Social Analytics Tools That Don’t Suck

I sent this Tweet the other day:

To say that it caused quite a stir would be an understatement: it resulted in a few replies, a couple of calls, quite a few DMs and several emails, ranging from pitches to people sharing their own opinions, recommendations, worries and more.

I should really explain what I meant by that Tweet.

Social Analytics and Social Listening

Most people who reached out to me after I sent that Tweet assumed that by “social analytics tools” I was talking about social listening tools. I wasn’t. (At least for the most part.) When I say "social analytics tool" I'm talking about a tool used to analyse social content and social accounts, the equivalent of web analytics for social. I’m talking about tools like Socialbakers Analytics, Adobe Social, UberVu via Hootsuite, Simply Measured…

Now, while 99% of my Tweet was about social analytics, I also had social listening in mind, inevitably. My job deals more and more with social listening and social intelligence as a whole, and I do a lot of social listening outside of work too. So of course I start building a wishlist in my head of what I wish tools could do more of or less of, what I wish tools could do better and what I wish they could start doing to keep up with the recent changes from major platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

That explains the “social analytics tool” bit. Now, as for the “suck” part…

Two things to mention here:

  1. Although I mention tools, I’m also talking about vendors, the people and the companies behind these analytics tools;
  2. The “suck” bit is subjective: you may agree with these points while thinking “yup, that’s right”, just as you may completely disagree with all of them - and that’s perfectly fine. (If anything, I’d like to hear your viewpoint on the state of social media analytics tools today.) So, don’t take this as the absolute truth, this is just a personal view.

Here’s how I define a social analytics tool or vendor that doesn’t suck:

