Social media monitoring: absolutely pointless

Social media monitoring is a complete waste of resources. Total waste of money, time and understanding. Yep. You know why?

I’m guessing by now you’re either really intrigued or really angry. Hopefully both.

Social media monitoring is completely useless without context or clear outputs.

What are outputs? Your next steps once you capture something.

What is context? Context means understanding the data, turning data to information. Something meaningless to something useful.

Please read on, let me elaborate.

Let’s take an example: you’re on the board of BRAND Z, you decide that after fifteen years of traditional activity you should probably look into social media, but where do we start?! ARRGGHHH!!! TOO MUCH INFORMATION??!!!

*ring ring*

“Oh, hello social media monitoring service! You only charge £7 a month? And I get shiny graphs?! Where do I sign?!!!”.

Here’s why I’m so irked.

(Now my next point is going to irritate you if you’ve read a few of my last posts because it was born from the Nassim Nicholas Taleb book Fooled by Randomness. Which I appear to quote for everything. Even in Tesco.)

Fooled by Randomness is largely about the unpredictable being predicted and the uselessness of models, and Taleb’s context is the financial markets. Which doesn’t sound too transferable to ‘digital’ but a few chapters in he begins to discuss the probability of successful analysis at different rates for monitoring share price and how minute changes shouldn’t effect your overall view of the investment opportunity – basically, always take a long view on big issues.
Think about this in terms of a boat on the waves, just because it’s at the bottom of a wave doesn’t mean it’s going to sink.

So Taleb then pulls together a probability of success at different rates table;

One year – 93% probability of successful analysis
One quarter – 77% probability of successful analysis
One month – 67% probability of successful analysis
One day – 54% probability of successful analysis
One hour – 51% probability of successful analysis
One minute – 50.17% probability of successful analysis
One second – 50.02% probability of successful analysis

The point that he’s trying to make is that people are effected too much by minute by minute changes and cannot comprehend the bigger picture. The same can be said for monitoring; of course it’s important to look at ‘real time’ alerts and understand what’s being said, but it’s much more important to understand how this fits into the wider context.

If you cherry pick blog posts about BRAND Z without giving them context you’ll have an almost completely random view of the brand – monitor every blog post and hold monthly reviews and you’ll begin to gather insight, do this for a year and you’ll have a much more clear idea about your reputation online.

The point of this post is not to make you angry, but to highlight that monitoring only works if two criteria are fulfilled;

a) There are a set of clear next steps to take – listening is fine if you know how (or if) to react

b) Always look at the macro, not the micro and always, always, ALWAYS give your monitoring context

I know this is quite a long, ranty post, but if we’re to move the ‘digital’ industry along we need to be be more intelligent about this stuff.

This is a cross post from Wolfstar’s Jed Hallam’s blog. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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  • Mel Carson

    Excellent points Jed.

    At Microsoft Advertising we’ve been monitoring the social sphere for years. We’re very careful NOT to have knee-jerk reactions to individuals who might say XYZ without, as you say, context.

    Someone dissing your brand on their blog might actually only have a few followers and few hundred readers, so understanding a critical mass of detractors is more important than worrying about one person’s opinion.

    That’s not to say you don’t take their reservations into account. You need to stack rank it against maybe some more positive/differing feedback you might have had.

    It’s cruical to remember that social media is just one part of the mix and should be measured against your more traditional KPIs.

    It makes sense to know what’s going on in real-time, but you’re right, you need to have rules of engagement and be able to put the feedback in context to really make head or tail.

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  • Hayden Sutherland

    Spot on and about time someone said this out loud.
    Social Media Monitoring (like website analytics and other measurement services) are only useful if you plan to do something with that information and take the entire period you’re reviewing into account.
    One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and one negative Tweet doesn’t make a brand backlash

  • Jed Hallam

    Thanks Mel,

    I think that the important thing to note is always context and long term trends (even then, trends aren’t necessarily indicative of reputation, just a verbalisation of a part of it).

    And you make an excellent point about putting social media into perspective – something that is often forgotten in all the hype.

  • Jed Hallam

    Thanks Hayden :-) – I plan on stealing the summer analogy!

  • Azeem

    Hey Jed

    Great story. And to draw from Taleb is very apposite.

    There is a challenge that numbers are appealing. And our form of managerial capitalism honed by the business schools (who created the same managerial monsters who ran the banks Taleb attacked) have create a valuable idea around being data-driven.

    But it is easy to use data the wrong way. Much the same way as a bad artist using photoshop can produce an ugly picture.

    When you dig into what the computer science tells you and the statistics, so much marketing data is entirely valueless.

    There end up being two problems. First the data (the feedstock) is useless. And second, the resources available (human and otherwise) to correctly process and build inferences are, well, few and far between.

    Does sentiment analysis fall into the same camp?

