now.

Having said that, the absence of specific digital tool recommendations remains a bit of a sore point with me and some readers, especially when they find themselves tasked with looking for said digital tools. I have no problem going through the process to people, and explaining that Excel is still, to this day, the best “app” with which to determine the ROI of social business activities, but it would be nice if something a little less hands-on were out there for me to recommend.

Case in point: I received two requests for tool recommendations Sunday morning via Twitter at around 5 am. (I’m not usually awake at 5 am, let alone on a Sunday, but I had an early flight out of JFK, and pretty wired after a crazy taxi adventure through Queens.) Anyway, long story short: even at 5 am on a Sunday, people are wondering about digital tools that will help them calculate the ROI of their social business activity. Maybe it’s time for me to give readers of Social Media ROI an update on what tools they should be looking at?

The answer is yes and no: Yes, it is time to give you an update; No, it’s still too early to point you to a specific analytics tool and give it the thumbs-up in regards to the Social Media ROI piece.

But the good news is that we’re getting close. Very close. More on that in a minute.

As you may or may not have noticed, I have been spending a little bit of time inside IBM’s ecosystem these last few months. As a freshly minted member of their influencer community, I get to attend conferences and events put on by IBM, sit down with developers and key decision makers to talk about what’s next, demo new technologies and products, etc. In other words, I have access to and visibility on some of IBM’s less “obvious” operational capabilities, emerging technologies and new services. Here’s where it gets interesting: while some influencers may talk about IT topics like “legacy stacks” and “hybridized IT,” (actually really fascinating topics, even for marketing pros), I have been busy looking for nuggets of social business opportunity and digital insights along the fringes of IBM’s cloud-focused discussions. … and much to my surprise, I have found exactly what I was looking for.

Let me reframe this for you: since about 2007, I have been looking for the best analytics suites and products on the market in all the usual places: independent developers, Silicon Valley start-ups, SxSW demos, Mashable reviews, TechCrunch articles, social media conferences, peer recommendations, etc. I’ve found some really great stuff out there (and some really useless, awful crap as well), but in all my travels, I never really seemed to find something that looked like a complete management and analytics suite. At best, each of these tools complemented each other in a sort of digital command center (or digital engagement center) model: lots of screens, lots of tools, and a Lego blocks approach to building customized digital analytics and management infrastructures for organizations… and Excel to painstakingly connect the ROI dots. (Insert sad face here.)

It never occurred to me to look at a company like IBM until fellow social business troublemaker Daniel Newman approached me about it last year. I assumed that they wouldn’t be interested in something like social media analytics, and that they would be at the cutting edge of that sort of thing. Their focus was servers and cloud computing and technical stuff that only IT people cared about, right?

Well… I may have been completely wrong about that.

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Flash forward to last week’s #ThinkForum conference in NYC: There I am, sitting in a giant auditorium with hundreds upon hundreds of very corporate looking folks in suits and ties, intently listening to IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and other A-list leaders in tech, analytics, cognitive computing, predictive modeling, sociology, etc. talk about cloud and data in ways that would either bore you to death or blow your mind, depending on how interested you are in this stuff. (Most of it blew my mind.) I could spend weeks talking about the Watson & cognitive computing panel that completely blurred the lines between real tech and the stuff science fiction is made of. It was insanely cool and pretty profound, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. There are some amazing stories already about ways IBM’s intelligent computer, Watson, is helping cure cancer. Watson is also helping municipalities like Miami-Dade better use resources, fight crime, reduce traffic congestion, improve response times, plan, and so on. Watson is learning how to cook. Watson is learning how to crack jokes and recognize humor in natural speech. Watson is learning how to present legal arguments. Watson is learning how to do everything.

Anyway: there I am, looking for the nugget: the piece hidden behind the piece. Because for me and most of you, the cloud isn’t about the cloud. Unless you’re a data scientist, data isn’t about data. It’s about insights. It’s all about capabilities. It’s all about solving real world problems, not just IT problems. And while curing cancer, improving customer engagement for AMEX, and building better digital experiences for travelers booking vacations online are pretty amazing projects, I am looking for something pretty specific. I am looking for a way to solve the core Social Media ROI mapping and calculation problem for marketers. I am looking for the tech required to build the kind of software that will finally do that.

In spite of the wonderful panels and keynotes, the answer wasn’t on the stage. The answer wasn’t part of the main event. The answer was waiting in the wings, blissfully unaware that it was the answer at all.

During one of my (many) trips to the coffee bar (actually the half & half bar, with a dash of coffee), I bumped into a few demos and displays adjacent the main hall, which featured some of IBM’s capabilities. All of them were the result of collaborative projects between IBM and tech partners. There was stuff about customer experiences, product design, logistics, strategic planning, process management, and so on. Nice little islands of salesmanship, with their own impeccable stand-up little counters. Welcoming, open spaces. Slick flat-screen displays with gorgeous visuals and videos. The business card exchange. The badge-scanning ritual. The pitches. That sort of thing.

