Is the trend for anonymity online a challenge or opportunity for social media listening?

Our recent 2014 Social Media Listening Report examines the current state of the nation for tools that are available to help brands to listen to, and interact with, the conversations about them online. There are an increasing number of tools available, which can make the process of choosing the tool right for you more difficult. However, as tools become increasingly more sophisticated so does our behaviour online – and this can offer some challenges to brands hoping to implement and learn from social media listening.

We are all sharing more about ourselves online – either through our social media profiles or by what we say in conversations. And we are using a growing number of networks and platforms to do this , with Millennials in particular leading this trend. We connect with friends through Facebook, colleagues and employers through LinkedIn, and the world in general through platforms such as Pinterest and Twitter. The boundaries between our professional and personal lives risk becoming increasingly blurred; as do the boundaries between different communities we belong to. Increasingly individuals do not want these separate lives to touch each other, or at least would prefer to be able to control who, when and how their real identity can be accessed online.

There is a growing trend for social media platforms which offer anonymity. Sites such as Whisper and Secret let users write a secret over a complementing image and broadcast it to the world, while Spraffl (still in beta testing) allows you to post anonymous location-based messages wherever you are, to everyone around you to read and comment on.  Similarly, Snapchat, while not fully anonymous, allows you so send self-destructing images which, in effect, remove the evidence of the message having been sent.

We are even seeing this trend towards anonymity among the bigger players. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, once commented that the age of privacy is over.  More recently, he has discussed the “pressure of [always using] a real identity”, and Facebook has announced the launch of a series of apps – the products of their latest hackathon – that will allow users to log in anonymously to their accounts and post content.

This nascent trend for anonymity represents a challenge for brands wanting to use social media listening to understand more about them, their audiences or their competitors. As more conversations are taking place either in places which are more difficult to find, and with users not using their real names associating things that are said with the people who said them can feel increasingly difficult.

However, what we are seeing is really a division of content on social media into two types:

  1. Demographic-based content – conversations and profiles where we can understand the content based on the demographics of the people who say it. We know who they are and what they do and can analyse this data in a way that feels more traditional – just as we would with data from a survey or offline qualitative group.
  2. Topic-based content – whilst these ‘anonymous’ conversations can’t necessarily be understood by the demographic of the user they can be analysed based on the topics they talk about. Even if you don’t know who somebody is, you can start to segment them based on their conversations – maybe they are an avid sports fan, or a brand loyalist. These things can be understood by looking at their pattern of conversations and may be a more useful way of beginning to understand the context of what is said.

So, whilst the trend to anonymity in some discussions online may seem to make analysis more difficult for brands, it does in fact offer a number of real opportunity. It helps brands to move beyond demographic-based analysis to insights based on what actually people say.