Data and Contextual Analysis: The Road to Good Decisions

Data and Contextual Analysis: The Road to Good Decisions

By: Shelly Kramer
April 9, 2012

Importance of contextual data analysisNow that adoption of social media and social networking is becoming more common, things that we love – things like data, analysis, context and interpretation – are critical. Social listening is, most definitely, not enough. Brands and agencies who are serious about producing results for themselves and for their clients must be data driven and they must understand the importance of context as it relates to data as a whole.

Influence measurement platforms like Klout, PeerIndex, Twitalyzer and others claim to be able to identify “influencers” and, if you don’t dig too deeply, you might think they’re right. But to our way of thinking, while we have great respect for the some of the creators of these services and the tools they’ve developed, there’s still a lot missing. Numbers – or data – in and of themselves do not knowledge make. And, logically, numbers, algorithms and the like don’t in and of themselves define influence.

Hypothesis: Forget influence: We need knowledge and insights to make good decisions. Period.

How do we get there? Business analytics have historically been considered the quantitative analysis of data for decision-making. It’s nothing new. But the type of data has expanded beyond a controllable universe. And the qualitative data can be infinitely useful and can’t or, more importantly shouldn’t, be overlooked.

Data is not knowledge. Data is data. Knowledge comes from understanding the subtle and not so subtle trends and irregularities in the data. In context.

And once you have properly analyzed contextual data, then and only then, are you ready to consider things like influence.

Let’s Talk Knowledge

What kind of knowledge consumer are you? Some of us revel in the deets (Wendy). Some of us revel in the revelations (Shelly). Some of us live for the process and some for the result.

How do you get what you need without spending your days as analysts? How do you determine what information is valuable to you, what influencers matter for a particular campaign or what contextual revelation has the most significance? We’re sure you have better things to do. Like your job. What do you need and what don’t you need?

Analytics for Better Strategy and Decision Making

Start with analytics. Please don’t overlook the importance of what you already have (or should have): website analytics, newsletter statistics, blog stats, friends, fans, etc. There’s a lot to learn by looking back to examine profitability, customer interaction and market shifts, and use that data to predict and plan for future success.

You can’t analyze everything. You can’t hire a big enough staff or find enough time in the day. So how do you decide what and how to consider? What are the REAL business questions? What can you take action on? What are (we know, sigh) your objectives? Well, here are the steps we recommend:


Simply reading and hearing what people are saying in aggregate is not the same as listening. You don’t need to be a trained researcher to know that people say things for a reason – there’s context there. Understanding the drivers, the size and influence of the voices and why it matters will lead you to better insights.

What do you need to know?

Know your customer
Know your company
Know your strengths
Know your opportunities
Know your competitors

Why Do You Need to Know? (Pssst, this is that pesky “goals” part)

Affect change
Reputation management
Become engaged
Improve (sales, community citizenship, ROI, reputation, position)

Insights for Strategy vs. Insights for Insights

Tools get you to the data. But the data isn’t the story. Tell your story and back it up with good solid thinking.

The Seven (or more) Stages of Social Analysis

We believe that what has so many people tripped up is that we’re all used to getting information input, categorizing it, and drawing conclusions. Well, folks, that doesn’t work in qualitative social analysis and here’s why…it’s fluid. No sooner do you have a universe of results to analyze, oops, whaddya know — there are more to consider.

Top that with the sheer volume and sets of universes that could be considered – shut the front door. Don’t get discouraged. Recognize the one true thing when it comes to data:  You’ll never have it all and you’ll never be finished. Never.

Effectively incorporating social analysis

And as you’re doing all that discerning and learning, keep in mind some important considerations that can be extremely beneficial in helping you draw out useful knowledge:

  • Demographics – Who is talking? What are the differences by gender, by age, by geography?
  • Online geography – Where is the conversation happening? What are the differences by platform, by network? Similarities?
  • Influencers – Who is strongly affecting the conversation? How can you learn from them or even involve them in your success?
  • Who are those influencers connected to, talking with, sharing with?
  • Content – Are people asking questions? Talking to each other? Talking to your brand? Talking about your brand? Recommending? Criticizing or complementing?
  • Common themes, keywords and phrases, messaging that resonates.

It’s About Context

Data alone is just data. Data combined with context is powerful. That’s what you need to be seeking – always. Mine the data, then focus on context from which that data came. We talk about this so much we’re afraid people are going to start running when they see us coming. However, context is critical. Overlook that element when it comes to listening in the social media space and your subsequent research and analysis and you’re in trouble. Especially if you’re selling those services to clients. What people are saying in the context of everyday life matters so much – and is so rarely taken into consideration.

Behavior is telling – especially when it comes to social media. People want to belong. They want to connect, communicate, share, listen and interact with their online friends. And whether you believe it or not, to a vast number of people, the relationships they have with their “Internet friends” (as Shelly’s husband likes to call them) is a really important part of their lives.

