Working with Social Media Data: People and Groups

CrowdFrom the first time I described the three buckets of social media data, I knew that one category was different. Content and activity analysis are built on the lessons from established schools of measurement, and while we argue about the specifics, the objectives aren't so alien. The last category—people data—seems more exotic, and it's the least discussed area of measurement. What do we do with data about people, then?

What are people data?
Social media data provide information about both individuals and groups of people: who they are, who they know, what they care about, what they have to say, where they go… Have you noticed just how much information people are sharing about themselves, both intentionally and unintentionally? Collect it from various sources, and you're looking at people data.

As I mentioned in the introduction post, the boundaries between categories aren't absolute, so you could look at much of the data that does into an analysis of people as either content or activity data. The difference comes about when we start thinking about the people as individuals or as identified groups—the focus is on the people, which is why it's useful to look at the data differently.

Analyzing data about individuals
When using the data to consider an individual, you have several basic options on how to approach the analysis. Remember to think and, not or; there's no value in deciding which approach is the right one until you have a specific objective.

  • Profiling
    Compile a detailed personal profile from multiple sources, merging multiple social account profiles with customer data and content analysis of the person's online activity. The resulting information could provide context to customer service agents or sales reps as they interact with the person.

  • Scoring
    Apply a model to rate someone's influence, authority, or relevance, which might help you prioritize efforts in blogger outreach. You might also view someone as a customer, scoring credit, lead strength, customer value, or loyalty.

  • Predicting
    Activity data linked to an individual might be useful for predicting future behavior. How good is your crystal ball?
Working with data about individuals always runs the risk of turning creepy. I'll get into the balance between privacy and the value of data another time, but be sensitive to the risks as you decide how to use information about individuals.

Analyzing data about groups
Zoom out from the individual view to think about the what the data can tell us about groups of people. First, we might identify different types of groups, and then we can develop profiles that communicate why we're interested in particular groups.

  • Identifying
    Groups come in various forms, both formal and informal. The easiest to profile are organizations with formal membership (which includes employers). More casual groups might form through social network sites, discussion forums, or meetup groups. Finally, we have the extended networks of indirect connections, some of which are conveniently entered into online social networks.

    We might also find value in virtual communities implied by some characteristic, from interest in a common topic to locations, both real and virtual. How information travels in such a community could be useful to understand.

    I've had some interesting conversations on the subject of social network analysis, and how its use in social media isn't necessarily in sync with the science on social networks (in the original, not online, sense). If you understanding that you're mapping something other than social relationships, though, I think there's underdeveloped value in applying network analysis to more data points.

  • Profiling
    Profiling a group is less likely to turn creepy than individual profiling, but there's still a right way to do it. First, describe how the group was identified; for some uses, that may be all the information you need—if you're developing a targeted marketing promotion, for example. Going deeper, think about what the group is interested in and where they go (online and in the real world). Who are their leaders—and what is leadership within the group? What's important to them, and what's their history?

    Before you interact with a group, make an effort to understand their norms. The unwritten rules vary by community, and what works in one setting can be precisely wrong in another. As you work to understand and interact with groups, you're dabbling in anthropology, so you might consider its methods.

Our society is producing an astounding amount of data about people, both as individuals and in groups. It's easy to cross the line into overly intrusive use of the data, but it's hard to find a common definition of where that line is. That's a topic I plan to explore in depth in the coming months.

Photo by James Cridland.

About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
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