Who’s winning the social media management wars?

The only really useful answer to the question “Is this social media management product comprehensive?” is another question: “Just how comprehensive do you need it to be?”

Back in March 2014, The Hub asked which of several high profile vendors was winning the “marketing cloud wars.” That was a well-defined topic, because however short of a perfect solution any particular cloud fell, there was relatively clear agreement on what a comprehensive, fully-integrated marketing cloud solution should look like (even if the vision has evolved somewhat in the intervening sixteen months). We wrote:

“There are at least 4 components that every digital marketing cloud should be offering:

1)      Multichannel marketing automation – For publishing and promoting content that helps marketers engage customers across several different channels, particularly mobile and social. It also needs automation for the intelligent algorithms that sequence how that engagement happens.

2)      Content management tools – To create and manage the content and engagement tools that can be deployed across different channels.

3)      Social media tools – For listening to and engaging with social media networks to tap into consumer conversations, responding with custom content, or social media advertising.

4)      Analytics platform – To create profiles of consumers based on their online behavior, and evaluate which marketing campaigns are working and which aren’t.”

As is obvious, social media relationship management is part and parcel of any legitimate marketing cloud option. But is there a consistent model of what an independent social media management tool should look like?

No, there isn’t.

Independent social media products are aimed at a wide spectrum of customers

And the most fundamental reason is that, unlike the big noise marketing clouds, independent social media products are aimed at a wide spectrum of customers, not just well-heeled enterprises. Another reason is that, if a social media tool is truly being offered as a standalone product, there’s an assumption that customers will need to align it with other solutions—and therefore less pressure to be all things to all people. Does this mean there’s no social media management platform war going on? 

Again no: but it’s a complex, tactical conflict, where strange alliances abound, strategic targets constantly shift, and new players constantly emerge—witness Sysomos’ acquisition of Expion this week, adding social media management and content marketing to its social intelligence proffer. It’s hard to rank the leaders, too. In April 2015, IDC released a Marketscape report on social media management and marketing applications, and designated all nine vendors examined as Leaders or Major Players. There were no also-rans.

Many innovative products have an architecture or a value proposition that inherently spans multiple categories

Part of the problem here is what Scott Brinker of chiefmartec.com rightly calls “the myth of marketing technology categories.” This sector is evolving too fast, and in too disruptive a manner, for any taxonomy of products to be adequate. Brinker’s comment that “many innovative products have an architecture or a value proposition that inherently spans multiple categories” is especially applicable in the social media management area.

At the same time, as Evan Dunn, digital marketing practice lead at Transform, an “IT for marketing vendor,” says: “The goal, as with any software adoption process, is to seamlessly integrate as few tools as possible to solve the highest percentage of core business problems, catalyze the generation of the largest amount of revenue, and pay the lowest premium.”

The goal…is to seamlessly integrate as few tools as possible

What’s more, recent research by TrustRadius suggests that companies are using “an average of three different tools to report and analyze their social media activities. activities. The most commonly used tools are the analytics offered natively in social media networks (64% of respondents), a social media management tool (62%), a web analytics tool (59%), and spreadsheets (64%).” Fine if that’s a considered strategy; not so good—spreadsheets?—if it just kind of grew that way.

Here’s our best attempt at picturing the battlefield in the summer of 2015. There are many ways of striking an automated balance between brand messaging and authentic inbound marketing. So, this is less a high-level overview, and more a tapestry of competitive options struggling to hold ground already conquered, or forging ahead into new territory.

General Enterprise Solutions

Given all this, it makes no sense to list the components every social media management tool should be offering—beyond the banal observation that it should let you read and respond to social media posts. Here, in random order, are some additional components that might be offered, with the caveat that many customers don’t need, and aren’t looking for, all of them:

1.       Workflows across teams, including third-party teams (partners, agencies)

2.       Social media activity archiving

3.       A content library with a basic or advanced DAM system

4.       Customizable journey tracks for prospects, possibly with the ability to schedule messaging at predicted future touch points

5.       Visual reporting, compatible with mobile and small screens, or large-scale conference displays

6.       Robust video and image search tools

7.       Social and email messaging from the same dashboard

8.       The ability to customize and save highly specific audience segments

9.       Alerts (when to post) and/or recommended content (what to post)

10.     VIP influencer tracking

11.     Predictive analytics (where the social conversation is headed)

12.     Integration with CRM data

What a ragbag of a shopping list—and deliberately so, because I’ve seen every one of these components offered in some form or other by various platforms, and—as I’ve said—not all customers need all of them.

