Every company should strive to be driven by data. As organizations and technologies become more sophisticated, we’ve been able to tap into the kinds of insights that wouldn’t have even been imaginable 15 years ago. Those insights drive real business value, whether you’re proactively increasing customer retention, engagement or satisfaction, or creating new products or services that solve problems your customers didn’t even know they had. Social media analytics isn’t just about the numbers—it tells a story about your business and customers.

“When I think about data, I inevitably think about social media. That might be because I spend my days working with our clients’ executives to capture the voice of their customer, but I think it’s because social media intelligence is the next data frontier,” says Ryan Barretto, President of Sprout Social.

Social media data gives you actionable intelligence to drive your business forward. But how exactly does data turn into business intelligence? And do professionals from social practitioners to marketing leaders take advantage of social insights?

We spoke with several subject matter experts at Sprout, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Bowling Green State University (BGSU) and Madden Media, a destination marketing agency, to learn how a data point becomes social media intelligence.

What is social media intelligence?

Social media intelligence is the process of gathering and analyzing data from conversations on social networks to inform decision-making. Across the social landscape, there are trillions of data points that are essential parts of cumulative business intelligence.

Social media intelligence involves pulling these points together into something measurable, whether you’re looking at volume, sentiment, content or demographics. Once you add context behind the data, those insights can guide marketing efforts, sales strategy, product development and more.

There’s a good chance your competitors are already using social media business intelligence to their advantage. According to The 2023 State of Social Media Report, 85% of business leaders say that social data consistently informs or often informs their company’s business strategy. Over the next three years, 30% of business leaders expect that amount to increase significantly.

Why is social media intelligence important?

Collecting survey data from your customers, monitoring product reviews and conducting focus groups are extremely valuable. When you combine that feedback with social media intelligence, you get an even clearer picture of what your audience wants.

One post might not mean a lot, but the aggregation of every post on a topic that’s relevant to your business can be magical. Social data comes from a wider audience, it’s unfiltered and it gives you a real-time understanding of your market.

Social media intelligence contextualizes wider feedback

Social media intelligence provides a macro perspective when you desperately need one and can have a major positive impact on your quarter or fiscal year. While a survey helps you understand your base, social media intelligence captures the sentiment from anyone buying within your product category, opening the door to new audiences. With access to a wider range of feedback, teams can identify more avenues for driving impact with social data, which gives the edge you need to generate revenue, discover potential cost savings and reduce your risk.

“Balancing social data with creativity is so important because it gives us a direct pulse on what customers are doing, responding to and saying. We’re getting one of the best, richest pieces of audience data that we can get through social,” says Sarah Hupp Foster, Chief Operating Officer of Madden Media.

Understand your customers better with unfiltered feedback

Social media, for better or worse, is where people go to express their unfiltered thoughts. Your customers might reserve their true feelings on a survey that’s going directly to you, but on social media, they’re posting their thoughts as they come. Without a social media intelligence program, you might only notice a few posts that go viral and address those individual concerns. But once you organize that data, you can find the commonalities and adjust your strategies accordingly.

“People aren’t holding back when they tell you what they think. Whether you’re looking for improvements for operations, trying to decipher new technology to invest in or direct insights for your customers, all of those audiences will tell you what they want. As a leader you have a starting point whether it’s doing an internal survey or preparing a proposal, [social data] empowers you to have a firm ground to stand on,” Foster says.

And if you’re interested in employee sentiment or investor relations, your constituents are still people with social media accounts.

“I know of one company that tracks both employee and investor sentiment directly after earnings calls to get an unfiltered view of how their results and commentary are being received. They can use that intelligence to shape future internal and external communications, with messaging tailored for each group,” says Barreto.

Monitor feedback in real time

Consumers post to social media as soon as they have a problem, giving you a real-time window into how your product is being received. By implementing social media intelligence practices, you can keep an eye on problems faster than you could by monitoring your internal customer care. When you establish a trendline of social sentiment, if there are any sudden deviations from that line, you can investigate quickly.

“For example, one of our other agency customers discovered the value of social data after their client’s moisturizer sales started dropping and they couldn’t figure out why. By setting up a social listening query, they had their answer within minutes instead of months. While customers still loved the product, they disliked the packaging. The social team was able to pass the feedback on to R&D so they could redesign their packaging based on real customer insights,” Barretto says.