  • Jed Hallam

    Hey Azeem,

    Taleb is my secret hero (read The Black Swan, you’ll see why!).

    I think sentiment analysis is a tricky area – with a lot of incredibly intricate pieces of puzzle to pull together. Do you do full empirical analysis? Or snapshot? What scale do you work to? Is it automated (read here for NO IT’S NOT AUTOMATED! Do we look at individua trends?

    It’s a really, really interesting area, and as computers become a little more ‘human’ we’ll probably see the error rates reduced and the value increased.

    Time will tell!

  • Peter

    I am confused…”Social media monitoring: absolutely pointless” then “but to highlight that monitoring only works if two criteria are fulfilled;” pointless or not???

    I think you missed the point. You just need to know how to use it. And more importantly understand the subject. I just think you don’t. Social monitoring is a discipline not a “Compare the Meerkat” exercise.

    “but where do we start?”
    Approach a social media agency that is technology neutral and state what you want to get out of social media.
    • Free tools? Socialmention, virtrue, etc
    • Desk social media tool? (Radian6)
    • Top level brand/product research? (Brandwatch)
    • Detailed research? (Cymfony)
    • Track PR releases? (Amplify)
    • Track video?(viral tracker)
    • Qualitative social media research? (wavemetrix)
    • Languages? (Radian6)
    • Social media workflow management? (Visible Technologies)
    • Have a forum? (jive)
    • Facebook and twitter integration? (sysomos)
    • Multichannel social media integration? (rigtnow)

    Need some case studies?
    1. Tracking buzz – BP (oil spill)
    2. Tracking sentiment- Toyota (recall)
    3. Topic analysis – O2/giffgaff (customer acquisition)
    4. Post analysis – Coca-Cola Vitaminwater (NPD)
    5. Topic and sentiment analysis- Apple (customer service)
    6. Keyword mapping -Dell (customer monetization)
    7. Influencer analysis – T-Mobile (Influencer outreach)
    8. Source analysis – Domino’s (location based targeting)

    “if we’re to move the ‘digital’ industry along we need to be more intelligent about this stuff.”

  • Olivia Landolt

    Interesting read, thanks Jed.

    I do agree with your emphasis on long terms insights however the real time opportunities that social media monitoring represents can’t be under estimated in my opinion, especially when it comes to crisis management and/ or for example lead generation. Moreover, understanding what effect your real time engagement has will go a long way to inform your long term strategy.

    Again, clear and defined steps are absolutely crucial but they are not always clear right away. For organisations that are starting out it can be difficult to have clear steps outlined from the get go, so while it is absolutely important to have a well defined social media strategy it takes time to make it as applicable as possible, and over time it will need to change.

    Ultimately, I think that your social media strategy as well as goals really depend on what end of the spectrum you are on both in terms of your experiences in using it and your reasons using/engaging in it.

    Olivia Landolt
    Marketing and Community Manager
    @6Consulting | UK authorised Radian6 reseller

  • Jed Hallam

    Hi Peter,

    It’s probably the way that I write and it wasn’t particular explicit, but I’m talking about social media monitoring in terms of brand reputation – which is undoubtedly a long-term game.

    All of the tools that you mention are great (and it makes for a nice list for people new to monitoring) but none of them will give you the context that long term monitoring, evaluation and experience will.

    As for the case studies, well… If I would have evaluated any of those brands you mention on their worst days that would have given me a very, very warped impression of their reputation – if we look over a year then you’ll see that a day, a week or a month is a blip on the scale. Context is king.

    I’m also confused; what’s a ‘technology neutral’ agency?

    Thanks again for your comment, very thought provoking!

  • Peter

    I always advice to conduct a social audit before you start listening and track at least 3 to 6 months before you provide a report.Why? There is tons of stuff(boolean set up, data verification and validation,source optimization, keyword refinement etc etc) that needs to done before we have nice graph, sentiment, share of voice etc etc. There are very very few organizations that fully understand social context(maybe Olivia’s main client is 1 of them but it is very expensive)
    Technology agnostic approach is DEFINITELY the way to go – the tool is the tool. The value lies in the analytics and insights gleaned from the data.

  • Tom Malkin

    Hi Jed, Enjoyed reading your comments. For effective context, it’s so important to obtain more granular social media insights into “the story” of an entire product category (let alone a brand or product) and then monitor how brands and products can be measured against each other over time on key issues that drive decision making for the competitive set. Thought you would appreciate case studies illustrating this unique capability. Check out the Tiger Woods and ARF-Starcom 360 Measurement case studies and contact me at or at 877-GEEYEE-1 if you’d like to explore further:

    Tiger Woods:

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  • Delia Goldsby

    Love the rant Jed:

    Context is indeed king as is listening over time. Knowledge, understanding & interpretation of the macro environment in which the brand sits is also vital. Only then does the ‘buzz’ insight gleaned from the monitoring & listending process become useful in informing overall strategy for social media, online PR & marketing communications digital or otherwise…

  • Gareth Rees

    Great post Jed, although I think your title was a bit sensational! Drew me in though. Perhaps a social media monitoring tool would identify this post as having a negative sentiment towards social media monitoring.