But if you’re business is enterprise scale, with multiple locations, with a B2B component, and with dozens (hundreds?) of marketers, sales reps, and social media managers, pushing content and tracking touch-points across every available channel, then maybe you’re looking for all the above—and more.

The vendors which led the pack in Forrester’s April 2015 overview—Percolate, Spredfast, and Sprinklr

Even so, that doesn’t mean you need to source all those components within the same product. Maybe your social media management team is already so deeply invested in Hootsuite that the best strategy is to add other tools into the stack to complement the established tool. Anyone thinking of making a fresh start with a heavy duty, one-stop social media management product, is probably going to consider the vendors that led the pack in Forrester’s April 2015 overview—Percolate, Spredfast, and Sprinklr—as well as some of Forrester’s second tier contenders—Falcon Social, Shoutlet, Expion, or Hootsuite.

As for the first three, one of those products is not like the other ones. Spredfast can meet a very wide range of challenges posted by brands with large revenues, as well as a high priority commitment to social media marketing. It’s not a solution for enterprises that “treat social as a fourth channel,” CMO Jim Rudden told us. But it meets those challenges, in part, through a plethora of partnerships.

It’s very much an open system, a social media marketing stack within your marketing stack. In addition to the usual channel partners—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Tumblr, and so on—Spredfast integrates with a host of specialist solutions, each of which answers the need for component parts of an overall social media strategy. Examples include: Actiance, which brings the security, archiving and discovery controls on which highly regulated industries depend; Brandwatch, a specialist social media monitoring tool; Kenshoo, a social marketing campaign platform; and Sysomos, which surfaces graphic representations of social media conversations.

Interestingly, Spredfast integrates too with Salesforce.com CRM data—one of the main selling points of Salesforce’s own social media management offering. And the Spredfast family also includes Bitly, Klout, Google Analytics, and other familiar players.

Sprinklr, on the other hand, prefers to be regarded not as a platform or tool, but as a complete social relationship management infrastructure. It did recently announce a partner program, but with a different emphasis. It’s partnering with global service providers like IBM and Deloitte to help large corporations integrate its software with existing legacy systems, but it also has partnerships with a few specialist vendors such as Branderati, which rounds up brand advocates and influencers, and ThisMoment, a content cloud.

But whatever the constitutive details, both Sprinklr and Spredfast cover the social waterfront. Sprinklr builds a series of modules around a Social Experience core. In addition to being able to follow the social conversations among defined audiences across a near comprehensive spectrum of channels, brands and agencies can create and share campaign calendars, manage content and budgets, and track touch-points back to a single customer profile.

Spredfast matches refined social listening to content management and publishing which actually extends beyond the social eco-system. Its Intelligence product allows users to drill deep conversations, define audience segments, and engage with content at appropriate touch-points. In addition to hosting a control center for managing content, Spredfast can push brand visualizations not just to social feeds, but also to websites and ad units. Through its merger with Mass Relevance (which brought Twitter to television), it’s developing strategies to create integrated customer experiences across social and mainstream media.

Although Hootsuite sits alongside Falcon Social, Shoutlet, and Expion in Forrester’s second tier of business social platforms, it would be unwise to overlook the vendor’s move on the enterprise market. Familiar to individual users as a free social media dashboard, and as an alternative to Tweetdeck, Hootsuite has worked hard at transforming itself into a collaborative tool for business teams.  Hootsuite tackles social listening, engagement through its multi-channel dashboard, and social crisis management—which it presents positively as social customer service. It’s also serious about putting social data into the hands of sales representatives, and integrates with Salesforce and other CRM applications. 

Specialist Solutions

Specialist solutions answer highly specific challenges. But in keeping with the “myth of categories” rule, that doesn’t mean they can’t be deployed, and function well, as general social media management products, too.

Socialware, for example, certainly seeks to qualify itself as an enterprise-scale social media management platform, but should still be considered a specialist solution. The reason: although it seeks to compete with the big generalists like Sprinklr, it evolved from a very specific need, and its fundamental structure reflects that need. That need was for brands in highly regulated business sectors—it emerged from financial services—to fully exploit social marketing opportunities within the constraints of a strict system of approvals.

