Social data is becoming an increasingly important source of consumer insight for many organizations. British Telecom (BT) has been on a five year journey to better utilize these social insights and so I spoke with Adam Mills, Brand Strategy & Planning Insight Manager, to learn more about their experience and how they are leveraging social intelligence to make better decisions across their business.
JR: To start, who’s your favourite Twitter follow?
AM: I love @Nigella_Lawson, in particular how she talks and interacts with other people. But my absolute favourite is @rebuildingmcr – there’s something so incredible about looking back at our city through the years and to see how it’s changed and developed.
JR: Ah, so not me?
AM: Well, um...
JR: So let’s kick things off then. Give us some context on your role Adam.
AM: I joined BT in 2017 as a brand analyst in the Group Digital Brand team, which supported business units across the organisation. My job was to gather the data needed to support our big digital transformation programmes, whether that was supporting app infrastructure and app consolidation or the group SEO strategy. At about that time our marketing and comms leadership team realized we needed to have a better understanding of what people were saying about us on social and therefore I also took on social listening.
Over the next 18 months, social became an increasingly important part of my role, which evolved beyond just social listening to focus on our social capabilities and the infrastructure that supported them. I helped us analyze all the social accounts we maintained across multiple brands and to rethink their purpose. We sought to understand what was strategic and what wasn’t, where to spend and where to pull back. This allowed me to take social listening beyond just listening and to start feeding it into new areas such as NPS and customer experience measurement.
I then moved to a new team two years ago but took my role with me as we realized that social insights deserved a formal place within our larger insights function. This was great recognition of our work and the importance of social intelligence to the business.
JR: How is BT’s consumer insights team structured and what’s the main focus?
AM: About three years ago a new insights director arrived and took a look around and realised that there were pockets of insight scattered across the business with lots of duplication as a result. She decided to bring everyone together under a Centre of Excellence which became a group function allowing it to serve the entire business. We are now a team of 80, broken up into a few teams covering topics such as commercial insights, market and competitive intelligence, brand insight and CX and group performance.
Our purpose within the business is to put the customer at the heart of everything that we do, championing the customer at the very heart of decision making. We find ourselves forever overcapacity, which is a blessing and a curse as it shows the organization is getting value from our work, but clearly we need to find ways to scale as we can only do so much. Last year, for example, mid-pandemic we relaunched our internal insights hub and have since had thousands of employees take advantage of it. Next up we want to think more about the new sources of digital insight available to us and how that complements the traditional research methodologies we use. For example, we want to build Brandwatch dashboards connected via our APIs that can deliver real-time social data within our platform providing the right data at the right time to the right people.
JR: DIY and agile seem to be the latest buzz words in market research. Has your Centre of Excellence structure allowed you to bring work in-house?
AM: Yes and no. Some things we can do in-house and are doing more of. Our NPS program for example is pretty much run entirely in house, which is amazing given the size and the scale of the surveys that we run and the amount of data we collect. But I’d also say no in that there are some projects where we really value our research agency partners' perspectives and want them to challenge our thinking. BT has always been open to accepting that challenge. So while we don’t necessarily run everything in house, in some ways it feels like we do because our research partners are an extension of our team and have supported us for a long time and therefore know us very well.
JR: You mentioned NPS. Can you tell us about the program?
AM: Sure, we run NPS monthly for our B2C and B2B customers. We relaunched the program a couple of years ago with the messaging that everyone in the business can own and impact this metric, regardless of role or level. We really wanted to emphasize that every customer touchpoint has a direct impact on this metric and therefore we all need to go the extra mile. It’s a core metric for us.
JR: What type of research methodologies do you use?
AM: It's a mix of qualitative and quantitative. From a qual perspective, we used to do a lot of face to face and focus groups before the lockdowns began and since then we’ve pivoted to virtual focus groups which have been eye-opening, to say the least and have allowed us to expand the types and locations of people we speak with. For example, last week I had a group that had someone from all four nations of the UK, which is the first time I can remember that. So I suspect even when things open up again, the virtual focus groups will be here to stay given their benefits in terms of panel diversity and flexibility. With respect to our quantitative studies, these can take a myriad of different forms from a very standard five minute online survey to a 20-minute in-person survey. We've got experts and specialists across these approaches.
JR: And what’s your approach to collecting feedback across the customer journey?
AM: We've invested a significant amount into automating feedback collection into our analysis process and therefore our market research engines. Building in customer trigger points is crucial for this, especially in our business where our customers have contracts with us. We think a lot about relationship stages and the right time to trigger various types of requests for feedback as we don’t want to overburden our customers.
JR: I’ve read that survey participation rates are in decline. Is BT seeing this?
