SAS introduces social media analytics to enterprise

ComputerWorld Canada –

There are dozens of social media measurement tools out there, but this one might be the first to comprehensively tackle the space. An in-depth look at SAS's new Social Media Analytics solution, unveiled at the SAS Global Forum in Seattle.

Business analytics vendor SAS Institute Inc. unveiled a new tool called Social Media Analytics (SMA) at the SAS Global Forum in Seattle this week. The enterprise-level solution gathers both unstructured and structured data to provide businesses with insight, measurement and forecasting in the social media space.

Only five per cent of the data in the world today is structured data -- the other 95 per cent is unstructured, said Jim Davis, senior vice-president and chief marketing officer at SAS. "The reality is that the unstructured data can make a very big difference in our business," he said.

Davis unveiled SMA during the opening session of the conference. SAS didn't say whether a version for small and medium-sized businesses was in the works, but the company recognized its potential.

"The social media analytics solution that we showed could have a strong appeal to not only big businesses but also smaller business as well ... the vast majority of that data is in the public domain and is accessible," said Davis to a group of Canadian media the next day.

SMA's predictive aspects are what differentiate it from the rest of the market, according to Davis. A lot of the other tools are historic in nature and very similar to traditional BI tools, he said.

"We focus a lot on industry-specific solutions, but this one has a strong horizontal appeal, up and down the spectrum," said Davis.

SMA is a hosted solution that collects and analyzes data from multiple online sources like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and forums. Real-time results are displayed through Web-based dashboards, reports and alerts.

"All you need is a browser to take advantage of it," said John Bastone, global product marketing manager for customer intelligence industry and solution marketing at SAS. "There is no install of any software, there is no capital expenditure of any kind to get it up and running."

The tool provides information on sentiment -- whether the conversations are positive and negative, where the comments are coming from, when they occurred and even the content itself. It also displays influence -- who is talking as well as their reach.

A blogger with 5,000 followers, for example, may actually reach 15,000 people while a mainstream site with 10,000 followers might influence only half that many.

SMA's archive extends back two years and then maintains a continuous archive of online data, which allows enterprises to "understand trends and update historical analyses," states SAS. The tool also looks forward to "forecast future volume of social media conversations and then predict their impact on the business."

One of the distinct advantages of SMA, according to SAS, is its enterprise-level capabilities. The tool collects and analyzes "huge quantities of data, both structured and unstructured, from internal and external sources." It also integrates with CRM and marketing systems.

Most of the data collected is public domain knowledge, so enterprises can track not only their own brands but their competitor brands as well, said Bastone.

SMA supports 13 languages -- Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. The tool's ability to understand conversations in multiple languages is beneficial, seeing as 50 per cent of Tweets are not in English, said Bastone.

Another feature is extensible language processing, which allows enterprises to adjust rules related to text and sentiment to accommodate colloquialisms and slang.

The customizable tool takes a hybrid approach -- as opposed to a black box model -- which provides a higher level of accuracy because enterprises can incorporate new words and phrases over time and then re-process all of the data against a new set of rules, said Bastone.

There are two dozen solutions that are nominal in terms of monthly licensing that can give basic insight into what people are saying and where they are saying it -- one might be good at PR measurement, another at brand measurement and one might be okay at analyzing the impact of Tweets, he said.

SMA is for all the companies that have one or two or three of these solutions, said Bastone. "This is kind of meant to bridge all of those capabilities and allow for a lot more customization," he said.

Enterprise social media analytics is about the need to look at social activity by going back a few years to understand the impact and then taking that information to plan going forward, said Mark Chaves, customer intelligence product manager at SAS, during a press conference at the Washington State Convention and Trade Centre.

The final piece is about connecting the dots and tying it to actual business metrics, he said. "What we are talking about here is taking a look at sentiment beyond just your brand and tying it to specific attributes of your business," he said.

The initial set up, called the quick start program, can take anywhere from two to six weeks, said Chaves. This involves establishing the taxonomy and rules, running through preliminary results and then "flipping the switch." Adjustments, such as tracking an additional competitor or a new campaign, may take one day or up to two weeks, depending on the attributes and whether they require a new structure.