Fuels competitive monitoring and benchmarking

Social media intelligence also supports competitive monitoring and benchmarking. Jenny Li Fowler, Director of Social Media Strategy at MIT, says it’s important to know what your competitors are doing, especially what stories they’re telling and their successes. She says social data can help spot any internal gaps that your competitors are already capitalizing on.

“If you’re in the same industry, you have a similar audience, so it’s an opportunity for you to authentically add your spin. I learn a lot from my higher ed peers. We all learn from each other. That’s part of what creativity is—to be inspired by what others are doing,” Fowler says.

Brands can also see why consumers prefer your competitor—a competitive intelligence play that might take months to accomplish without the power of social. You can see what’s missing from the marketplace. That kind of intel has a ripple effect across your business and you might not ever uncover it without social media data.

Strategies for gathering and using social media intelligence

Our experts shared their strategies for getting deeper data and using that social media intelligence through social listening, sentiment analysis, social monitoring and competitive intelligence.

Social listening and sentiment analysis

Social listening involves collecting and analyzing online conversations to gather data about what people are saying about a brand, product, service or industry. Sentiment analysis uses this data to determine if the tone behind those conversations are positive, neutral or negative. Both social listening and sentiment analysis provide businesses with intelligence about consumer perceptions, trends and more.

For example, Brianna Louise Blackburn, Manager of Social Media Strategy at BGSU, uses the Sprout Inbox to track sentiment, specifically looking to see if their content and the university’s procedures, events and culture are resonating.

“It’s helpful for me as a social media manager to be able to report to our leadership. They can get a better understanding of how their decisions are making an impact across our various audiences and stakeholders,” Blackburn says.

Lindsey Wilhelm, Managing Senior Content Strategist at Madden Media, oversees a team of writers who produce organic and paid social content. Her team manages community engagement and comment moderation for clients as part of the broader array of owned social services provided by Madden. This approach is utilized not only for ad hoc sentiment analysis but also for fostering community building.

“We closely analyze user engagement to refine our client’s social strategy. Every user question, comment and interaction is a data point that we can use to inform future efforts. Community management not only builds trust between our clients’ brands and users but reveals insights that teach us about our key audiences,” she says.

For instance, when the Madden team worked on a campaign honoring Native American Heritage Month, there were many comments from people sharing excitement and expressing they wanted to participate in different types of cultural experiences like a powwow. Madden’s content team works with their clients and other internal agency disciplines like design and media to determine the best way to respond to these types of conversations.

“While it may not be appropriate to encourage people to attend these cultural events, it showed us there was a strong desire to engage with Native American culture, even if users themselves weren’t part of the community. So, we can cultivate interest on behalf of our client to encourage users to honor the culture with valuable experiences like touring historical locations,” she says.

Occasionally the team will see a trend for certain hot topics that spark negative sentiment in the comments. Wildlife images can sometimes spark debate between residents and conservationist groups. The creative team worked together to find new imagery while still maintaining the needs of their client.

“Once the team noticed a large number of negative comments, we shifted our strategy to not include imagery of those animals because the users’ negative interactions were taking attention away from our key message, which was responsible recreation and giving wildlife space. We continued to promote the message because it was a key client initiative, but we switched to showing different types of wildlife. This allowed us to avoid getting more of that negative sentiment but still get our client’s message across,” she says.

Social monitoring

Along with social listening and sentiment analysis, social monitoring can be used to provide business intelligence. Social monitoring refers to the process of tracking general activity across multiple platforms. It involves observing and analyzing user activity, interactions and trends across various social media platforms. By monitoring factors like engagement, demographics and content performance, businesses gain insights into their target audiences behavior and preferences. For example, if a marketer noticed an increase in engagement on Instagram Stories with polls, they might focus on using more interactive elements in the future.

Competitive analysis

Social data helps you benchmark your efforts against competitors. Blackburn says it’s helpful to see what other universities or brands are doing related to higher education, especially when it comes to informing event strategy on social media.

“For example, we may show how another university uses confetti, photo opportunities or video displays—anything that’s more engaging and shareable. We want to make the event a social media moment where people are whipping out their phones and taking pictures or video for their Instagram Story or whatever platform they choose,” she says.

During reporting, Blackburn explains she will often include competitor analysis tools to highlight other institutions, along with sharing comments about what people liked about BGSU’s event, to gain buy-in and demonstrate proof of concept.

