On a seasonably cold Saturday morning during the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, we gathered a group of data experts from very diverse backgrounds at the #DellVenue, to get the inside view about the relevance of data analytics for today’s business, particularly unstructured data coming out of Social Media conversations.


First off, the #DellVenue is a very cool space with a loft-like feel in an up and coming location a little east of downtown Austin. The small space transformed many times over the last week – from intimate living room to movie screening theater to music hub and networking hotspot.

This morning it had the feel of a campus coffee shop perfect for a highly nuanced discussion on social media data analytics – a piping hot topic for large enterprises and small and medium businesses alike. Quoting Mark Schaefer, from Schaefer Marketing Solutions, who moderated the conversation, the big question about Big Data is, How do we tease wisdom out of the tsunami of information that’s coming at us? According to Shree Dandekar, Dell Software, that depends on where in the Social Media journey a company is. Are you recording and tracking unstructured data from social conversations (Stage 1); are you analyzing the data and extracting sentiment (Stage 2); are you using the data to engage with your audiences (Stage 3); are you taking the engagement a step further to improve customer experience (Stage 4); are you deriving social ROI from your data analytics efforts (Stage 5); or are you already in social nirvana – which would be the ultimate goal or full social CRM (Stage 6). Don’t despair, no one has reached that stage yet. According to Alejandra Owens, the big struggle she faces as Social Media manager at AARP is the mere adoption of Social Media technologies by her customers and colleagues. Shree would call this Stage 0. To leap out of that stage, participants agreed, it takes one of two things: a catastrophe (think overheating batteries) or full force competitive pressure.


Once a company experiences one or the other and collects and analyses data, it quickly is faced with the conundrum of trying to figure out what exactly to measure so that actionable insights can be gleaned and help the company grow. Bryan Jones, Dell Marketing and sponsor of the roundtable discussion, is very clear in his direction to his team, “Don’t bring me a bunch of metrics just show me the insights that I can act upon!” Once again, communal nodding by the participants along with the valid question of who in the world would be able produce such a thing. The participants quickly came up with a new job description: A data statistician with amazing social skills. Ari Lightman, Professor at Carnegie Mellon, Heinz College, also points out the opportunities that exist internal to an organization from a social collaboration perspective. In his words, data tells a story that should elicit what’s important, what should be prioritized. Mark Schaefer calls this ‘cultural readiness’ of a business.

The big elephant in the boardroom of many companies is the daunting over-inundation with data and the inability to make sense of it. Should they rely on real-time sentiment or, based on comments by Amy Webb, founder and CEO of Webbmedia Group, venture into anticipatory computing that analyses past patterns to predict future behavior by your customers? Some companies feel like it’s time to stop trying and wait for technologies to evolve that can do that for them.

The group agrees that we are at an inflection point in the Social Media analytics journey where businesses realize that they need it in order to stay competitive. How it looks and what exactly to measure to prove that it works are questions that have yet to be answered. It is clear, though, that bringing together experts from a number of fields, including science, math, sociology and humanities is crucial to succeed in the quest not only to conquer data but also to extract genuine value from it.

Take a look at the short video interviews conducted with Mark Schaefer, Ari Lightman, Sharon LaSure-Roy from Florida Blue, and Alejandra Owens right after the hour-long discussion.

Let us know your own experiences and insights about this hot topic.