And brands and monitoring tools and practices are failing in a huge way when it comes to considering context and the context of human interaction. To our way of thinking, the only way to apply context to online interactions and the data you can get from monitoring and listening tools is to integrate people into the process. Fail that and risk the results you think you’ve ended up with being inaccurate.

This means looking beyond the queries, the numbers, the semantics and the number of brand mentions. It means digging deeper. Discerning patterns, threads that you can unravel – and/or weave together, to form a pattern. This means remembering that humans comprise the social landscape. And when you make the mistake of just relying on a tool to deliver data and thinking your work is done, you’re setting yourself up for not only disappointment, but also for inaccurate results.

So do it right. The data delivery is just the midpoint. Once you’ve got the data, that’s the time to apply human brainpower and critical thinking. Don’t stop until you understand the context of whatever data it is you’re analyzing and how that relates to your ultimate goals. If you try – just a little, you’ll be amazed at what the consumers that you’re listening to are really telling you. It’s there. You’ve just got to want it.

Things We Forget (But Shouldn’t)

Articles and press releases and feed pickups are not social media engagement. Should you track them? Should you know what’s being said? Absolutely. But if you want to engage with your audience (and we know you do), it doesn’t matter a lick if there’s content that talks about changing weather patterns. Nor does it matter if it gets picked up by every RSS scraper out there.

Does it add to the overall volume? Perhaps. But in our minds, not in a way that should matter. Content, intent and people matter.

What About Goals?

Goals are the beginning point of any objective, campaign or initiative. We mentioned this above in the seven steps, but because it’s so often overlooked, we’re laying it out for you here. Whether it’s measuring success, competitive analysis, reputation management – every action in the act of listening and monitoring should start with goals.

What are your monitoring goals?

  • Are you looking to gain insight into consumers’ language and thoughts?
  • Are you monitoring for competitive analysis purposes?
  • Are you monitoring for product research & development purposes?
  • Are you monitoring to improve customer service?
  • Are you monitoring and gathering intelligence for new business prospecting purposes?
  • Are you monitoring for every day brand awareness and mentions so that you can potentially get out in front of any potential crises that might occur?
  • Are you monitoring a specific campaign to see what kind of results it’s delivering so that you can tweak and modify accordingly?
  • Are you monitoring because you care what people think, say or need?

We hope that no matter how many of the above you say “yes” to that, most importantly, the one you’re nodding about is the last one. Successful marketing, PR or communications of any kind hinge on that last point – actually caring what people say, think, want and need. If you know those things, you can position yourself to win – just about every time.

And a Note About Tools

You need social monitoring tools. Not using monitoring tools is a sign of so many things. Arrogance. Ignorance. Cluelessness. None of them good. More importantly, it’s quite simply akin to asking for disaster to strike.  If you value your brand and your brand reputation, monitor it. Period. There’s no excuse not to do so.

That said, we hope that most everyone is monitoring their brand name in some way – even if it’s just with Google Alerts. While this is important, don’t overlook the need to monitor the space related to your business. Not only can you learn a tremendous amount about your industry and consumer behaviors and desires, you can learn about your competitors, unfulfilled opportunities, and find ways to personally engage to help position you and your company in the greater space.

The thing about tools – they don’t do the job for you – they assist. Just like surgeons use scalpels to operate and handy men use drills to make holes, the tool is just that – a tool. Operated by someone who knows what they’re doing and who knows what they’re looking for. Equally as important, they know what to do with it – in this case, data – once they find it. No matter what any one of the seemingly bazillion “social media monitoring tool” providers out there might like you to believe, social media monitoring solutions are not one-size fits all and they are NOT plug and play.

There’s a whole separate post we’ll write specifically about tools, but just know going in that there’s no one out there that’s perfect – at least not that we think is perfect. And that sometimes a combination of multiple tools for multiple purposes can be a good way to get what you need.

Technology is a Beautiful Thing

It is. We love technology. And while we’ve made incredible progress on the technology front in the last few years, data in and of itself, without interpretation – without context – isn’t really all that valuable. People drive data. Situations drive data. Context drives what that data means and what you can ultimately use it to help you accomplish.

Think less about you and more about them. Listen to what consumers say about your products, where they say it, how they say it and the context in which they say it. Pay attention to consumers. They’ll tell you just about everything you might want to know. But only if you’re listening. And putting what you hear into context.

And, as our friend (and fellow data geek) Tom Webster likes to say, ask better questions. And do the work.

Data is where it starts. Context is the midpoint. Great decisions are what follow.

I co-authored this piece with my good friend and frequent collaborator, Wendy Goldman Scherer. Wendy is a partner of The Social Studies Group, a social media research firm she founded in 1996. They provide primary research and geographic information services, news aggregation and monitoring. What Wendy loves most is social media research. Her focus for clients for many years has been on monitoring, reporting, building custom knowledge dashboards and virtual ethnography reporting. When we need anything having to do with any of these things, Wendy is the first person we turn to. You can find her online at The Social Studies Group, on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

This article first appeared in The Social Media Monthly Magazine in May of 2011.

Image by Scott Robinson via Creative Commons