Creating Value from Social Intelligence


Guest post by Nathan Sage, PA Consulting Group.

Across the world there are about 1.5 billion conversations an hour on social media platforms. Social media users share 30 billion pieces of content – comments, opinions, information videos, podcasts and photographs each month.

Yet just 15 years ago, none of this existed.

This means businesses have potential access to huge amounts of data about their markets, customers and competitors. The challenge is to turn these social media conversations from simple noise into intelligence from which they can extract the insights, the understanding and the warnings that will create or protect value.

Many businesses recognize that social media might lead them to a better understanding of what their customers think and want. However, they struggle to understand how they can get the right information that will help them get ahead of the competition and make money. To do that requires an expert analysis of social conversations and online behavior and an understanding that this is about much more than simply listening to the crowd. It requires clarity about what a business should be monitoring, how to interpret the information received, and how to protect against the risks social media can present. This is social intelligence.

Producing this social intelligence means applying data, technology and people to pick out the nuggets of intelligence, which, when stripped of emotional conversations, are invaluable to a company. These nuggets are then developed to provide an understanding of what lays behind the conversations the linkages, the networks and the location of this information. They can then be cross referenced with other snippets that may be dotted about on the web – not just social conversations. This could include telephone numbers, email addresses, relationships to websites, domains links to friends or aliases that people use. The intelligence is then pulled together to produce information about a particular topic, word or phrase, that is verified to determine whether it is revealing a genuine development rather than just hot air. This then gives an organization a way of determining the value of a trend, and whether it is something that should be incorporated into their strategy.

So where exactly does the business value lie in all of this work?

The first benefit of social intelligence is the way it can be used to identify micro-trends that have not yet gained momentum. Armed with this intelligence a company can get ahead of the competition as there are significant profit margins to be realized in being the first to provide a service or product to the market. This applies not just to business to customer transactions but also in business to business. By using social media to understand your customer’s customer, you can develop better products that will enable them -and you- to profit in a classic win-win.

The second key benefit is in the way it allows an organization to test strategies. With social intelligence, businesses can compare the outcome of different approaches and identify the best strategy. A Dutch company, for example, recently used social media to work out the best way to communicate its financial results. Social intelligence can also help businesses plan and predict demand more effectively. PA was able to use social intelligence to determine the future occupancy rate of a large hotel for a specific period of time, achieving a 98 percent accuracy rate.

A third key benefit is the way social media gives businesses the power to collaborate with employees, customer and suppliers, to innovate and build new “digital businesses.” One major pharmaceutical company has used social media to gather ideas from a worldwide network to develop a novel solution to an intractable medical problem. Involving future customers and suppliers in this way then gives businesses greater confidence that when they go to market with new products and services, they will be well received.

Within the healthcare sector, a great example of the power of crowdsourcing, collaboration and gamification is that of “Fold.It,” a multi-player online game that enlists players worldwide to solve difficult protein-structure prediction problems. In just a few weeks of 2011, players of this game helped to unlock the very same structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that the scientific community had been unable to solve for a decade.

Fundamentally, social intelligence provides answers to questions that are critical to business strategy and which Board members need to know, but which companies often struggle to answer. The question may be as simple as understanding how competitors compare in terms of the perception of their levels of customer service; it may be about providing evidence of how best to reach a particular target market or discovering what products customers might want but that the business does not currently offer. Equally, the business may need evidence to back up a major investment, perhaps with a new supplier, but they need to know how they are perceived by their existing customers. As a result of the volume of data and the sophistication of the analysis, social intelligence can provide both more information and better information than traditional market research.

Social intelligence can also provide better competitive intelligence. In today’s ever tougher business climate, knowing what your competitors are planning, and their successes and failures, is more important than ever.

Advanced social media analytics give a business the opportunity to make a broad study of their sector as a whole, encompassing clients, suppliers, competitors, potential competitors and key advocates. This analysis can then be used to develop “influence strategies” – the blueprint for a set of consistent, reputation-enhancing signals communicated through the online channels that are most appropriate, whether that is the press, blogs and forums such as LinkedIn groups.


Along with opportunities, social media brings real risks to companies. The speed and volume of information that is published on social media can cause significant damage. With 78% of people saying they trust what they read on social media, a misleading comment can damage a company’s reputation in seconds. Here again, it is vital to have the intelligence to understand where this information is coming from, the motives behind it, and how to counteract it before it gains potentially dangerous momentum.

Another key risk from social media is the way hackers can manipulate it to acquire personal information about employees, and then use it to befriend them. Having built a relationship, the criminal may be able to deceive the employee into revealing how to access to their company systems and so opening the door to cyber-attacks.

However, this information can also be used against hackers. Cyber criminals or their associates may leave their own footprints on social media sites. This can make them easier to trace and thus prevent or mitigate attacks. PA Consulting Group worked with one company that was under attack and managed, using social intelligence, to locate the hackers within an hour and shut down their activity.

A specific problem facing the healthcare industry is the struggle with how organizations can combat counterfeit drug availability on the internet. Using social intelligence tools, PA Consulting Group worked to help a company remove this threat and analyzed social activity around specific drugs and, combining this with open source intelligence, was able to establish how the counterfeiters were influencing online conversations through fake profiles on social media. Using this information, the next steps using social intelligence tools were to be able to uncover the distribution chain, trace the probable leaders across four countries, and finally armed with this intelligence, be able to identify the gang chiefs, who were located in Russia.

Businesses need to understand social intelligence, both its benefits and the risks. Once they do this, they will see that this exciting development can fundamentally change the way we do business. There is a huge prize to be secured in better products, competitive advantage and increased value, but the winners will have to embrace and integrate social intelligence into everything they do. The opportunity is there for the taking.

Nathan Sage is a social intelligence expert at PA Consulting Group.  He can be reached at Twitter: @PA_Consulting

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