Listen to social media and find out what's trending

The use of social media helps develop a deeper understanding of customer needs and will be able to attract new customers more easily.

Commentary - There’s a new expert in town, and she doesn’t work for your company. She’s savvy, independent, and you really should get to know her. You can find her online.

It is well known that the rise of social media has enabled organizations to analyze what the great mass of people are thinking at any given time. It’s very exciting – and useful – to see what’s “trending.”

What’s less well known is that social media has given voice to a new kind of influential expert. You can think of them as “superfans” – consumers who are extremely passionate and knowledgeable about one particular subject – fashion or cars, movies, you name it.

Such ardent consumers have been around forever, of course, but today many of them maintain a very high social media profile. They blog, Tweet, and do podcasts about their passion. They let you – and their many followers – know what they think about your product or service.

It’s important to understand who these online experts are because they are talking directly to your customers. And your customers value the expertise of these social media mavens. Often, these experts are the first to sing the praises of (or criticize) a new product – or identify a competitive offering that’s better.

Even more interesting, these superfans are so well attuned to a particular topic that they can often spot nascent trends well in advance of others. An IBM inquiry last year into footwear styles illustrates this point nicely. Using powerful analytics software, we looked at the universe of people who discuss shoes online. Starting with literally thousands of people, we narrowed the list down to a dozen “fashoenistas,” who sit at the center of huge social networks and have many followers.

These bloggers aren’t traditional experts – they don’t work in the footwear industry. But they are incredibly knowledgeable about shoes. They might spend countless hours shoe shopping and invest considerable amounts of money in footwear. They read everything they can find on the topic. They often have friends in the industry. They think about shoes far more than most people.

An analysis of what these fashoenistas wrote online from 2008 to 2011 showed that their discussions of increasing heel height peaked towards the end of 2009, and declined after that. For example, between 2008 and 2009 they wrote consistently about heels from five to eight inches, but by mid 2011 they were writing about the return of the kitten heel and the perfect flat from Jimmy Choo and Louboutin. As the economic downturn wore on, they discussed high heels more as glamwear and not for the office or shopping trip.

The fashoenistas were on to something. While heels on women’s shoes are still high in 2012 – as a visit to any shoe store will confirm – the trend appears to be changing, with lower heels becoming increasingly popular. The advanced insight provided by the fashoenistas is the kind of specific, actionable data that could be used by shoe manufacturers and retailers looking for insight into the kind of shoes to, respectively, manufacture and sell in the coming season.

Companies instinctively know that they need to become acquainted with this new breed of expert. According to IBM’s recent Chief Marketing Officer study, 82 percent of CMOs say they plan to increase their use of social media over the next three to five years (however, only 26 percent of them are tracking blogs and other forms of social media today – so, lots of work to do.)

Companies that embrace social media as a source of insight will be rewarded. They’ll develop a deeper understanding of customer needs and will be able to attract new customers more easily. They’ll have a better shot at providing the products and services that the market wants – before the competition does.

Dr. Trevor Davis is a consumer products expert with IBM Global Business Services.