Posted on March 30, 2013 12:05 pm

How to tell if your Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn efforts are paying off

Expion wins our test of eight enterprise-grade social media monitoring tools

As businesses make more use of social networks, the number of engagement, analysis and monitoring tools has exploded. Enterprises are trying to understand their return on social media investments, to find out if their Twitter and Facebook marketing campaigns are actually delivering customers. They want to track social mentions across multiple networks and be responsive to both kudos and complaints.

We found nearly 100 products that fall into this emerging product category, which goes by a wide variety of names including social media monitoring, social CRM, social intelligence, enterprise listening platforms and media engagement. There are many tools that can perform a few tasks for free or nearly so, such as Bufferapp.com, Seesmic’s Ping, Tweetreach.com and Tweetstats.com. But if you are looking for a more enterprise-grade tool, then you want something a bit more involved and capable. (We have published a list of all 90-plus vendors here.)

We tested eight for this review: Expion, Gremln, SimplyMeasured, SproutSocial, Sysomos Heartbeat, Ubervu, Viralheat, and Visible Technologies’ Intelligence. These eight have a large base of business customers, even though you might not have heard of them. We also invited Google’s Wildfire, Adobe’s Marketing Cloud and Salesforce.com’s Radian6, but the vendors declined to participate, either because they didn’t have any way to allow a press review of their service or because they didn’t have the resources to support our review process

The tools we looked at supposedly can answer questions such as:

  • Are your Twitter or Facebook marketing campaigns actually working?
  • Can you coordinate a social media campaign across an entire region for multiple retail locations?
  • When is the best time to schedule your Tweets and social status updates?
  • Should you invest more energy in particular networks for promoting your business?
  • Can you understand or track what your customers or competitors are saying about you online?
  • Is there something other than a simplistic Klout-style score that gives you more insight into what is going on with your brand on each social network?

Of the eight products, the overall best was Expion and tied at the bottom for the worst were SproutSocial and Visible Intelligence. Expion excelled in all three functional areas we tested: monitoring, posting and analysis. It could go both wide and deep and has some very sophisticated data filters to make it easier to focus on a particular collection of messages and act on them.

A close second was Ubervu, which offered almost as many features as Expion and at about the same price. One thing lacking from Expion is LinkedIn coverage, which Ubervu has.

The two lowest priced products were Gremln and Viralheat, and both are good places to get started with monitoring social media. Viralheat is just for single users but covers more social networks than Gremln.

Three of the products integrate various social media monitoring with Google Analytics: Sysomos, SproutSocial and SimplyMeasured. This is a powerful reason to choose one of these products, because they can coordinate social media campaigns with actual Web traffic stats.

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Here are the individual reviews:

Expion

Expion was our overall winner and it excels in all three functional areas. We tested the product with a sample collection of social accounts from across the financial services industry.

One of the reasons we liked the product is that it is very appropriate for groups as it is being used for some of the largest corporations to manage far-flung social media campaigns that span hundreds of branch offices or retail locations.

As an example, the Applebee’s restaurant chain is one of its customers, with more than 1,600 locations and 5,000 users of their software. While it can monitor a wide collection of networks it can only post to Facebook, Twitter and Google+. One significant drawback is that it can’t monitor LinkedIn, the only one of the products we tested with this deficiency, besides SimplyMeasured.

The posting portion of the product is quite strong, and its interface looks a lot like the WordPress blogging software. You develop a content “library” and schedule when and where your messages will appear. One of the nice features is that if you hover over a message with your mouse you bring up a preview window showing what your post will look like. You can send email alerts confirming the post to team members for further follow up, as well as sending you an email if the posting failed.

Expion is designed for managing a large collection of regional offices and to set up dynamic content that can be posted across this collection with a single message. There is also a calendar view of all your posting activity, and a built-in link shortening and tracking system too. There are custom dashboards that can select data from particular sources and dynamically update every 10 minutes, which can be increased to more frequent updates, if necessary.

When it comes to analysis and reports, Expion has solid features, including the ability to filter your messages by a wide variety of metrics including the language it was posted in and by top influencers in particular social media channels. Its dashboards feature useful graphics and its word clouds can be used to further define which phrases will elicit the most response from your audience.

