The state of social intelligence: 2021 year in review

By @josephlrice
Tuesday, 14 December 2021

As we exit year two of the Covid-19 Pandemic, it’s encouraging to see that a great many organizations have stayed the course and continued investing in their strategic use of social data alongside other data sources to solve real business problems. In my 2020 year in review I spoke about how necessity had yet again proved to be the mother of invention, with pandemic related lockdowns accelerating the use of underutilized data sources, such as social, to understand consumer opinion and sentiment in real time. And as organizations quickly saw the value in these new sources of insight, it was hard to imagine them going back to the slower, more costly data and opinion gathering techniques of the past.

This year has proven that to be correct, and with customer experience and customer centricity now all the rage, social data is proving its worth by surfacing the real voice of the customer in real time. Combine this with the push to democratize insight and integrate these customer voices across the organization, and I believe we are now at a tipping point in the use of social intelligence. In my conversations with dozens of brands over the past year, five main themes stood out to me:

1. The great consolidation

You’ve probably heard about "the great resignation" but in the world of social intelligence, it’s "the great consolidation" that’s top of mind. Spurred on by pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, organizations took to digital transformation with gusto, accelerating the digitization of their customer interactions and internal operations by three to four years according to a 2020 McKinsey study. And, for many, a key step in that transformation journey was to address an unwieldy and duplicative social marketing and customer experience (CX) tech stack. I observed countless organizations turning to social suites, who could offer the core capabilities of content publishing, customer care and listening, as well as many secondary features such as advocacy, content management and influencer marketing to name a few.

Brands also realized they didn't need a dozen different social listening providers, prompting them to consolidate down to one or opt for a social suite to deliver everything. They also started to ask tougher questions of prospective vendors about the quality of their AI, in some cases manually auditing the vendors' annotations with human ones to compare accuracy. 

2. The strategic acquisition

As buyers were busy consolidating their social media tools, vendors from a variety of diverse backgrounds sought to broaden and strengthen their offerings by acquiring social capabilities. These acquisitions took several forms. First, the merger of traditional media monitoring with social media monitoring continued with Cision's acquisition of Brandwatch, Meltwater's purchase of Linkfluence and Access Intelligence's (Pulsar) merger with Isentia. Secondly, a great many acquisitions fell under the CX umbrella. This included the customer feedback and voice of the customer vendors adding social expertise such as Qualtrics's acquisition of Clarabridge and Reputation's purchase of Nuvi. It also included customer care and engagement vendors adding social capabilities to improve their core offering such as Verint's pickup of Conversocial, Hootsuite's acquisitions of Sparkcentral and Heyday, and Khoros’s purchase of Topbox. We also witnessed a huge IPO, with Sprinklr taking their ‘Unified CXM Platform’ public. 

All of these moves suggest a vendor landscape beginning to coalesce around three main categories: Communications Clouds, CX Clouds and Insights Clouds. Key to the success of them all has been the integration of social data into their solutions and the ability to blend it with other data sources providing a more comprehensive picture. Which brings me to...

3. The death of the social silo

Some time ago, social listening vendors began to reframe themselves as 'consumer intelligence platforms,' offering clients the ability to combine social data with other digital sources such as surveys and first-party data. This seemed a natural progression as these tools could already analyze unstructured social posts, so why not apply that to other unstructured data sources and provide brands with a more complete view of consumers. When Forrester released their New Wave on AI-Enabled Consumer Intelligence Platforms in July, it seemed that the era of social listening as a category was coming to an end. And to hammer home the point, just a few months later Zendesk announced its acquisition of Momentive (formerly SurveyMonkey) with the goal of creating a "powerful new customer intelligence company." This combination of CX or behavioral data with solicited and unsolicited feedback seems to be the future of the consumer insights world and would suggest more 'Insights Clouds' are on the horizon.

4. The growth of social intelligence as a profession and the dearth of talent

While social listening as a category continues to fade, social intelligence is just getting started. A LinkedIn search finds 15,000 people globally mentioning social intelligence in their profile while another 22,000 mention social media data. And, this phenomenon is not exclusive to those working in agency land or for technology suppliers, but within brands themselves who have been actively recruiting to bring talent in-house.

The challenge is in finding people with the right skills and experience to fill these vacancies. I’ve heard many times that this dearth of talent is one reason why specialist research agencies have never been busier. Jeremy Hollow, Founder & MD of Listen + Learn Research, a social data insights agency, commented, "The market seems to be expanding and maturing, with more of the routine analytical work being brought in-house while agencies are being used to bring deeper strategic insights.”

5. The evolution of market research from question-based to observational approaches

Market research, specifically research tech, is in the midst of an investment frenzy with numerous SaaS upstarts raising funds to disrupt various parts of the research supply chain. In my view, a great many are simply automating manual processes (survey creation, sample access, etc.) while a few are fundamentally challenging the question-based approach to primary research and how we understand consumer needs.

They are looking instead to the billions of online conversations on every imaginable subject to collect organic consumer opinions and predict future trends. This data science led approach is allowing insight professionals the ability to analyze huge amounts of unstructured social commentary, providing qualitative insights on a quantitative scale. And it seems that this is a key priority of research buyers as well. A recent GreenBook Report found that the analysis of social media data was their number one area of focus when it came to the adoption of automation.

Onwards to 2022

These themes suggest that social intelligence has truly come into its own over the past year with numerous trends conspiring to drive awareness and adoption. Despite that, many organizations still consider social data a marketing-specific resource and undervalue its business impact. Sprout Social’s recent Index survey highlighted this very point, reporting that 46% of respondents saw social data strictly as a marketing resource. Clearly, there’s still work to be done and people to win over, however this shouldn’t take away from the 54% who saw social data in a more strategic light. And after such a challenging year, why not see the glass as half full?

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