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If You Want to Optimize Social Media, Think Like an Anthropologist

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A recent article in Harvard Business Review suggests that, if brands want to better leverage the information gleaned from social media listening to gain customer insight, they should “embrace the context offered in qualitative commentaries and don’t delegate social listening to the marketing department.” In other words, we should think like anthropologists and culturally sensitive analysts who specialize in “meaning management.”


This idea has merit, especially when you consider that social media was created primarily as a tool for people to connect with each other, not for companies and brands to sell their products and services. Because of this, it has become a distinctive source of insight into consumer thoughts, feelings and actions that companies have never had access to before.

According to the article, social media listening is like “eavesdropping…allowing marketers to economically and regularly peek inside people’s lives as they are being lived without introducing bias through direct interaction.” And the result of this eavesdropping provides business managers with a window into the “manifestations and ripple effects of their actions on consumer behavior,” which can underline how chatter affects sales, brand health and even stock performance.

Yet, despite social listening’s potential, most companies under-leverage this stream of information for market intelligence because “they view the social media conversation as something to be managed rather than listened to.” More specifically, social media insights that could prove valuable in driving corporate strategy and innovation are likely to be “trapped” inside the marketing and service departments that own the information.

HBRclaims that only those who have a social science skill set can fully leverage information gathered from social media listening. This skill set enables managers to move from data to insight in the social media listening world.

At issue though, is the fundamental difference between information and meaning. When information specialists (such as marketing managers, perhaps) manage social listening projects, an appreciation of context is lost and with it, “the ability to extract the meanings that provide insights for companies and brands.” The authors recommend that fixing the problem will require moving from functional data management to a more holistic, meaning-management mindset. “Social media data is inherently qualitative, and while it can and should be quantified for manageability, at some stage in the analysis, it must be treated and represented as qualitative.” To do this, marketing managers “have to think like anthropologists and jettison many of the scientific principles that underlie traditional hard science research.”

To obtain the most from social media listening, companies must move beyond data scientists and their marketing departments and instead, assign the task of social listening to all of their executives. The article also suggests that social media comments become a standard agenda item in monthly management committee meetings.

Social listening, if approached correctly, can present companies with unique customer insights in a way that expensive and time-consuming market research can’t. And, according to the authors, social listening competency will be critical to competitive advantage as the use of social media continues its upward ascent.

Beth Cooper

Named one of the Top Women in Health IT to Know (2024) and Women Power Players to Watch (2022) by Becker's Hospital Reivew and Marketing Person of the Year by Health IT Marketing Community (2021), Beth Cooper, JD/MBA is the VP of Marketing and Sales of a multi-award winning top 10 Healthcare Marketing Agency. Over her accomplished career spanning two decades, Cooper has been the driving force behind numerous groundbreaking strategies, transforming businesses into market leaders and propelling their growth trajectories to uncharted heights. She is a strong advocate for the marriage of creative innovation with data-driven insights and leverages cutting-edge tools and methodologies to ensure the successful execution of global, paradigm-shifting omnichannel campaigns.


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