Is Social Media Analytics Possible Without Taxonomies?

Is Social Media Analytics Possible Without Taxonomies?

The answer to this question if you are in the insights business is a definitive NO. If you are in PR, or in other adjacent marketing disciplines… then possibly your answer will be YES.

Our answer is still a NO. My advice to you Mr. PR Manager: call your colleague in consumer insights and ask for help. 

Let us first establish what 'social media analytics' and 'taxonomy' mean. According to Wikipedia:

  • Social media analytics is: “Measuring + Analysing + Interpreting interactions and associations between people, topics and ideas”. Some people use “social analytics” as a term in an interchangeable way with “social media analytics”. Wikipedia tells us otherwise: “The practise of Social Analytics is to report on tendencies of the times. It is a philosophical perspective that has been developed since the early 1980s”; in other words it is something different. Of course there are various definitions out there that make the two terms part of each other, such as the Gartner definition.

  • Taxonomy is: “the practice and science of classification. The word is also used as a count noun: a taxonomy, or taxonomic scheme, is a particular classification. Many taxonomies have a hierarchical structure, but this is not a requirement. “

Taxonomies in a social listening context are used to describe a product category, an industry vertical, or simply a subject, like the 2015 parliament elections in the UK. When used to analyse posts from social media, they act as “dictionaries” which include the words people use to discuss the subject/category online. Taxonomies can be flat or hierarchical; for market researchers there is more value in a hierarchical taxonomy because of the drill-down capability that it avails.

A taxonomy could be created to represent a logical structure of how a market research analyst sees and understands the product category, however this approach is not good enough when the taxonomy is to be used for social media analytics; it should instead be directly derived from the posts harvested from social media that need to be analysed.

In social listening, when millions of posts about a product category in a specific language need to be analysed in order to extract insights, the following disciplines and skill sets are required:

  • Machine learning - to annotate sentiment with accuracy as high as possible
  • Taxonomy in order to know the themes and sub-themes or topics of conversation

Some of these processes are automated, some are semi-automated and some are manual. The good news is that when manual work is required it is mainly done during the set-up of a social media monitoring programme.

Most social media monitoring tools - including the really popular ones - do not actually make use of a taxonomy; all a user can do is use search terms. One could speculate that this approach is equivalent to a flat taxonomy but unfortunately it is not; a taxonomy implies that multiple relevant words and phrases roll up under a topic or theme. In the case of a 'search term only' approach, analysis of the posts will be shown only for posts that contain the specific search term. So if a user wanted to look at social media sentiment within topics and sub-topics, that would not be possible without a hierarchical taxonomy.

One scenario remains to be investigated in answering the question in the title of this blog post:

What if a user only wants to analyse sentiment in social media? Well, if the point of the research was about one specific notion or keyword, or high level term, then perhaps it would be the one exception when a taxonomy would not be necessary for social media analytics; however, if a whole product category was monitored (without using a taxonomy) then this would be a lost opportunity because the user would not know what subject the sentiment was about.

Taxonomies are a very broad topic on which we will probably need to dedicate a number of blog posts similar to this one. They are also very necessary for social media listening and analytics; for example, a huge opportunity lies out there for the company that will own detailed hierarchical taxonomies of all the major product categories sold in supermarkets.

Like we always say, ‘there will be a day when marketing directors will not be able to perform their jobs without social media analytics dashboard on their computer, or tablet for that matter’. Tell us what you think about taxonomies; do you think they represent an opportunity, or rather an insurmountable challenge? After all, it takes refined computing processes and a considerable effort from a small army of experienced and smart people to create one!


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