Pricing starts at $1,500 per month. For our sample configuration, Expion cost $2,700 per month for an unlimited number of users at multiple locations.

Gremln

For a lower-end product, Gremln has some advantages. Its user interface is somewhat reminiscent of Hootsuite (indeed they have a “skin” to make it even more so), it is easy to setup and get started, and the two sets of menus — one on top of the page and a drop-down one on the right-hand side — are easy to navigate. If you get stuck there are screencast video help files that you can click on to explain what to do. And unlike Viralheat, it can be used by groups. It works with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

On the posting side, it goes deeper than some products that cost a lot more. It allows you to post a message to a particular LinkedIn discussion or Facebook fan page. It warns when you try to post duplicate messages to Twitter, which is nice. You can schedule posts that will appear concurrently on different social networks, and have them reoccur on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. There is a calendar view that will show you when your messages have been or will be posted. And it has an interesting bulk posting mechanism, using CSVs, if you want to really plaster messages around your networks.

On the engagement side, each message can be assigned to another team member for follow up or can be emailed for further action.

On the analysis side, Gremln’s filters are weak: you can slice its data by date ranges only. And while you can run a small number of charts and reports, there isn’t much flexibility in how they are created. When we tested The LinkedIn report, it could only display a maximum of 500 on number of network connections, a bug which has since been fixed. maxes out at 500, which means if you have a larger network you won’t see it on the report. (They claim this is a bug in the LinkedIn API.)

Gremln is the second least expensive product that we tested. It offers a free account with many limitations, and if you sign up for one of its paid accounts, the first 14 days are free. Chances are you’ll end up at the $99 per month plan if you are going to be seriously using this service. That entitles you to 11 users, 40 branded reports, and keyword filtering, along with six months of archived data. So our sample configuration would cost $3,000 annually. For that price, it is solid value and a good way to start out with social media monitoring.

SimplyMeasured

SimplyMeasured is a reporting powerhouse, but doesn’t go much beyond that in terms of engagement or posting new content. We had the vendor set it up to analyze the social networks of the airline industry. The product has two major sections: reports and data collections. The data collections are where you put in your social accounts and your competition, and we had the vendor load up a series of airline industry accounts. The product can easily be setup for groups of users with different access rights, such as just being able to view reports or perform administrative duties.

As you would expect from a tool heavy into analysis, SimplyMeasured has more than 35 canned reports available from its dashboard. Each report is created on demand, and generally takes a minute or so to generate. We liked that its reports looked exactly the same online or downloaded in various formats. They can easily be exported as Excel objects with full image fidelity, not just sending CSVs, as most of its competitors. Reports can be scheduled to run at specific times of the day and cover custom date ranges. You can track the demographics of any YouTube channel even if you aren’t the owner, and there is a wealth of information from their report on when various viewers commented, the number of subscribers and so forth.

They also connect with Google Analytics, which is great to measure social/web cross engagement. This was a beta feature when we tested the product.

One limitation of their free trials is that they can’t look too far back in time in their data collection. Their connector to Google+ can only look at brands and not individual pages. You can set up triggers to generate reports when someone with a higher-scoring Klout posts, or only when someone Tweets with a large follower count, or exclude Tweets written in other languages.

SimplyMeasured is also quite pricey. They have different pricing tiers that are based on the number of social media networks examined, the size of audience and volume of conversations. Pricing begins at $500 per month for unlimited users but some of their top-end customers can easily spend six figures annually. Our sample configuration would cost $30,000 annually. For a reporting-only tool, we didn’t think this had high enough value.

SproutSocial

SproutSocial was a frustrating product. Its dashboard is pretty to look at but weak: there is a very incomplete view of your network, it takes a long time to display the demographics behind our Tweets and Facebook posts, and it can’t display your personal LinkedIn page (although it can show your Facebook business pages).

But once you get behind the scenes and into the product, it has some very capable features. You can connect to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Analytics and can be used in a group like some of the higher-end products here. Because Sprout can connect with Google Analytics, it can produce a rather unique comparison showing what is happening on both Web and social media sites. It sorts messages that drove traffic to your website by number of followers, which is a nice way to look at what is driving your web views.