Percolate, too, is very different from the products in the previous section. It does provide lauded social media management capabilities, but within the overall structure of a global enterprise marketing platform, which betrays its origins. Social is just one of Percolate’s four main offerings. Global brand management, enterprise marketing management, and content management are the others, and with the qualified exception of the latter, the general enterprise social media solutions aren’t really playing on Percolate’s turf.

Laser-focused on being an enterprise social intelligence company

PR manager Dinah Alobeid described Brandwatch to me as “laser-focused on being an enterprise social intelligence company.” Brandwatch visualizes relevant social activity on Vizia, its customizable display which can be hosted on individual screens or screens shared by teams working at social media hubs. It also crawls brand mentions across not just social platforms, but tens of millions of online sources, using analytics to take a deep dive into proprietary and competitor marketing value. Although social managers can engage with audiences through Vizia, Brandwatch doesn’t seek to be a powerful content management and publication resource.

As for Mutual Mind, it too has a very focused selling point. If you’re looking for a product that will help manage, schedule, and publish content across multiple channels, that’s not what Mutual Mind is right now. It concentrates, rather, on social intelligence. In simple terms, that takes social listening to a new level by running analytics against significant participants in the global social conversation, based on rules customized by users. Through a partnership with IBM, the analytics promise to become more powerful. Watson Personality Insights can automate the understanding of customers’ and influencers’ motivations through social analytics.

Mutual Mind also offers highly customizable HD visualizations of the data it captures.

MutualMind’s visualization command center

Smaller Scale Solutions

There’s plenty of demand for social media management, of course, from many small to medium businesses too. As soon as a smaller brand has multiple accounts on multiple social channels, and is trying to engage and respond in a prompt, consistent manner, it has a social business that needs managing.

Some vendors are explicitly focusing on this market—not that they’re necessarily turning enterprise business away. Sprout Social runs “the gamut, from small businesses with one user to, on the flipside, large companies with a hundred users on the platform,” VP of Marketing Andrew Caravella told us.

The heart of Sprout’s proffer is its distinctive interface, which funnels conversations from multiple social channels into a single stream where users can listen and respond. It’s an interface which that be too simple for experienced social managers, who prefer to see activity laid out (Hootsuite/Tweetdeck fashion) across a broad horizontal scroll of columns. But it’s easy to see why it appeals to SMBs and social beginners—and especially to brands with a more-or-less monolithic market (retail, hospitality). It’s not currently a compelling option for brands that need refined tools to segment audiences and target messages selectively, or flexibly manage, schedule and publish a wide variety of content.

Sprout Social’s single social channel

Although Everypost has US headquarters in Miami, it originated in the world of Buenos Aires digital marketing agencies as a mobile social listening app. Now also available in a Web edition, it too is targeting the SMB market. As with Hootsuite, there’s a free version for use by individuals; the more advanced versions are competitively priced.  It’s explicitly aimed at “social networkers, professionals, bloggers, and small to medium-size businesses.”

But Everypost makes no claim to be a complete social media package. In this case, the part deliberately missing is social listening. Everypost is all about social content. It helps users curate content and customize it for individual social channels, and its encompasses team collaboration, publication scheduling, and analytics to evaluate content performance.

Socialdraft grew out of the hospitality sector, where it started life as an in-house social calendar for a restaurant and recipe blog site. A drag-and-drop social calendar remains central to the product, although the product also features an alert system to signal brand relevant conversations not just on social channels but web-wide. It also has an automated system for identifying and profiling influencers most worthy of social engagement.

A Glance at the Clouds

It would be remiss not to acknowledge the social media management offerings available to businesses that buy into a comprehensive marketing cloud eco-system with a vendor like Adobe, Oracle, or Salesforce. Marketo also offers a social marketing solution, but it’s designed more for building campaigns to turn prospects into customers than for general social listening and engagement. But it’s unhelpful to evaluate those modules in isolation from the context in which they function; and evaluating marketing clouds goes way beyond the parameters of this blog.

Breaking Down the Contenders

So with plenty cautions and caveats, let’s break down at least the major independent contenders mentioned above. Note that the current marketing technology landscape produced by Scott Brinker lists 112 social media management vendors, and even a 10,000 word blog couldn’t cover that waterfront adequately. We’ll continue to cover the space, of course.


