The Specialization of Social Media Analysis


Judging from the way people are talking about it, social media analysis is segmenting into at least three subspecialties. As usual, we're using multiple labels that occasionally overlap, so the potential for miscommunication is great. Whatever the utility of any one approach, companies need a complete set of tools, so let's keep these emerging specializations in context.

In 2007, I asked for opinions on a generic term for social media monitoring, analysis, research, etc. I settled on social media analysis as an existing term that could stretch to fit the tools and services then on the market. Since then, I've also argued for an expansive interpration of the listening metaphor. Lately, though, I'm seeing a lot more of these labels:

  • Social media monitoring
    In 2005, companies started to learn that people were talking about them online and they needed to pay attention. Today, we have tools and case studies, and more companies are prepared to notice and respond when someone mentions them. The response might come from a customer service or PR function, but the basic idea is what Radian6 calls "the social phone:" social media represent a new customer-service touchpoint, and companies need to respond to every mention that merits or requires a response.

  • Social media analytics
    Every 15 minutes, someone announces a new tool for measuring social media. Most of these focus on the structured data of social media: seemingly hard numbers, such as friend/follower counts, mentions, shares, likes, and Facebook pageviews. This approach blends social media and web analytics, and it's good for questions such as, "is my Facebook campaign working?" If your ROI comes from online sales, this approach is an especially powerful tool for managing social media marketing efforts.

  • Social media intelligence
    Analyzing the content of what people say online—topics, sentiment, emotions, and the trends and underlying causes—is starting to be called social media intelligence (I refuse to use the unfortunately abbreviated buzzword, social intelligence, in this context). This is perhaps the least consistently applied label, but whatever you call it, measuring and analyzing online content looks increasingly distinct from measuring online activity (the analytics view).
But wait, there's more!
We're inventing new terms faster than old terms fade away, and the boundaries are anything but clear. I haven't quite figured out whether Social CRM is the intersection of social media monitoring and CRM or a superset of CRM and all three of the above. Social media measurement combines aspects of the analytics and intelligence views. Here and elsewhere, the definition of the term seems to depend on who's talking about it.

This doesn't begin to cover all of the variations in terminology we're using, and these categories aren't even mutually exclusive. But they do represent a division I'm seeing in both the thinking about, and the capabilities of the tools for, listening in social media. We're getting better (?) at talking past each other, which is not making it easy for beginners.

Update: All that and I forgot to mention social media research—thanks to Annie Pettit for the reminder in the comments. Also, here are a few of the many posts that inspired the topic:

Photo by Dan Thompson.


Don't forget social media market research. In this case, imagine a traditional survey. But, instead of asking people to fill out a survey, researchers take the social media data and assign it to a survey. :)

Oops, I did forget. I wonder if research is different from intelligence, or if the different terminology reflects differences of opinion on the validity of mining social media as research?

Really wish I could have attended!

IMHO, research is indeed different from intelligence, and in looking at Annie's response, I'd further state that social media market research conducted in that manner would be considered qualitative, not quantitative--if I'm understanding her point.

Some of our client work is intelligence--by this, we are looking for not the big blogs, or even influencers, but key pieces of information of value to a client--in other words, looking for that needle in a haystack. This is completely different than your description of social media intelligence above!

Jen Zingsheim

That's funny, the description of intelligence above is different from my normal usage, too! :-) But I think it gets at what some folks are calling social media intelligence (or—shudder—social intelligence).

When I try to be expansive about listening, I keep falling back to "intelligence and analytics methods applied to social media (and other) sources."

Hi Nathan, Glad to see your blog back in action again! I'm not sure I would exactly agree with the definition you gave in the post for social intelligence, but monitoring is certainly being used for different purposes.
From what we've been seeing with our clients, some companies are looking to take what they've learned from social media analyses and filter it according to the department concerned. This is what we call social intelligence. Using what you're "hearing" to feed what each department is doing.
We also have clients that integrate social media data with non-social data (call center transcripts, questionnaires, etc.). This is the next step in customer intelligence ; knowing which customers have contacted you through which channel and why.

Times are interesting :)

Michelle @Synthesio

I think it has become a necessity to evolve new terminologies because the monitoring market is too crowded so vendors are identifying a smaller niche and trying to position their monitoring platform as different from the rest. The way I see it, a robust and comprehensive monitoring and analytics tool could be used across many different business functions. The way a market research department will use a monitoring platform will be different from a customer care department but they are essentially looking at the same conversations but deriving different insights.

You're right, "we're inventing new terms faster than old terms fade away" and in a space that's ever evolving I don't think we're going to see things slow down anytime soon. It's exciting to see these niches develop and companies position themselves where they feel their strengths are. Where we go from here is wide open!

Trish (@Dayngr)
Community Manager | Radian6

Hi Nathan:

Thanks for remembering!

Monitoring is the "what" (brand mentions, sources, sentiment), analytics is a search for the reasons behind the "what" by aggregating, comparing and analyzing the what. It still isn't research.

Social Media Intelligence - as you have described seems like a search for deeper context around the "what". Content, sources, trends.

Social Media Research is and exploration of entire categories of conversation (like finance, or cars, or food) to better understand why people do what they do.

Confusing times indeed!


Nathan- Thanks for the link to my article!

Terms can get confusing, and everybody will have their own definition. To me, monitoring is the collecting and vetting of social and web data, while measurement is that qualified data with extra added context. That's how you extract intelligence.

The entire thing is research. We've been concentrating more on offering flexible ways to measure with our 2.0 redesign and its been really exciting to offer people that level of customization so they can use the metrics that work best for their specific goal or objective!

Eric Melin @Spiral16

Thanks for all the great comments, everyone. I'm not going to try to resolve all the different terms currently floating around, although you've made good points about some of them. In retrospect, the description of intelligence above was an attempt (possibly unsuccessful) to describe how others are using it, not how I use it. I'm doing a lot of thinking about the relationship between intelligence and analytics lately, which I'll get into in another post.

For now, I think the key takeaway is a simple reminder that this stuff is good for more than one thing, and an undue fixation on one use case is unhealthy.

Hi Nathan and thanks. As somebody who has followed you since 2008, and worked on social media analytics definitions, I appreciate your posts.

I'm not sure I've figured out social CRM but I took a stab at it and have a webinar today (3/17) at 1ET if you're interested!

To me, sCRM is about social data supporting customer relationships with a socially-appended database. However, I can't help but see the world through analyst-colored glasses so this definition is obviously open for interpretation!

Keep up the thought-provoking posts.


Good points. I think when we think in terms of the business problem we are trying to solve & what the solution has to offer, various boundaries between those terms starts to disappear. For example, you may identify and display upward or downward trends in social media analytics but then you'll have to correlate that with results from social media intelligence or monitoring to understand the cause of that. You are right - This space is still evolving and lot has to be done to refine definitions & metrics around it.

Absolutely. Regardless of the labels, you need to know what you're trying to accomplish and why. Only then can you pick the right tools and methods for the job.

Great article and discussion. Am currently trying to develop a training manual for my large org for our PR practitioners who are just dipping thier toes into SM. As the trainer I am trying to be as ahead of the curve as possible so I can add value, but it's a difficult task when the landscape is changing so rapidly there is no standard... yet.

Thought provoking discussion. My approach has been to include wider aspects under analytics - both monitoring/listening and assessment of activity. More details on our social media analytics framework is available here:

My contribution to the overlapping terms ;)

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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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