Posting messages can be done in one of two ways. First is through a simple calendar scheduler by clicking on the “compose” button at the top of any screen, similar to many of the products reviewed here. But the more interesting method is using a very nifty scheduled post process called the “Queue” that can optimize posts and deliver them during optimal engagement times. You need to have a premium account to enable this feature. And unlike some of its competitors, it can go fairly deep in terms of adding people to a Twitter list. You get an email notification if a scheduled message fails to post, and there are weekly summaries of your posts and notifications of assigned tasks too. It also has a unique method to reply to messages and see recent history of the particular poster, giving you more context to your conversation.

Sprout integrates with UserVoice and ZenDesk helpdesk ticketing systems as part of their workflow. This means that you can assign a colleague to answer a particular Tweet or another way to follow up. Reports can be exported to PDFs. You can choose the time range for the reports but not much else.

Sprout also has iPhone and Android mobile apps, but we didn’t test these. It has browser extensions and bookmarklets, too. They also have a free reporting tool which shows how responsive your social networks are, we found this of limited utility.

We give kudos to Sprout Social for having explicit pricing information on its site and it also has the most liberal trial policy: you can sign up for free for 30 days without giving them a credit card. They have three tiers: the lowest plan is $39 a month per user, which includes up to 10 social networks. You’ll likely end up at the $99 per user per month plan, which can examine up to 50 social networks, unlimited reports, live support and team collaboration. That works out to $29,700 for our sample configuration.

Sysomos

Sysomos has two products, Heartbeat and Media Analysis Platform. We mostly examined Heartbeat, which is comparable to the other products in this review set. We had the vendor set up a financial industry dashboard. At the core of the product are its queries and tag management. The searches can have very complex Boolean criteria in them, and then further refined with particular tags. These can then be used to filter the data into very actionable collections, and groups of users are supported.

The publishing module is limited to just posting messages on Facebook and Twitter. And while you can schedule posts, it seems more bare bones than its competitors. You’ll want to sign up for a Bit.ly URL shortening account before you start posting links, otherwise they will be truncated without any warning. There is a calendar view of the posting schedule, and you can export this to Google or Outlook calendars.

It can monitor a wide array of networks, including Google Analytics, Google+, LinkedIn and YouTube. It has very sophisticated workflow and assignment features, so you can connect to various CRM systems to track reply follow up, as well as send out emails.

The monitoring portion of the product has some of the best filtering activities of any product we’ve seen, including the ability to search and translate messages from the original posted language, age, gender and location. You can click on any message in the stream and immediately get a large set of statistics, including charts of followers and the best time to Tweet to that particular person. Other products have this information, but not so readily available. Sysomos also has several other reports to get very granular comparisons of sentiment for age, gender, and location across a variety of brands, which is interesting. These reports can be downloaded as PDFs or CSVs.

There is also a very flexible real-time alerting mechanism: basically, any search can be turned into an alert and the alerts can come in near-real time or on a regular basis.

Heartbeat comes in two versions, starting at $550 per month and that is what our sample configuration would cost. That represents a good value for the money.

Ubervu

Ubervu’s dashboard looks like the Microsoft Windows 8 tile display, and common actions such as scheduling posts or adding users or viewing reports are represented with a tile. It can be used with groups and can connect to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as general Web searches.

To start with posting content, you just click on the pencil icon on the top left menu bar. Ubervu has what it calls a “smart schedule” which figures out the best time to post your content to Facebook and Twitter based on your readership patterns. Your messages will be posted at different times for each social network. This makes it really easy to schedule multiple posts, and it also saves your social network choices so you just have to type in each of your text messages and click schedule to set up the entire series. This is probably the most sophisticated posting mechanism we saw in any of the reviewed products.

Ubervu’s reports are quite powerful and easily customizable. They are constructed from scratch using a series of graphical choices for header, gender, time ranges, particular social network, sentiment, language, geolocation and more. Reports can be emailed to you on a regular basis. There are also reporting features that are scattered around the product with some nice graphics too.

