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Issue 20 Articles

TMForum logo Social Analytics for
Service Providers

By Rob Rich, Managing Director, Transformation Research Center,
TM Forum

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Social analytics, a form of big data, remain a hot topic across virtually all industries and communications is no exception. Many reckon it is critical to market success. Yet businesses across the spectrum have struggled to clearly understand the benefits or have overestimated the standalone value and maturity of social analytics, and suffered early disappointment.

This is especially true in complex areas such as sentiment analysis, where the functionality of the first toolsets to market were less than sophisticated. Indeed, some aspects of early social analytics have driven the subject toward the Trough of Disillusionment in Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

However, the real value of social analytics lies somewhere between the initial, hype-driven euphoria and disillusionment. They have great potential to help service providers save money; improve their products, offers and processes; increase customer satisfaction; and better their competitive positioning. But, social analytics comprise just one piece (albeit an important one) of the puzzle, and actionable insights must often be combined with other information to support decisions properly. In addition, knowledge processes and tools continue to mature and offer great promise. Lessons learned from early deployment can speed new understanding.

Understanding social media

The phenomenon of social media has allowed consumers and businesses alike to increasingly operate within networked relationships of known, trusted entities. Humans have of course gravitated to these types of ‘networks’, beginning with the family unit, since the beginning of civilization. Now social media allows people to expand the scope and scale of information and relationships exponentially, at unprecedented speed.

Social networks are transforming how we communicate for billions of people, how we source and share information, and how we form commercial relationships and conduct business on the web. Social networks offer service providers (and other businesses) the potential to combine the intimate customer knowledge typical of smaller, local businesses with the scope, scale, and 24x7 availability of large enterprises. They offer the opportunity to provide a deep understanding of customers and what shapes their preferences. All customers can benefit from this understanding if it is used properly.

Most service providers are already using social media in some way: almost every service provider I have discussed it with is informally or strategically using tools like corporate blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to communicate with customers and other stakeholders.

The initial investment in social networks was driven partially by fear of negative publicity. In a famous incident from six years ago, a video posted on YouTube showed a cable company employee sleeping on a customer’s sofa. The ‘cable guy’ had fallen asleep while waiting to be put through to his employer’s own call center. The video went viral and is still live, and has drawn more than 1.7 million views. Fearing an equally embarrassing situation, many companies scrambled to construct a social media policy to provide early detection and triage for incidents that could damage the brand.

Using social media for cost savings

Many service providers have realized substantial cost savings from using social media as a channel for customer inquiries, or as a way to communicate with customers and suppliers. At TM Forum’s Customer Experience Summit in Singapore, in November 2012 (for details of the 2013 event, to be held in Kuala Lumpur, November 26 and 27, please go to CustomerExperience/13082/home.html), several service providers estimated labor saving of between five and 10-fold using Twitter to respond to customers’ comments and inquiries. This does not include the savings from avoiding further investment in expensive call center equipment as their customer bases grow.

In addition, many service providers now use Facebook to share product and pricing information and to offer customers applications specific to their devices, as well as ad campaigns directed at customers and prospects. Some even use it to generate user participation around special events, such as sponsored concerts or new product launches and more.

However, few companies have taken advantage of social media’s capacity to provide rich, real-time insight into what drives their customers’ behaviors, such as purchasing decisions, and loyalty (or lack of it).

In fact, in some cases, a customer may interact with several groups within a service provider, sometimes simultaneously, but no single entity has a complete view of the customer and their exchanges. This is because in many service providers, different business units rarely work closely together, but operate silos and don’t share information about customers’ purchases, usage, billing and customer care.

This failure to share social media interactions hinders efforts to better serve customers, bring innovative products to market and reduce costs. Moreover, it prevents the unique and most important attribute of social media; the ability to engage customers in a meaningful exchange and build mutual understanding and trust of your brand and services.

Even worse, service providers who don’t create an holistic view of the customer risk missing out on new service opportunities, and perhaps on even keeping the customer.

Meanwhile, over-the-top competitors like Google and Facebook are continually developing features and services, which change how customers leverage the Internet and foster stronger social and commercial relationships. Using their tools, retail establishments and other businesses can, for example, alert potential customers to special offers in nearby locations, and make it easy for them to share this information with their social circles.

Initiatives like this increasingly show the growing importance of location-based services, which exploit the already robust information bases in social media. Yet today, most service providers are only scratching the surface of the potential of social networking as a powerful channel for reaching out to existing and new customers.

Enormous reach

The reach of social networks and consumers’ increasing reliance on them as a communications platform is huge. Facebook, for example, is estimated to have reached 1 billion users in late 2012, while many service providers struggle to develop and introduce social media initiatives.

Mobility offers the opportunity for huge increases in scale, scope and innovation for social media. The rise in the use of smartphones and tablets has resulted in new, location-based social networking applications.

Pew Internet Research for 20121 indicates that 68 percent of smartphone users in the U.S. use their devices to access social media sites, and 58 percent upload photos from them. If anything, the simplicity, convenience and ‘anywhere, anytime’ nature of mobility will drive social networks to new heights of utility, usage and importance.

The problem for service providers is that social media represents a sea change in how companies capture, analyze and share information. Individual consumers can easily join and participate in whichever network that suits their needs, but if service providers choose to leverage the information and communication benefits of social media, they must revamp their processes and technology to capture, interpret and share diverse, unstructured information across the company.

Making a business case

It can be difficult to make the business and economic case for investing heavily in related technology, especially when today’s business processes and company culture do not readily adapt to cross-departmental sharing of information, or managers do not see value in social media content.

To develop and implement an effective social media strategy, management must understand how social media impacts their company from business, relational, technological and cultural perspectives.

Some important goals for companies include: improving communication with customers as well as better monitoring of their experience with every service provider touch point to enable a more timely, relevant response to their issues; understanding customer behavior, across geographies, market segments, offers and products, and various channels; enabling customers, business partners, suppliers and other stakeholders to engage in a dialog with the service provider about various aspects of their offerings; repurposing content for broad distribution; improving overall communications with all stakeholders, inside and outside the enterprise, promoting corporate transparency and trust, and creating an extended sense of community; understanding the impact on corporate brand of various initiatives and incidents (such as outages, new products or pricing initiatives); and lowering the cost and improving the speed of response to customers’ issues.

A properly structured and executed social media strategy can improve customers’ satisfaction and employees’ productivity. It can also help with the design of products and offers, as well as that of various channel (including the call center, retail outlet, website and so on2) experiences. In addition, companies can measure consumer sentiment expressed in social media to evaluate marketing campaigns, and also to quickly discover and react to incidents that negatively impact the brand. Social media will only increase in usage and importance in the future. Service providers need to develop a strategy and implement it immediately, if they have not already done so. They also need to recognize that social media will change over time; accordingly they must adapt their strategy as it evolves.

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This report is excerpted from TM Forum’s Quick Insights report, “Social Analytics,” by Rob Rich, managing director Insights Research, TM Forum. TM Forum’s Reports and Publications are available to TM Forum members free of charge; non-members may purchase them. Please go to to see the list of available reports. Learn more about data analytics and customer experience management at TM Forum’s Management World 2013, May 13-16, in Nice, France.

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