    The central point is something that I completely agree with – social media monitoring is a long term commitment. It is similar to a number of other digital channels in this respect, and makes the sell in to clients more difficult when they want fast solutions that can be boxed off neatly within the walls of a particular 6-8 week advertising campaign!

  • Dan Neely


    Glad to see that someone isn’t afraid to make this statement. I especially liked the point that while it’s “important to look at ‘real time’ alerts and understand what’s being said…it’s much more important to understand how this fits into the wider context.”

    Social media provides the richest data set of consumer information that’s ever existed. but brands are so focused on what their customer said not the insights of the consumer. our research shows that at most 10% of social conversation is about brands. So brands know there’s an opportunity and fear being left out if they aren’t tapped in. But what’s the difference between monitoring social media and actually listening? You definitely made the case for why monitoring doesn’t bring much value to the conversation.

    Stepping beyond monitoring to really listen in and mine insights is where the business value will come from. There is power in uncovering insights built on solid patterns and themes in consumer conversation — which you can’t find with monitoring tools.

    I wrote a blog post on a similar topic –
    about how analytics are the key to ROI in social media – a little while back, and thought it might be of interest since analytics fall into the listening category rather than monitoring.

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  • Vikki Chowney

    “Hi, my name’s Jed and I’m a linkbait-a-holic”

  • Seyoum Abay

    Great post Jed. I’m speechless. Can I get your autograph. 😉

  • Dawn

    What about if your Client wants to see ‘results’ before they will fund the next piece of work? This is the situation we find ourselves in. We need to prove ‘this social media thing’ works, before people will seriously invest, so we end up doing ‘studies’ and ‘trials’ and then the Clients want results to see if this is worth carrying on with.

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  • Steve Richards

    Agree that stats are meaningless in isolation. Social media KPIs need to be aligned with other marketing activities and (at least) monthly insight and analysis will highlight opportunities and threats. All needs to be done in context with competitors and sector too. See for the Yomego approach (shameless plug, I know)

  • Sjkato

    Very interesting and very thought provoking. True, given how fast change can occur, many look to the immediate now to see what the situation is like. This is important as if you dont take the now into account, things will get very messy soon.
    But your points are very true. A long-term view is important. With one’s reputation certainly. I would suggest keeping a ‘macro’ view of things in general, but ensure that ‘micro’ isnt ignored or put on the backshelf, both are important but require their own criteria to work.

  • Sharon Mills

    Here, here!

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  • Chris Koch

    Wow. Can you say “link bait?”

  • Brant Emery

    Yep, agree. The tendency to get caught up in the buzz of social media means some people overlook the continued need for clear outcomes and KPIs – and a pipeline / plan of how Sm fits into this. Without clear connections to revenue or outcomes, which are hard to come by with social media, tracking is aimless. ”A million twitter followers doesn’t mean you have influence.”

  • Xavier Izaguirre


    What about “think big, act small”?

    Monitoring gives the chance to brands to engage in conversations where they should be, and help people get their voices heard. Of course, in the wrong hands ( pushy salesman or clueless analysts ) it can useless or worse.

  • Subbu Jois

    Bang on! We actually developed a SM monitoring engine in 2009 and found that the chatter was so high that we could not discern between “good” and “not good”! any amount of sentiment analysis will only get this far and no more. and, yes their will be spikes and troughs that can blur the big picture. In one case, we detected a brand was getting battered by a group of bloggers posting “negatives” even without the product on the streets. While we could link back to the sources, it did not make much sense to the Brand in terms of tangible ROI. I could give half a dozen more examples. However, it may provide a one-in-a-thousand case of ROI, not continuously.

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  • Nick

    A Ferrari is no more fun than a Mini if you don’t know how to drive it.

    Simply put, monitoring tools provide data, people provide actionable insights.

    If you don’t get data, don’t bother monitoring.

    If you don’t care what people say about your brand, don’t bother listening.

    Brand rep is such a small part of why you should monitor, but anyone pro social data will know this.

  • Joel

    It’s also important to understand what the data is actually showing – for example, is an increase in number of mentions a positive thing or negative thing? Just because more people are talking about something, doesn’t mean that this increased buzz is going to have a positive effect on the brand

  • jason

    I think sentiment analysis is a tricky area – with a lot of incredibly intricate pieces of puzzle to pull together. Do you do full empirical analysis Or snapshot What scale do you work to Is it automated (read here for NO IT’S NOT AUTOMATED protection programs