Ubervu has an interesting twist on the monitoring portion with its “signals” section. Here you can find actionable insights where selected conversations have been highlighted from the entire social stream. The product calls out four key items: influencers, mentions from people asking for help, significant spikes in traffic, and trending top stories. You can add email alerts such as a daily digest or more real-time traffic discovery as well.

One weakness is in its engagement activities. While you can assign a particular message to a team member for follow up, and you can add tags too, that is about it. Missing are the wide spectrum of additional engagement activities found in its competitors. Another issue is a delay in reporting on LinkedIn status messages, which they are trying to work out with that site.

Ubervu has four different categories of users that are very simple to set up: an observer (look but limited interaction), contributor (posting rights), supervisor (add users and streams), admin (access to everything). You send an email invite and you are done.

Ubervu has some pricing information on their site, with a starter plan at $500 a month for one user with five social networks and low traffic to analyze. You’ll probably end up at a custom plan; our configuration was $24,000 annually. This puts it in the middle price range and, given all of its features, represents good value.

Viralheat

Viralheat is a publishing platform first and foremost. They can monitor a wide variety of networks, and post to four of them: Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn. There is a Chrome plug-in (called Flint) to make the posting process even easier. We also looked at a beta version of their new UI, which has subsequently gone live.  The improved UI cleans up the interface and adds a few features.

The essence of the tool is its profiles, and how many you can have depends on what you pay per month. You enter the keywords, URLs, Twitter IDs and other information that you want to collect in a single profile, and then it starts to track the mentions.

However, it is light on analysis and monitoring. You can generate various pre-set reports that are tucked into different parts of the product, but they have a lot of limitations. For example, you can only specify three date ranges: today, last week or the last 30 days. Most of their competitors give you more flexibility. You also can’t drill down further to see the posts that are behind the particular data. You can export a graphic image of the report, but that is about it. There are a few basic reports for Twitter and Facebook, but no specific reports for the other social networks. There is also a report of sentiment analysis of your entire Viralheat profile, which is a nice graphic but doesn’t really have any actionable information. For example, missing was being able to drill down to a particular event or set of Tweets that caused the change in sentiment.

It can schedule messages to be posted to multiple networks, but it isn’t as easy to use as Gremln or SproutSocial, in that you have to specify each network for every new message. Messages can only be scheduled every five minutes, which may not be what you desire. But the service will send you an email confirmation once the message has been posted, although there is a bug with the wrong time stamp inside the email. You can also target a particular audience for Facebook pages.

Its biggest drawback is that it isn’t quite ready for enterprises and multiple-person accounts. Each person needs his  own account, but given its low price point that may be of interest for smaller businesses or for teams where there are definite divisions of responsibilities. They are planning to add multiple seats and team management features.

Viralheat offers a free account that can examine up to seven social networks. Like Gremln, if you sign up for any of their paid accounts, the first 14 days are free. The paid accounts start at $49 per month that can examine up to 15 social networks and save two search profiles. If you want more, you will probably end up at the premium level, which is $99 a month for up to 30 social networks, 20 search profiles, and six months of archived data. Our sample configuration was $1,188 annually, the least expensive vendor we reviewed.

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Visible Technologies Intelligence

Visible can monitor a wide collection of networks, including Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter and overall websites. Indeed, monitoring and analysis are its strong suits, with less capable posting. It is designed for groups. We had the vendor set it up to examine the airline industry’s social networks.

The user interface is somewhat spare: there are tabs across the top to Monitor, Engage, Search and Analyze, but the division of labor for these tasks isn’t quite what we expected. For example, there are some engagement activities under the Monitor tab, and reports, charts, and word clouds pop up in numerous places around the interface.

The weakest part of the product is posting. It is very spare, with no advanced scheduling feature, and just to Facebook and Twitter accounts. You would be better off using Gremln or Ubervu for better control over message posting.

It has extensive monitoring features. Each message has a smiley (or something else) face icon next to it to indicate positive sentiment. You can quickly change the sentiment if you feel it hasn’t been scored correctly. It can track sentiment expressed in ten different languages, with Russian being adding soon. Clearly, this is a product for global brand management. But you can also get precision filtering down to the state and city level, if need be.