Brandwatch


Pros:     
Popular among marketing and advertising agencies for its brand- and product-based social listening capabilities. Both G2 Crowd and TrustRadiant users singled out its query builder as “among the best they have ever used.” It’s a praised option for tracking the progress of campaigns, and managing social media crises. To be fair, it’s all in the name.
Cons:     Brandwatch is explicitly a listening tool, and while it allows users to engage with social conversations, it’s limited when it comes to managing and publishing content, let alone building content-driven campaigns. It can, however, be integrated with a superior engagement product like Spredfast. As with many of these products, there are widespread complaints about the learning curve required to get the most from it; but G2 Crowd users praised customer support highly. Also, there’s no mobile app.

Everypost

Pros:     
There’s limited public user feedback on Everypost, a relatively new player in the U.S. market that launched its Web application only last October. Some analysts compliment it on its clean, user-friendly interface for scheduling and publishing posts, and the ability to customize for different platforms. Others say it makes it easy to post regardless of format of graphics or length of text.
Cons:     It’s not really a social listening tool, and although it has just introduced analytics to evaluate performance, in partnership with Social Metrics, its early days to assess effectiveness.
Falcon Social

Pros:     
It’s hard to regard Falcon Social as anything other than the dark horse in this survey of primarily U.S.-based vendors. Copenhagen-based, it has built a sterling roster of clients in Europe in just a few years, including Carlsberg and Deutsche Telekom, and it was the only non-U.S.-founded vendor considered in the most recent Forrester Wave for social relationship platforms. As a “strong performer,” it fell just short of Forrester’s leadership rank, and was praised for its ability to prioritize important conversations and recommend responsive content. It also has some basic digital asset management capability through its Content Pool.
Cons:     The Forrester report criticizes the product for its limited scheduling functionality and unsatisfactory metrics. Perhaps surprisingly for a European vendor, the product is only available in an English language version.
Hootsuite

Pros:
      Hootsuite certainly has familiarity going for it. Even if you’ve never worked with a pro social management suite, the chances are you’ve seen or used the free version of Hootsuite or Tweetdeck. But it has high ratings among users and analysts as a business tool. It’s a G2 Crowd “Leader,” based on market presence and customer satisfaction. According to Forrester, it has “the best” content publishing automation tool.
Cons:     Historic complaints about lack of depth in social analytics were addressed by Hootsuite’s acquisition of analytics vendor UberVU last year, but there are associated costs. Users are still awaiting direct integration with Pinterest, although some Pinterest management functionality is available within Hootsuite via a third-party app.
MutualMind

Pros:     
Something of an outlier, MutualMind receives surprisingly little attention from analysts or online commenters. It goes noticed, but largely unreviewed, on both TrustRadius and G2 Crowd. It’s been around since 2009, but almost seems to be regarded as a newcomer. IBM certainly likes it.
Cons:     As mentioned above, MutualMind ideally forms part of a social media management stack, bringing social listening and intelligence, and powerful visualization tools to those that need them. It doesn’t have engagement and content marketing covered.
Percolate

Pros:    
Praised for its widely sourced content recommendations (“the most sophisticated we’ve seen,” said Forrester), and its workflows for content management and publication, Percolate has been identified as a leading social management tool precisely because of the seamless connection it seeks to establish between social median strategy and marketing campaigns. Since the Forrester report, it has expanded beyond Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to partner with Pinterest, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and other social platforms. It also offers opportunities to integrate with third party DAM, CMS, and CRM tools.

Cons:     There are many reasons brands use social media other than as a campaign channel—to promote brand awareness and loyalty, to engage customers and prospects in long-term relationships, and for crisis management. While Percolate could support any of those ends, it’s not clear that it’s the platform of choice to do so.

Socialware

Pros:    
One of Socialware’s challenges is to create buzz outside its original target audience of financial services and other verticals fearful of engaging socially while remaining rigorously compliant. Within its customer base, it has powerful advocates like Guardian Life, a brand which needs to manage the online activity of thousands of financial advisors.
Cons:     Its compliance roots mean that Socialware restricts its engagement to social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, which have the capability of archiving activity. Other than that, given its content management and campaign tracking tools, Socialware should be a contender for a broader market. For businesses that just don’t need heavyweight security and compliance safeguards, Socialware rebrands its offering as reputation management—something it says every business needs.

Spredfast

Pros:    
Spredfast gets high points for its openness to integrating with specialist partners rather than attempting to build a comprehensive suite, and it seems to be universally well regarded as a social monitoring and engagement tool. It may be that Spredfast Experiences—the product component that promotes publication of social content across all channels, including billboards and live TV—has yet to be fully exploited by brands and agencies: “just getting started,” as we said earlier this year.
Cons:     Despite being a Forrester Wave leader, Spredfast was designated a niche player in G2 Crowd’s Spring 2015 Social Media Management grid, partly because of limited market presence as reflected by G2 commenters, and partly because of relatively low customer satisfaction. Complaints related to LinkedIn integration, reporting accuracy—”merely average” measurement tools (Forrester), and “glitches” (G2 and TrustRadius).