Two of them in particular caught my eye: the first was a sort of boring looking screen grab of online mentions captured during the FIFA World Cup by IBM Social Trend Analytics. The other was a giant wall of digital analytics visualization eye candy from a collaboration between IBM and a company called Mutual Mind.

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On the first one: boring doesn’t mean bad. We’ve all seen dozens of digital analytics tools that look a lot like this, right? Right. But what it lacked in style and originality, it more than made up in substance: it wasn’t just monitoring keyword mentions and sentiment. It was actively creating a matrix of keywords and topics related to soccer, and combining them to get a much better picture of what conversations were really going on about the World Cup (whether preselected keywords were used or not). Instead of relying on fixed, finite user input to look for mentions, it intuitively identified a broader range of relevant interactions. In other words, it was thinking and learning, not just blindly capturing and quantifying.

That was new.

The trick: integration with IBM’s Watson.

What else was it doing? It was analyzing sentiment with a much higher degree of accuracy than similar looking software. How? Better natural language processing. Why? Watson.

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The second tool I looked at was Spielberg-scifi-pretty. (The above still of their display doesn’t do it justice at all.) It had colors and animations and I could have just stared at it all day. It wasn’t just a pretty face though: the measurement and analysis (and natural management capabilities) were super solid, but what blew my mind were the built-in predictive modeling bits and pieces. As you know, I am super skeptical about predictive modeling anything. (I’ve been burned before, and I have seen too many of my clients get burned too.) So… the grain of salt I bring to any pitch promising credible predictive analytics is more like a boulder. But I spent the better part of an hour playing with it and going through some of the back end with the product manager, and… well… it looks really really really promising. (And what I looked at is nothing compared to what they will be able to build in the coming year.) And you’ll never guess what was behind some of what’s coming: integration with IBM’s Watson. Again.

Now let me step back from this for a minute and bring it all together for you:

1) In both instances, IBM was the technology partner. Or the technology enabler, I should say.

2) In both instances, Watson (IBM’s intelligent, learning computer) is in the process of being integrated into how these tools function.

3) You don’t need to build your own server jungles to have access to massive amounts of computing power anymore. You can just plug into it from anywhere and get to work. That’s the cloud piece. (I have a whole series on that called the CMO and the cloud. You should check it out.)

4) The timeframe for integration of cognitive computing and learning-capable software like this is basically now. It’s happening. The tools you were using three years ago are going to be obsolete soon.

5) The timeframe for natural language interfaces is also now. (A natural language interface allows you to tell your software what you want the way you would tell a human being, and it will get done. As opposed to checking boxes and being limited to keywords and writing endless lines of more or less elegant code.)

6) This means that some predictive analytics packages are going to start becoming a whole lot more reliable in the coming year. Assuming you use the right tools, you will soon be able to model scenarios ahead of your campaign strategy decisions, ahead of tactical decisions, ahead of spend decisions, and get a sense for what courses of action will have the highest probability of yielding the results you are looking for. Note: this will NOT replace creative, design, style and intuition. What it will do, however, is help you make better decisions and improve outcomes.

Again, this isn’t in the future of ten years from now. This is in the future of the next 12-24 months, and IBM is behind the technology driving these advances… which… for most people working in Social Media, Digital Marketing, PR and related fields, isn’t necessarily super obvious. In fact, the role that both cognitive computing and the cloud play in the evolution of digital analytics isn’t obvious to most people either. And yet, the most profound digital marketing innovation you will see in the next decade may come from a place you won’t necessarily read about in Mashable (no offense, I like Mashable a lot) or on Social Media so-called “expert” blogs: that nebulous collaborative space where intellectually curious developers and deceptively agile tech giants like IBM get to play and build cool stuff together out of the limelight.

Now you know why I was eager to spend more time with IBM.

And now for the best part: connecting the ROI dots will soon be possible in a way that won’t require a lot of heavy lifting. In as little as year or two from now, you will all be able to tie activity spend to financial outcomes, and report on the ROI of all of your digital spend (social and otherwise), and you may be able to do it without the need for an Excel spreadsheet. That is very good news.

Cheers for now. More on this soon.

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This post was brought to you by IBM for Midsize Business and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s Midsize Insider. Dedicated to providing businesses with expertise, solutions and tools that are specific to small and midsized companies, the Midsize Business program provides businesses with the materials and knowledge they need to become engines of a smarter planet.

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If you haven’t already, dig into Social Media ROI – Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in your Organization, the #1 Social Business desk reference for executives and digital managers. (Now also available in German, Korean, Japanese and Spanish.)

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