“If you’re trying to market a brand or product, it’s important to know what conversations are held by your audience about your peers or competitors, especially if you’re trying to make an argument to go a certain direction. It helps to lead with data,” Fowler says.

7 ways to turn social data into actionable intelligence

Social media intelligence has a direct impact on your bottom line, so how do you create a social data program that works for you? There are several ways you can transform social media data into actionable intelligence for your organization. For Madden, social data supports their overall storytelling.

“We’re trying to tell authentic stories on social. We do that by reviewing analytics and data our client has on the destination and their target audiences. Whether it’s geo-targets or demographics to some degree, we look at the traditional metrics for our campaigns: CPC, likes, shares and comments. We can get an idea of how a message resonates based on that data and benchmarks,” says Jack Petty, Senior Director of Destination Strategy.

Beyond supporting storytelling, there are seven ways to turn social data into actionable intelligence.

1. Empower your social media team

Social data should be owned by the people working in the platforms every day. Your social media team already understands the landscape and probably has a few insights from their day-to-day work.

The next step is giving them the tools they need to surface that information to the rest of your organization. Keep them informed on metrics and goals of the business in the next quarter, year or five years. Make sure your social media team knows what matters to the business so they can mine and present insights to your leadership that will fuel your strategy.

2. Use social data to identify industry trends and opportunities

When it comes to social media intelligence, Madden’s teams are looking at major trends within the travel industry. For example, post-2020 people are looking to spend time outside and new audiences are seeking outdoor experiences.

“Social intelligence can show us the big trends and we can share those insights with our clients to help identify what’s going to resonate with audiences,” Foster says.

As a COO, Foster looks to social data to get an overview of workforce conversation, relevant industry topics and emerging technology as well. If she notices a major trend, she considers how to apply it to Madden’s operations.

“I’m able to see across all different industries at a grand scale and learn what staff are looking for.”

For example, when exploring different perspectives and reviewing general sentiment around hybrid work models, she was inspired to create a survey for the Madden team about best practices for hybrid work.

“I saw people didn’t want to fully return to the office, which allowed me to take action and get a pulse check for our staff by doing a survey. The social space informed us that we need to ask more about the topic,” she says.

3. Share insights across teams and departments

The beauty of social media intelligence is that one data point or finding can be relevant to multiple teams.

“A lot of what we do travels across different teams or departments because we’re a company of marketers working on behalf of our clients. We have an internal marketing team as well,” Petty says.

For instance, Petty explains his team may share several examples when presenting how a campaign performs. From there, the Madden marketing team will create a case study and apply those insights to Madden’s own channels.

Wilhelm says Madden Media also has a company-wide chat where teams share wins and performance stats from campaigns across the company.

“Since we have so many different teams hyper-focused on our clients, we don’t always know exactly what we’re all working on. It’s nice to have that company-wide space to talk about what’s new, what we’re doing for clients and what’s working. We share competitor insights as well,” she says.

4. Create a data dashboard

Social media intelligence is most powerful when paired with other data sources. All of your business data is valuable and it can’t live in a silo. Placing social insights with your CSAT or NPS survey results, reviews, customer support tickets and other data sources gives you a clearer view of the total landscape. When you give social media intelligence the same weight as data from your CRM or ERP, you see everything more clearly.

“As we move through this economic uncertainty, listening tools can be especially helpful to make game-time decisions. For example, retailers who need to make difficult decisions about their inventory can use social media intelligence to decide what to discount and what might be useful to keep on hand. Having all of that information in one place can help you make the tough calls,” says Barretto.

5. Be proactive, not reactive

One advantage of the real-time nature of social media is that it can be used to anticipate your audience’s needs or as a crisis management tool. Fowler explains over the past few years, MIT has used social to navigate crises and to help them better understand their audiences.

“When I think of social media intelligence, we’re trying to hone in on what our community is thinking and feeling. What is triggering them and what are their needs?” Fowler says.

During the height of the pandemic, the MIT community expressed they missed campus and seeing each other in person, so the social team started using more personal language. For example, instead of saying “We miss everyone,” they would use “We miss you, too.”

“I think when our audience read more personal language, it made them feel more heard and connected. It was a somber time, for example, and we stopped using phrases like ‘Have a happy weekend,’ but adjusted our tone to reflect how our audience was feeling,” she says.