Sprinklr

Pros:    
Underlining the difficulty of relying on any one source for a 360 view of marketing tech tools, Sprinklr, like Spredfast, was a Forrester leader yet a G2 Crowd niche player in Spring 2015. It probably has the widest coverage of social media management and marketing capabilities of any product discussed here. It’s multi-lingual, customizable, and can scale to the needs of very large enterprises such as Microsoft and Citibank.
Cons:    Forrester did find that Sprinklr came close to providing a comprehensive social management tool-kit, albeit via some “lackluster acquisitions.” Forrester also found the prices high. TrustRadiant and G2 Crowd users objected to implementation time, the need for training, and finding the product “overwhelming” (G2), but maybe that’s the price to be paid if you’re committed to a large-scale, meets-all-needs platform.

Sprout Social

Pros:    
The good news for the smaller start-ups in this space (see Socialdraft below) is that Sprout Social has made some waves with a product that beats the bigger players (according to all sources) for ease of use, simplicity, and an easily negotiated learning curve. For Forrester, it’s “among the best value for money in the market.” G2 Crowd named it a leader for high customer satisfaction and strong market presence, with “top notch” support.
Cons:     For all the love Sprout Social gets from customers, there’s a lot missing. It’s a Twitter-Facebook listening tool, with the recent addition of Instagram and the low-relevance Google+. Still no LinkedIn, for example, let alone newer social channels. It does let you publish to LinkedIn, however, but not to Instagram. Its coverage needs to be rationalized.

Socialdraft

Pros:    
Socialdraft is a newcomer (2013), small-scale, and has yet to notch a high profile among business users. It’s presence here is more an indication of how vendors might serve the (very extensive) needs of SMBs than an indication that it’s contending to be a leading social relationship tool. It’s one way a large part of the market could go. As some analysts say, there’s room for alternatives to Hootsuite’s less expensive models. Socialdraft remains close to users, the calendar-based format has big appeal for some, and the collaboration tools work well.
Cons:    It doesn’t yet cover a full range of social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, with the recent addition of Instagram), and although costs are low, it won’t yet scale to serve enterprises with hundreds of users. A space to watch.

 

How to Evaluate Products

Joe Colacurcio, director of research and analytics at Zocalo Group, a social/digital agency, has it absolutely right: “First and most importantly, brands and agencies need to define a primary objective for the social media monitoring platform.”

First and most importantly, brands and agencies need to define a primary objective

When it comes to evaluating products, the rules are simple. It’s applying those which can be expensive and time-consuming. Firstly, remember that this blog doesn’t cover all options. Hopefully it illustrates how you think about what’s out there. But nobody wants to audition more than 100 social media management vendors.

In essence, evaluation is a three step process:

1.       A needs analysis. Don’t start from a general awareness of the social conversation out there, and wonder how your brand can participate. Develop a clear blueprint for what you want the outcome of participation to be, and the tools you need to get there—bearing in mind factors like compliance and third party involvement (agencies; or brands, if you’re an agency) . The sharper that blueprint is, the easier it will be to shrink a three figure list of vendors to a short list of products that might meet your needs.

2.       Create detailed, realistic, written scenarios for testing. The more complex the scenario, the more time-consuming, frustrating, challenging, and expensive the testing will be. It’s still better than installing the wrong product.

3.       Run the tests in real time and review the results. Vendors shouldn’t be anxious when prospective customers insist on proof of concept.

You can also find users’ reviews of social media management, and many other business software products, at G2 Crowd and TrustRadius.

For better or worse, this hasn’t been about anointing a winner.  It all comes back to our opening question. What does your brand need social media management to be? 

Sources

Among the sources of information used here were:

Forrester: The Forrester Wave™: Social Relationship Platforms, Q2 2015 (April, 2015)

G2 Crowd:  Social Media Management Research

G2 Crowd:  Social Media Monitoring Research 

G2 Crowd:  Social Analytics Research

TrustRadius: Buyer’s Guide to Enterprise Social Media Management Software (January, 2015)

TrustRadius: Social Media Marketing Trends (May, 2015)


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