KRC is continuing a new INSIGHT series – an ongoing series of interviews with experts in the digital and social media space.  For our second installment, we continued our conversation with Jennifer Golbeck, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab and associate professor at the University of Maryland.

Jennifer is a leader in social media research and a pioneer in the field of social data analytics. She brings together emerging concepts in the fields of computer science and sociology as a way to infer information about relationships and trust. In addition to her work at the University of Maryland, she’s a contributor for Slate and The Atlantic, and appears frequently on NPR talk radio.

Jennifer Golbeck

Jennifer Golbeck

We asked Jen about both digital media and about digital analytics. The following is an abridged version of our discussion with Jen around digital analytics. You can read the first installment here, focusing on digital media.

 What would you say is the current state of social media analytics as you see it?

It’s like a little baby at this point. You know you’re just starting to see all of these analytics suddenly become available to the average person. So now anybody can do some basic analytics on their Twitter account which is something that a few months ago you couldn’t do. Facebook is starting to provide some of these. We’re starting to see that the social media companies are providing some baseline analytics for their users. Seeing which tweets get the most attention and which get the most engagement. You know who clicks the links that open to pictures. It has been a really fascinating way for me to kind of analyze what I’m doing. So we’re just kind of starting to see why the available analytics show up for the average user, which I think is awesome. But we don’t really know how to use them yet.

So of those that are doing this well, what are some of the best examples you’ve seen of the power of social or digital media analytics leveraged most effectively?

You know I think the way that I really like to see analytics used is that people are starting to do a lot more A/B type things. Whether it’s journalists who are trying out different headlines, or brands trying out different links or different photos. It’s so easy to do that with these new analytic tools—put out a couple messages at the same time on two different days or even at the same time to show them two different audiences. I teach A/B testing, and the lesson that I come away with is that you can never intuitively understand what people are going to respond to. It allows you to craft and hone your messages so much better. And so that’s something that now I’m starting to see people do because they have access to these analytics.

What about some big misses or big mistakes that companies are making in the use of digital and social analytics today?

There are lessons from the more traditional media that don’t necessarily apply on social media. An example of that is that you will get companies who now have these analytics and they think the more people you get to see your tweets, the better. Or the more people you get to see your Facebook post on your company’s page, the better. And that’s just not true. In fact, sometimes the harder you work to get more, the less effective they are. So people who pay to get more followers on Facebook and Twitter, they do that because they like the higher numbers. And what they end up with is a really diluted message because all those accounts that you’re paying for. I think this idea that more is better doesn’t really apply with analytics. It’s more of the right people.

Do you have any recommendations for companies that are trying to do digital analytics or measurement better to actually identify whether they are growing their presence with the right people?

If you’re interested in just overall what are people doing, I think it’s really important to look at measures of engagement with a lot of these analytics showing. And the basic Twitter analytics does this. So I have some tweets that are very popular. So I will write a blog so that it has a provocative headline, and people retweet that. And it gets seen by fifty thousand people. But the engagement rate can be really low. You know people are retweeting it because they think the headline is provocative. But nobody clicks on the link. If I get paid per view, it’s worthless to me to have it seen by a lot of people. I just want a lot of people to engage with it. So I think engagement is your key. You’ve got to look at those numbers. The number of views is not necessarily going to reveal engagement. They’re not strongly connected. And I would say to take that a step further. You know depending on the company, there are certain types of demographics that you want engaging.

What are the limitations, if any, of using the current suite of social media analytics/listening tools?

There’s a huge limitation in that for the vast majority of cases, you are not developing these analytics tools yourself. You know they are either tools that are provided by social media companies like Facebook or Twitter, or they’re third-party tools that you know you somehow have connected through your account. And while they often track a lot of things, it’s entirely possible that they’re not tracking the thing that you’re interested in, especially if your interest falls with a sort of specific demographic. So I think right now that’s a big limitation that you don’t necessarily get access to the kind of data that you really want. And the more specific your desires are, the less likely it is that you’re going to be able to get what you want.

What do you see the next evolution of digital and social analytics being, let’s say in the near term again, six to twelve months in the future?

In the near term, I just think we’re going to see a ton more of it. I think you’re going to see most social media sites, especially the ones that businesses are using—Facebook, Twitter, but also things like Pinterest, LinkedIn and Yelp—are going to have far more analytics, and they’re going to be available to a much wider group of people. You know the average user will be able to track the performance and the engagement levels of their posts in ways they can’t now. In the long term, we will see finer-grained analytics available, and the social media companies are going to be thinking about how they can make money on this. And so it depends on the way demand goes you know. I think we’re going to see a lot more monetization of it. Some of these analytics that come out in the next six to twelve months are ones that may go away for free in the next five years.

What have you learned in the last three to six months that few people know about in the social or digital media or analytic space?

Basically doing personal traits profiling on people by analyzing what they share on social media. And you know, I’ve been working in that space for a decent number of years at this point so that I’ve really seen in the last two or three years is that the tools that we have to do that, to come up, to kind of discover demographic information, background information, personal preferences that are not explicit, right? That are latent and kind of sitting in the data that people share are tools that I have become much more powerful.

Where do you turn to for information? Do you have a recommendation for the best three to four articles you’ve read recently on digital or social media and analytics?

I would say for people who want to dive a little bit into the technical side, looking at the Proceedings of the National Academy [of Sciences] is a great place to start. It’s a scientific journal. It’s a good place to kind of check in to see the really cutting-edge stuff that people are doing in this space. I will say, though, that Slate, you know the magazine and, does a very good job in their Future Tense section, which is kind of like their technology work on reporting on social media experiments and analytics, and new tools that are coming out.

I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the year people are using social media to do what?

I wouldn’t be surprised if people are abandoning some of their traditional social media in favor of things that are a little more private and a little more ephemeral. You know I’ve been asked for almost a decade now what I think is going to replace Facebook, and I used to have a lot of answers. But I think nothing is going to replace Facebook now, but that people are going to stop putting as much on Facebook because they have figured out that there are repercussions to having these records everywhere.