In the old days, businesses relied on surveys and focus groups to try to read the minds of their customers and to get their feedback.
Social media allow businesses to hear billions of people conversing in real time. If a company could tap into that “pulse of humanity,” it could respond quickly, according toDr. Sudha Ram, the UA McClelland Professor of management information systems.
The challenge: How to compile and analyze this vast wealth of data as it is being generated.
A new center at the UA Eller College of Management meets that challenge with the force of its experienced faculty, the students they teach and their research projects developed in collaboration with the business community.
The INSITE Center for Business Intelligence and Analytics allows its member advisors to drive its research into social media analytics by addressing members’ specific issues.
Identifying the Opportunity
Paper and online surveys ask for reflective responses from people looking back at their experiences. Social media provide more robust data from visceral conversations that can be read and analyzed right now. And the sources are well beyond Twitter and Facebook.
Wikis, collaboration tools, blogs, photo-sharing sites, forums, answer sites and professional networks such as LinkedIn have made the web a very dynamic place, says Ram, co-director of the center. “Information diffuses and spreads like a virus,” she says.
“This is a new area that is evolving very fast,” says Paulo Goes, the center’s co-director. “Corporations need to know how to explore and exploit the area.”
Companies can use this information to adjust production, supply and marketing efforts, get ahead of negative publicity and build on successful branding efforts.
Collecting data is a huge task, but by itself data is not useful. What businesses also need is a way to determine what is trending at any given moment and interpret what it means in order to respond.
Monitoring and Interpreting Conversations
This is where INSITE comes in. A board of advisors made up of corporate, nonprofit and government members determine projects that allow for research into and development of algorithms that analyze the vast amounts of data.
UA faculty, post-graduates, graduate students and undergraduate students will use the new tools to discover patterns in social media. That information is coupled with appropriate internal business information to provide a big picture and suggestions for corporate responses.
For instance, a retail store may want to know how to increase sales during a specific time period.
Based on that goal, the center would develop tools that will gather any mentions about the company during the given time period. “We help them find out what consumers are talking about them,” says Goes, the Salter Distinguished Professor in Technology and Management.
Other data such as sales activity would be added to the analysis to ultimately provide suggestions on what the company could do to respond to or influence the social media conversation to increase sales.
“The ideal is to do this in real time” so that response is timely, says Goes.
Moving Experience Forward
Working in the business realm is a natural progression for the UA’s Management Information Systems Department. Its faculty created COPLINK ten years ago to give law enforcement ways to track criminal activity. For about six years faculty have helped monitor discussion forums and websites to track terrorists.
Previous research focused on tracking the spread of infectious disease by gathering information from Google searches, prescription activity and hospital and doctor visits.
“We already had been doing those types of monitoring and analysis,” says Goes, the MIS department head. “We think we have the expertise to provide services to companies.”
The UA and its member companies will pursue projects for corporate use, scientific publications, master theses and doctoral dissertations, as well as products for technical transfer licensing and proprietary possession.
Foremost, the center wants to provide ways to monetize social media for the business sector. Says Ram: “We are trying to extract value out of this vast treasure trove of social media data.”