No matter how large (or small) your business, staying on top of social networking can prove a challenge as you scramble to keep track of your customers talking, complaining, and asking questions on numerous social channels. But whatever your social troubles, they probably aren’t on the scale of technology company Dell, which receives an average of 25,000 mentions every day — and that’s just in English!

“As social technologies continue to evolve, Dell adjusts its strategy to be where our customers are,” explains Brian Melinat, who manages Social Media Analytics and Listening functions at Dell. Being where its customers are means Dell is just about everywhere; the company maintains a presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, SlideShare, Tumblr, and Vine. For global reach, Dell is also active on regional social networks, such as Xing in Germany, and RenRen and WeChat in China.

“We believe that creating a social business creates more value for customers, partners, and the organization,” says Melinat, which is why Dell has put significant effort into building a serious social business foundation. Of course, it takes more than just a great social team to manage such an extensive number of networks and interactions. Dell also relies on analytics data to help break down social networking noise into actionable data.

Breaking Social Down Into Metrics

Though social metrics may seem complicated — especially where multiple social networks are concerned — Melinat breaks things down into three simple categories: footprint, engagement, and impact. Though they may have different names, key metrics on most social networks will fall into one of these categories.

“Footprint is the size; it includes Facebook fans, Twitter followers, community members, and so on. The size and growth of our social footprint is one indicator that customers are connecting,” says Melinat. “Engagement is the interaction; it includes things like retweets, replies, @ mentions, shares, comments, Likes, and downloads. Engagement metrics help us know whether our social presence is active and relevant.” Melinat’s last metric, impact, is less about the social networks themselves and more about how social is impacting the business. It includes data like the number of visits to from social channels, and sales that can be traced back to social media.

Another metric that Dell considers is social sentiment — whether people mentioning Dell or its products are casting it in a positive or negative light. To track sentiment, Dell has its own metric dubbed “Social Net Advocacy Pulse” (or SNAP) which provides an easy gauge of how customers are feeling about Dell. Using Natural Language Processing to parse social messages into a measure of sentiment helps Dell find out if there’s a problem — perhaps before it even becomes a problem — and take appropriate action as needed.

Monitoring and Responding to Interactions

Getting at this social data requires large-scale monitoring, and Melinat tells us that Dell’s monitoring process is constantly evolving. Social scorecards pull directly from the API feeds of social platforms to give social staff an easy look at key social metrics to see how the company is doing on the network.

“These are really helpful because once implemented, the scorecards are easily refreshed to get updated weekly or monthly views,” says Melinat. “The insights and actions associated with these trends are related, longer-term, to what campaigns and strategies are working (or not). Adjustments can then be made or standouts replicated. In most cases, we can filter the information by region or page. We can see trends over time and quickly spot anomalies that warrant deeper analyses and possible action.”

For more time sensitive social monitoring, Dell uses social listening tools to monitor conversations and mentions across numerous networks, including blogs and forums. “Depending on the nature of an issue, we can have a corporate response prepared in a matter of hours and can reach out to an individual to resolve an issue within minutes,” says Melinat. In addition to offering immediate, actionable data, listening tools let Dell gather more in-depth information than its scorecards provide, giving the social team a well-rounded picture of social performance.

Like many big businesses, Dell also deals with customer service issues on social. “Providing customer support and issue resolution over social media helps reduce response time and increase our resolution rate,” says Melinat. “These listening tools help us proactively spot hot issues that may be growing organically in the conversation based on volume, reach, and sentiment. Depending on the type of issue, our team will then reach out to the appropriate Dell teams to respond.” For smaller — or individual — customer support problems, there’s a dedicated Social Outreach Services (SOS) team that monitors the Dell Facebook Page and @DellCares account on Twitter. The SOS team fields an average of 3,500 issues in 14 different languages every week — and has a 97% resolution rate.

Using Social Analytics for Market Research

With so much effort put into gathering and analyzing social data, it’s no surprise that Dell uses social insights beyond its social networks. “So many people express their opinions and needs on social media today that there is a wealth of valuable customer information available,” explains Melinat. “To tap into that data, we primarily use our social media listening tools to pull the conversations that relate to a specific topic we are researching.”

Social data goes to research analysts who review and summarize it for product feedback, competitive comparisons, or general insights into market trends. This research may be in addition to, or a complete replacement for primary research methods like surveys or focus groups. “It can usually be turned around faster and for less money,” says Melinat. “And social media research adds another perspective.”

Fortunately, your business doesn’t have to be as large as Dell to take away lessons on how it manages its social media properties. No matter how large or small, keeping a close watch on your social metrics will help you respond to customer issues and build on social success — a sure path to social media victory in the long-run.

[Image credits: Dell, Maryland GovPics]