On the engagement side, you can set up very complex “bulk actions” that can create workflows to notify someone if a negative Tweet hasn’t been acted on, for example. For each message, you can change its sentiment score, send it to Digg, Delicious and other sites, assign it to a coworker, add specific tags for later searching, or archive the message. You can set up alerts where particular individuals are emailed every time the data changes by a fixed percentage, or where you can receive emails on a regular daily or weekly schedule. This is the largest collection of engagement activities of any of the reviewed products, and could be one reason why the product is so pricey.

There are also multiple dashboards that can be created and assigned to individual team members. Each dashboard can have its own customized collection of widgets that can be easily rearranged. For example, you can create a custom engagement dashboard that shows customer service posts, specific issues, and the authors along with originating sites.

Visible Intelligence spends a lot of time normalizing and cleaning its data collection, which is probably another reason why it was the most expensive product we tested, with an estimated price of $74,600 per year for our sample size. Its price starts at $2,500 per month and the variables are number of users and whether the full engagement module is included. Given that this is twice what the next most expensive competitors offer, we scored it poor for overall value.

Pricing parameters

Pricing on these tools is all over the map, an indication of the immaturity of the market and how many of these companies aren’t sure whether they are in the software or consulting services business. Some vendors have very simple pricing models, charging on a monthly basis for unlimited users and reports. Others have tiers of pricing depending on different usage parameters that gets quickly complex. We have indicated in our summary chart what a typical price would be for 25 users and 25 different reports connecting to 25 different social network accounts, and used that as the basis for our score on each product’s value.

Tracking down prices was difficult for these products. In our examination of nearly 100 tools, less than a third had publicly available pricing pages on their websites, and even those who had pricing pages had less information then we’d prefer.

Of the eight products we tested, Viralheat was the least expensive and Visible Technologies the most, and the range for our sample scenario was more than 50:1. That is a wide range to be sure, but you probably should plan on spending around $30,000 annually for a typical product.

Strom is a veteran technology journalist, speaker and former IT manager. He has written two books on computing and thousands of articles. His blog can be found at Strominator.com.

How we tested social CRM tools

We looked at tools that could automate posting to social networks, that can listen and engage with individual customers, and that can analyze usage patterns and produce reports for management. All of these products are SaaS-based services, so the only test gear was our Macintosh laptop running both Firefox 17 and Chrome 24 browsers connecting to the Internet.

For each product, we either signed up for a trial account or had the vendor create one for us that we had administrative rights to make changes and add users. To have access to a large stream of posts, we used the scenario that we worked either for the airline or financial services industry and were examining sentiment about our own company’s service as well as examining what competitors are posting online about their experiences. We also connected to our own personal social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ to see what additional insights we could gain.

We tried to mimic what an actual enterprise user would do in terms of workflow: monitoring the traffic on social networks and the general Web, engaging particular individuals in conversations, and tracking particular posts that we made and who followed/retweeted/liked or otherwise paid any attention whatsoever.

To do these tasks, we looked at three basic functions for each tool: scheduling the posting content to various social networks, monitoring and engaging in subsequent conversations, and analyzing reports of overall social media and Web traffic patterns. Not every tool can do all three functions: for example, SimplyMeasured is mostly focused on analysis. Each tool has varying depth or options that we describe in the individual reviews. Some tools can monitor many social networks but only post to a few of them, or can’t post to particular places inside a social network such as a LinkedIn discussion forum, a Facebook fan page or add someone to a Twitter list. Other tools combine social network mentions with general Web or blog content, or can correlate with Google Analytics data.

Part of our evaluation on analysis and reporting was how flexible each product could be in terms of filtering the entire Twitter or other social network stream into a meaningful collection of posts. Some can slice and dice data by only a time range. Others can filter by age or gender of the poster, by geographic location, by the sentiment expressed or by what language the post is written in.

We looked at the workflow of how multiple users could collaborate. For example, a common use case would be for one person to monitor Twitter and Facebook mentions of a particular brand and then assign an individual post or Tweet to another staff member to follow up for a response. All of the products except for Viralheat have this feature.

We scored each product on three metrics: overall features, the quality of their reports, and the overall value. Some products are pricier but do more and could be worth the extra cash, while the less expensive ones can be more focused.