She also shares that anecdotal data is one of the most powerful because it can help leadership inform messaging.

“Do we need a message to our community? If so, what is the tone and who needs to be heard? It’s challenging to connect all those dots, but when you’re hearing from all of the different voices on social, it helps you not be as reactive. It helps you know when it’s the right moment to say something and when it’s not,” she adds.

She explains MIT uses social listening and sentiment analysis tools to help with timing. For example, they search for relevant keywords to determine the momentum of conversations.

“Sometimes it confirms what we already know about the conversation, but seeing the sheer volume of mentions across networks along with [visualizations] shows you exactly where the data points are coming from. I will share those insights with leadership with a brief message,” she says.

Having a robust, always-on social data program is the best way to make sure your leadership is seeing the whole picture.

6. Conduct A/B testing to create content that resonates

Social media intelligence can also inform A/B testing to determine messaging and opportunities to lower the risk of content that doesn’t resonate. You can conduct organic social media experiments by testing different content types, captions, copy, images or publishing times. You can also use A/B testing for paid ads.

“We’re being the best stewards of our clients’ dollars. We don’t want our ad creative to be so high that we’re seeing a drop in CTR or other methods of engagement,” Petty says. “However many ads we’re creating, we’re using A/B tests to determine the different ways we can present it.”

He explains there are situations where ad creative takes off quickly, so the team optimizes toward that option. A different ad with a similar message may have a different image or target, but if they see it starts to shift, those options will become more prevalent over time. Either way, A/B testing enables Madden to present information and guidance to their clients.

7. Inform future campaigns

Social media intelligence has a place in their overall creative process, especially when preparing for new campaigns. After a seasonal campaign ends, the Madden team creates a slide deck to share overall performance with their internal stakeholders and the client.

“Our [media strategists] share great nuggets of insights, including top-performing headlines, primary text and link descriptions for paid ad campaigns. I like to review those decks when I’m strategizing for the next campaign. It helps me learn how the content we deploy resonates with our audiences. I can glean some information on the audience sentiment through that performance,” Wilhelm says.

The Madden team also looks at landing page performance for the exit URL of the campaign to review metrics like click-through rate, bounce rate and time on page to identify if the page met the user’s expectations after clicking.

“Those metrics help us know if we’re hitting the mark. Is it connecting with our audience and inspiring them, or giving them an awareness of this client’s destination? We reference them a lot as we are creating or reviewing social content to make sure we are following through with that data-first mindset,” she says.

3 social media intelligence tools to connect the dots

Now that we’ve covered the importance of social media intelligence and how brands can use it, let’s explore three tools you can use to connect the data points.

1. Sprout Social

Sprout’s solutions support gathering, analyzing and disseminating social media intelligence. Use our social listening solutions to learn about conversations and relevant topics, as well as measure sentiment and analyze your audience’s honest feedback. Our platform makes sharing insights easier with automated reports, which can also be exported and shared with various stakeholders.

Preview of Sprout’s Sentiment Summary dashboard showing net sentiment score and net sentiment trend.

Our customer care solution with Salesforce and Tableau integrations, enable you to see your social data alongside other business intelligence insights. You get a 360-degree view of your business data and customer care experience from end to end.  And our intuitive platform enables you to essentially register and get started right away.

Sign up for a demo to understand the full potential of Sprout and how it can fit your unique social media intelligence needs.

Request a demo

2. Similarweb

Similarweb is a social media intelligence tool centered on competitive intelligence with a comprehensive view of your competitors’ digital presence. You can explore engagement, keywords, traffic and more for up to 25 competitors at a time.

A preview pf Similarweb, a social media intelligence tool centered on competitive intelligence. The preview shows a dashboard for marketing channels and trends.

3. Semrush

Semrush is a popular search engine optimization (SEO) tool, but also offers powerful competitive intelligence features. Semrush provides tools to analyze your backlinks, paid ad campaigns, keyword ranks and social media performance.

Preview of Semrush, a popular search engine optimization (SEO) tool. The preview shows a dashboard for organic and paid search, backlinks and display advertising.

Use social media smarter

The sheer amount of data that social media can provide is unmatched. Implementing a social media intelligence program is one of the best ways to harness those insights for your business. Learn how Sprout’s premium analytics will help you reveal opportunities across your organization.