The quick start fee is based on the number of brands and starts at US$50,000. The monthly fee, based on amount of data, starts at $10,000. Additional costs are based on customized services.

Chaves envisions a less expensive, pre-set version for small and medium-sized companies down the road. "It's probably at least 18 months away," he said.

The most well-known competitor to SMA is Radian6, said Katie Paine, CEO of KDPaine & Partners, who acted as a consultant during the development of the SAS solution. SMA's pricing is comparable to other products on the market, she said.

During the initial marketing phase of social media measurement, everybody wanted a $500 price point to enter this marketplace, said Paine. "What we found was there really isn't a cheap and easy $500 solution. This is a nice price point and nice starting point, but very few people are paying $500 a month," she said.

The average social media analytics solution on the market offers 60 per cent accuracy, while SAS's solution offers over 90 per cent, according to Paine. "The biggest impact is going to be on the accuracy of the data being analyzed and the comprehensiveness of the data being analyzed," she said.

Enterprises traditionally increase accuracy by hiring agencies that use humans to perform measurements, but this gets very expensive, she said. There are a lot of companies who says it's okay to be 60 per cent accurate because that is all they can afford -- or they have to limit what they are tracking to maybe just one competitor or not measuring the competition at all, she said.

SMA is "the most comprehensive system" on the market, she said. "Content collection in an interesting element of this whole thing because without a good content aggregator or the ability to pull in content from a variety of sources, you are going to be inherently limited," she said.

SAS's competition also falls short because they are not connecting the dots, said Paine. To actually have an impact on business, "social media measurement has to be looked at from the perspective of what is the business goal -- not how many fans you've not, not how many followers you've got," she said. "There are other companies that out there that have the potential of doing that, but nobody has done it."

But SMA's predictive qualities are "one of the little magic things that set it apart from everything else," she said. Enterprises will have enough data to be able to predict right away because SAS's content provider goes back two years -- and with social media, the last two years of data is about all that is going to be reliable anyway, she said.

All enterprises, regardless of their level or volume of activity in the social media space, would get value out of using SMA, according to Paine. "I can't think of any business that is not going to be affected at some point in the future by social media," she said.

Organizations don't need to be active on social media every day, but they do need to listen and monitor what's happening on a daily basis, she said. "My rule is the fact that you have about three hours from the time something happens to the time somebody expects you to respond," she said.

Marriott International Inc., an early adopter of SMA, presented its experience during a demo of the tool at the conference. One interesting element was the ability to take a sentiment and look at it over time, said Mike Keppler, senior vice-president of global sales, marketing and revenue management systems at Marriott.

The hotel chain was also impressed with the summary of information the tool provided. There are no limits to the number of inputs you can have -- you can pick as many blogs, Twitter streams, PR newswires and Web crawlers out there as you want, he said.

You want to know how you are spending your time on social media and how you are connecting with the business objectives, but you also want to know whose voices have a part in that conversation. "We have a voice as a company, but we also found that there were other players that were talking about Marriott," he said.

The tool revealed names of influencers that Marriott recognized, "but also folks we never heard of," which Keppler found surprising.

IT futurist Thornton May was impressed that SAS collaborated with clients to develop the solution. "They opened the kimono and collaborated with some of their top and best customers to actually create something that will help," he said.

SAS is in front of the pack, said May. "It's nice to have a player who has been in the environment forever who actually understands because social media without analytics is noise. Social media with analytics is value," he said.

But it's too early to predict the social media space, according to May. "I don't think that people using social media actually know or understand their behaviours yet. We've got experimenters on experimenters on experimenters," he said.

Some people say they have been experts in social media for over seven years, but social media hasn't existed for over seven years, he said. "It's too early for expertise, so you don't predict, you co-evolve. It's very biological," he said.

During the opening ceremony, Davis highlighted his personal Twitter habits. He opened his Twitter account in October 2008. Eighteen months later, he still hadn't sent a single Tweet, but had 97 followers. His first Tweet went out on April 10, "Headed to #SGF10. Looking forward to showing new social media solution Sunday night. #SGFXC."

Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur.

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