AM: I can only speak about it from the surveys I run which are mainly in the realm of brand tracking, but yes, we’ve seen a significant decline in participation this past year, certainly in B2B more than B2C. It seems pretty understandable to me, given the circumstances of the past 12 months, that people don't want to be glued to their computer screens for any longer than they absolutely have to and don’t want to think about completing surveys.
So it is a problem and we are thinking about the things we can do to change that, but certainly, the trend that we are seeing over the past five years is that attention spans are falling through the floor. And I think it's a really interesting dynamic now because you've got a generation of people that are going to be coming through, whether making decisions for themselves or for their companies, who have different approaches to engaging with brands.
So, how do you deal with that? How do you build a business that is going to allow you to gain information from your customers in a world like that? And that's when it gets really interesting in my space. How do you build a brand tracking questionnaire that was historically 25 minutes and now needs to be no longer than three and yet still provides the same level of value and insight to the business? It’s a big challenge for sure.
JR: Do you believe social can provide unique insight and pick up some of the slack?
AM: It certainly adds another dimension to our understanding of customer needs and concerns. The verbatims we capture via surveys provide a lot of context and social for me is so important because it adds colour and context to these verbatims. So for example, if you see a sudden spike in negative NPS responses or brand tracking you can dive into those social comments and understand that there’s been a network outage or perhaps a competitor has launched something new.
I can remember a situation a few years back when we had a sudden spike in people complaining about mobile coverage at 10 am in the morning. Upon further analysis, we realized that a local morning television program had invited a money-saving expert as a guest and he told the viewers that if you complain about coverage and prices on a public forum such as Twitter, you might get a better deal. We actually found this out via our competitor monitoring program, as they were also seeing increased traffic. A powerful aspect of social data is the ability to analyze competitors, which we wouldn't have necessarily been able to do within brand tracking or other methods.
JR: Can social augment or even replace brand tracking metrics?
AM: The engagement our customers have with us on social media tends to be service driven and reactive rather than proactive, and so while it provides really helpful insight into the voice of the customer, it’s been difficult for us to correlate accurately with NPS. That said, we have managed to correlate social conversations with several of our other brand tracking metrics and will continue to look into this more.
JR: What’s been BT’s journey with social intelligence to date?
AM: It has definitely been a journey. Just before I joined the business in 2017, the group digital brand team was created and was asked to do a complete review of social including output, social care, everything. At that point we had nearly 400 branded social accounts across the group but no coordination in terms of their use of brand guidelines. In addition, some of these accounts had ad spend associated with them while others did not and some used third-party social tools while some published content natively. So in reality there was no consistent, coherent social strategy across the business and no visibility as to what was really going on. We were just sending social posts out into the ether which had the potential to be quite damaging reputationally.
So we had to educate our staff on what social could be, the importance of speaking with a unified voice, of measuring in a consistent way and of using the data to help us make better decisions across the business. And thankfully the business bought into the idea that social was so much more than funny cat memes. This allowed us to define a new social strategy with multiple stakeholders which we then launched as part of our B2C brand refresh in October 2019. We came out the back of this work with 12 strategic social accounts, all of which now had proper funding, performance management and KPIs.
The reason I tell you all of this is that a lot of the work we've done over the last four years has allowed us to build an understanding of 1) what social insight and social data can do and 2) how that links with digital insight and 3) how it provides a real time voice of the customer. It will never replace qualitative focus groups, if you want robust and reliable data you have to go with focus groups, but it can provide directional accuracy. People really started understanding the value of this when we stopped describing it as social listening and instead as the world’s largest focus group. This change of language helped people make the connection to the world of research, making it more reputable.
JR: Your team has many research methodologies at their disposal to get at consumer opinion. Where does social data fit into this and how is it being used today?
AM: Even after the strides we’ve made the past few years, we are still at the very beginning of our work with social data. We’ve gone from just six users of social listening to over 400 staff who now have access to several social solutions depending on their role. So as we get more familiar with social data we’ll be able to do much more. But as for today, we lean on social data to help us do a great many things. Reputational insight for example is proving hugely valuable for us. We are also working with our customer care team on proactive care where there is a big opportunity to prevent churn and improve overall brand sentiment. We’re using social data to help with network outage detection and communication. We’re using it for audience analysis and to better understand how distinct groups think about our products. And finally, we are starting to use logo and image analysis as one input to identify sponsorship opportunities. So as you can see, a variety of use cases that add value across the business.
JR: Final question then...what’s Twitter data’s superpower?
AM: Its spontaneity, its real-time nature. The fact that it’s not forced, but unsolicited. People speak differently on social than they do to researchers so it provides a different way to understand consumers and their needs.
JR: Many thanks for your time today Adam!