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Higher Ed Marketing Memos by Dr. Liz Gross

8 Steps To Choose Social Media Monitoring Software

A comprehensive social media program includes social listening. Also called social media monitoring, it’s a process of searching the internet in real-time for mentions of your brand on blogs, social networks, forums, and other websites. After finding these mentions, the content is analyzed for themes, sentiment, and data sources. Demographics of the users that created the content can also provide valuable insights. Finally, comparing the results of different searches on a variety of dimensions can yield valuable competitive intelligence.

Sophisticated social listening requires excellent software—but the social media monitoring landscape is complex and ever-changing. New start-ups are still entering the market, and companies both large and small are regularly acquired. Far too many organizations end up choosing a social media monitoring solution that does not meet their needs, and find themselves starting the search all over again in less than a year.

By following the steps below, you can cut through the marketplace clutter and find the best solution.

Step 1: Understand Your Use-Case

First, think critically about the type of social listening you intend to do. Here are some questions you should consider.

  • Why are you engaging in social listening? Are you simply listening and reporting? Identifying customer service and engagement opportunities? Prospecting for students or donors? Your intentions will be a key driver of the type of solution you need.
  • What sources do you intend to monitor? Some low-cost or free solutions will allow you to monitor Twitter, but if you’re interested in Facebook, blogs, forums, Instagram, or Tumblr, you have a more complex use-case.
  • How many topics will you need to monitor, and how complex are they? Some campuses may simply be searching for their name, and if that name is unique, simple search technology will suffice. However, your institution may have a common name (say, the name of a city) that requires more complex search queries. You may also be monitoring a variety of competitors, industry topics, or names of key staff and faculty. Some of the more cutting-edge solutions will also allow you to conduct visual searches to find instances of your logo on Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr. An organization may monitor anywhere from a single query to over a hundred. Having a good idea of the number of results your queries will return on a monthly basis will also be helpful.
  • What type of analysis and reporting do you require? Know if you’re simply collecting records of mentions, or if you intend to do deeper analysis. You  may want to analyze the sentiment of mentions, the characteristics of the people talking about your organization, or the sites on which your mentions appear. A more complex program may want to tag mentions (e.g., admissions-related, alumni-related) to conduct further analysis.
  • How many people will use the tool? Have a good handle on the size of people who need regular access to your social listening software, as well as potential growth of that team in the next 1-3 years.

Step 2: Know Your Budget

Speak with the people who hold the purse-strings for your department, and get a good idea of how much you’re able to spend on a social listening tool on an annual basis. While everyone loves to save a buck, the truth is that in this space you get what you pay for. For this reason, use of sophisticated social listening software is usually limited to the central communication office of a campus (or a school/college at a large university). Hopefully your needs will dictate the quality of tool you need, which in turn dictates your budget. The opposite circumstance, which may lead to you adopting a tool that is insufficient to meet your needs, can be incredibly frustrating—and I speak from experience. Here’s an idea of what you can expect to pay annually for social media monitoring software.

  • Basic (Twitter only): $250 – $1200
  • Mid-level (good query, limited analysis): $15,000 – $20,000
  • Top-tier (excellent query & analysis): $25,000 – $50,000 or more

Step 3: Prepare Your Requirements

Gather a list of what you need your tool to accomplish. Some topics to consider include:

  • Complexity of search capabilities
  • Sources to be searched
  • Number of simultaneous queries
  • Specific examples of analysis
  • Training provided
  • Support offered
  • Number of users
  • Integration with other business software (e.g., CRM, web analytics)

Step 4: Contact Vendors

Note that this is far from the first step! I strongly advise against starting your search process by calling vendors and scheduling demos. You could find anywhere from 10-20 viable candidates, and spend months watching demos of similar software. Rather, take your use-case and requirements and consult with industry experts if you can. Forrester’s Wave Report for Enterprise Listening Programs is a great source of information. If your campus IT department works with Gartner, they may also be able to provide some consultation. Alternately, if you need to hire an expert for a few hours to review your use-case and requirements and suggest 5-6 vendors that could be a possible fit, I think that would be money well-spent.

Step 5: Interview Vendors

Since you know what you want, you’re now in the position to ask vendors if they can provide it. This is much preferred to watching the 60-90 minute dog and pony show that vendors show to every prospective client. Make sure each requirement on your list is addressed—and demonstrated—to your satisfaction. You also may want to ask vendors about their software development cycle and growth agenda. This is a rapidly evolving industry, and vendors are regularly acquired. To the extent that you can, find out if the company is seeking to be a leader or to develop a solution that can be absorbed into a larger company. A visible commitment to developing new features and regularly releasing updates is a good indicator. Many companies cease this practice once they’re acquired by a larger player.

While this unconventional interview/demo may seem awkward, it’s highly strategic and will quickly reveal strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. Taking this approach will allow you to narrow the field to one or two vendors that meet your needs.

Step 6: Push For A Trial

Once you’ve decided on your first choice, push for a full trial of the product. This will give you a chance to run your own queries in the software, review the results, and kick the tires of analysis capabilities. Most companies will be able to give you a 3-5 day trial license free-of-charge, although some may assess a small fee if they need to do significant setup for you.

Step 7: Ask For References

Would you hire an employee without checking references? Probably not, and you shouldn’t partner with a vendor without doing so. Ask to speak with 2-3 customers in a similar industry—ideally a fairly new customer as well as one that’s been through at least one contract renewal. Ask them how responsive the company is, if the software has met their needs, and if they feel they’re getting a good value.

Step 8: Sign A Contract—But Not A Multi-Year

While multi-year contracts can provide a good value (and predictable costs) for many vendors, jumping into a long-term contract with a vendor in such a rapidly evolving space is risky. During the course of a three-year contract, the company you choose may split or combine its solution suite, be acquired, or go out of business completely. While it’s always best and most convenient to renew a contract year after year, this is the type of solution for which it’s best to keep your options open.

Have YOU gone through the process of choosing a social media monitoring vendor? What advice do you have? What pitfalls did you encounter?

Meet the Author: Dr. Liz Gross

Dr. Liz Gross is a graduate of the Higher Ed Experts Web Analytics certificate program. Higher Ed Experts is a professional online school for digital professionals working in universities and colleges.

When you take a professional certificate course with us, you get a chance to upgrade your skills by working on your projects, interacting with classmates just like you and getting detailed personalized feedback from your instructor.

Dr. Liz Gross is now the director of Campus Sonar, a social media listening consultancy.

Liz received her Ph.D. in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service in Higher Education from Cardinal Stritch University. Her dissertation research examined the relationship between communication methods and the frequency and content of college student interactions with faculty.

She also taught for 2 years and half Higher Ed Expert’s 4-week online course on Social Media Measurement for Higher Education.

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