  • a vendor that supports timely innovations: one that proactively adapts to the changes imposed by various social platforms. If Twitter were to cut off an API or if Facebook were to make major platform changes (like they recently did by removing Graph Search), I’d like the vendor to inform me of those changes, explain what they mean for me, and tell me if and how they’re going to tweak the tool to adapt to those changes. (This comes down to openness and transparency in the vendor-customer relationship.)
  • a vendor that keeps me in the know: related to the previous point, I need to know how these changes are going to affect my reporting. Some of these changes are great, as they may result in more data being available; others, however, can dramatically change the way I report, even cutting off essential bits of data that I rely on.
  • a vendor that understands that social intelligence goes beyond social: what’s the use of knowing how many retweets your content had if you don’t know how those retweets had an impact on traffic to your website, how those retweets contributed to sales, a bigger share of voice, or an increased positive brand sentiment? A lot of social analytics tools only cater to just one area, and they do it well: Iconosquare is only for Instagram analytics, Twitter Counter is only for Twitter analytics, and Tailwind is only for Pinterest analytics, and that is totally fine. However, when you position yourself as a “social intelligence tool” and yet you only tell me half the story with your analytics, are you really a social intelligence provider?
  • a tool that thinks outside of the box: this isn’t just about innovation, this is about thinking unlike other social analytics tools. Showing me that my content was shared more than the usual over the weekend is only telling me half the story; showing me who the influential people were who shared my content first, thus resulting in this ripple effect of more people sharing my stuff, answers the “what happened?” question before I even ask myself.
  • a tool with an UI as pleasant as its UX: I’ve used a few tools that were so great and innovative in functionality, but with an interface so clunky, so unintuitive and so difficult to use; I’ve also used quite a few tools that looked nice and pretty, but scoring 0 in functionality. You can have both. I’ve seen quite a few glaring errors in functionality and user journey in certain tools that made me wonder - do the people who create this tool actually use it? And I’m not talking about the sales managers and the sales representatives who come to your offices to pitch or who demo their tool via a GoToMeeting: they use it because they have to showcase it to clients. I’m talking about the other people in the organisation. That’s why I applaud vendors who document on their company blog how various members of the company use their software: it’s not only a great source of tips and tricks, but it’s also reassuring to know that the people who sold you the tool understand how you’re using it.
  • a tool that is accurate: trust me, this is not a given. From incorrect definitions of metrics, to incorrect naming of those metrics and beyond. Whether it’s confusing reach with impressions, or unexplained “engagement rates”, or “forgetting” to add “potential” to your impressions metric (even though you know that those are actually potential impressions), I really can’t excuse analytics tools for being sloppy with accuracy. I don’t mind potential/approximate metrics either, as long as they clearly state that those are not exact metrics. (Perfect example: check how your social analytics tool refers to Twitter impressions or Twitter reach, then read this.)
  • a tool that cares about acquisitions as much as the tool itself: a lot of vendors have been going on crazy shopping sprees lately, acquiring as many vendors as possible. As an outsider, seeing all these big vendors gobbling up smaller vendors looks like a game of Pac-Man. Some vendors do it as a tactic, some do it as a way to boost their image and marketing (read: IPOs), some do it to have some tools in their arsenal as if they were badges of honour, while others do it to invest in the platform, beefing up and improving what they offer. I’m happy to see these acquisitions, but every time I see a new one I ask myself: what does that mean for the acquirer? How will they improve their tool after this acquisition? Or is this just a gimmick?
  • a tool that cares about performance: the performance of a tool is very, very important, especially when scaling up: sales managers would love to see more people joining the platform, as that often means more money from you to them. However, not all of these tools can take the load of more and more people using the platform at the same time. These are the tools that should put more effort in making the platform robust and reliable, even if it means having more regular updates. I’d rather have a tool with regular performance updates than a tool that spews out new features just for the sake of it, while disregarding how any of that has an impact on performance. If the performance is great, then I can definitely rely on it as opposed to just using it.
  • a tool that caters to various types of clients when it comes to pricing: there are so many companies out there that have an issue with social media budgets. Whenever I go to social conferences I hear a lot more from people struggling with budget than people with enough budget to spare. While that’s a problem in itself (which I may discuss in a separate post), there are other social teams that genuinely have very low budgets for valid reasons, e.g. small non-profits organisations, charities, up-and-coming startups. It’s nice to see more vendors being more understanding of these cases and accommodating their situation: Hootsuite, for instance, has three main pricing points, as well as plans for non-profit organisations. Unfortunately, looking at other social analytics tools, this is more of one exception.
  • a tool that I can plug into others: personally I’d like to have a few tools that do a great job and that can “talk to each other”, rather than several tools that do their own thing. I’m seeing more and more IT companies (including tech startups, telecommunications etc.) having a preference for tools that offer APIs. These companies understand that tools work better when they’re not in silo environments.
  • a tool with better sentiment analysis: I’m not taking the same old “sentiment analysis is inaccurate so settle for this really low accuracy” or “sentiment analysis isn’t useful so we’ve completely left it out”. I could go on and on about it, but I’m only going to say this: a lot of tools that have very strong sentiment analysis capabilities are owned by vendors that have at least one person dedicated to linguistics and/or text analytics - that is not a coincidence.
  • a tool with less douchey marketing: I’ve said it several times and I’ll say it again: I don’t care if you claim to be the first one to do X unless you’re the first one to do X well. Hell, I’ll most likely ignore the word “first” anyway. If you’re going through a procurement process for a tool, any tool, ask yourself - are you buying their tool, or are you buying their marketing pitch? Focus less on false marketing and focus more on delivering.
  • vendors that practice what they preach: I’m only buying your tool, right? That’s not how I see it: if you advocate great features and you toot your horn about social intelligence, I’d like to see you practice what you preach. So, if you’re a social analytics tool, do you share regular content on how best to measure the performance of your social content? Do you share tips on how to approach dips and spikes in engagement on certain platforms? Do you share thoughts and opinions on how the various platform changes may affect reporting and social media marketing in general? When it comes to social listening vendors in particular, I always check if they use social listening at all, and you can easily spot who they are: they’re usually the ones who reach out to other people who mention them online. I’ve mentioned tools before even on this blog and had one of their representatives comment on the post with a “thank you”; I’ve had vendors reply to Tweets of mine that were about their tool, even if I didn’t @mention them. If you’re going to pitch to me, telling me about the hundreds of ways I can use your tool to improve my reporting and make my job easier, show me how it works for you.
  • a tool that doesn’t give me fluffy mediocre features: this mainly goes out to vendors of all-in-one tools - you know, those tools that promise to help you with social analytics, as well as social publishing, social moderation, social customer services and so much more. A lot of them are really great, and they’re really handy to have. However, you also have all-in-one tools that only half-baked features. This is why so many marketers debate on whether all-in-one tools are really better than specialist tools that only do one thing but well. Part of me understands that these features are being used by these vendors for their marketing (“hey, look at us, we can do 20 things and we’re cheaper than going for specialist tools for all of those 20 things!”). Three questions here: out of all those 20 features, which ones do you really need? How many of those features are essential vs. nice to have? Out of the ones that are essential, can you get something out there that is actually great in that field? 

A lot of these points aren’t available in a lot of platforms due to investment, which often has a direct effect on priorities and resources, and I understand that. I understand that a lot of tools can’t accommodate those points, that they have tight roadmaps that they need to stick to, and that there’s just so much customisation that they can allow for their clients - I get that. I guess when you start relying on any digital tool (social analytics, web analytics, social publishing, scheduling, social CRMs etc.), you start wishing that the vendor could take a step back and think - how does this tool I’m selling help my clients do their job, and what can I do to make it even better?

So sure, a tool that ticks all those boxes won’t make the perfect tool for everybody, but it’ll definitely be the perfect tool for me.

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