Share of voice has been a known entity in marketing for decades. Just compare the volume and circulation of your advertising or press release placements against that of the competition and you have your share. But with that traditional metric, who knows if your audience is actually seeing your ads or news items, and whether or not they are paying attention?

That’s where share of conversation comes in. In the age of engagement, where over a billion Facebook friends, 100 million active Twitter users, and countless other forum members are now interacting, a useful metric for marketers is share of conversation.

Share of conversation is relatively straightforward to measure but comes with a few caveats to go along with the many opportunities. The basic premise is to track mentions of your brand in online conversations against your competitors and to calculate the percentage share of conversations that mention you against those that mention the competition. Thus, share of conversation tracks actual discussions about your brand, rather than assuming that if you broadcast it, they will see it, internalize it, and act on it.

How to do it right

As a starting point, a number of tools are available to track share of conversation. They essentially scan online blog posts, videos, tweets, images, forums, comments, and product reviews based on parameters you define, and then filter and aggregate those findings into a dashboard for you to work from. Receiving this information, alone, is valuable if you are interested in what the market is saying about your brand.

But share of conversation goes deeper. It’s not enough just to track total mentions of your brand vs. the competition. The real value comes in defining specific conversational areas of interest for your business and then tracking your presence in all of those areas. For example, an airline may enjoy a high share of conversation in general but, with further filters applied, notice that the share is particularly low amongst a segment important to the brand, like its premium audience or teens. These could be areas of opportunity for the airline to invest in for further growth. In a past life, I created multiple dashboards to track conversations about my brand across several different conversational areas. It helped me to guide the company to where a higher level of engagement was needed.

Sentiment matters

It is possible to gain a large share of conversation that is entirely negative. Think about any unfavorable news cycle: A product recall, missed financial earnings, or a PR misstep. The world thrives on bad news and people love to pass it around. If the volume of conversation is all you measure, then your social team may high five about big share gains while stock price falls. This is where sentiment comes in. Many of the tools that measure share of conversation also filter for associated positive words as well as negative words. A good dashboard will not only track volume of shares but also weight positive, negative, and neutral sentiment. Further, you can set proactive alerts if negative associations spike for any reason. Doing so may help you identify a problem that needs resolution fast (i.e., a product flaw in a recent manufacturing run).

Influencing the influencers

Tracking share of conversation is not a one-time only proposition. In fact, just taking a single snapshot may not offer much value. After building the process to take your measurement, the next step is to grow share over time and track the progress. I recommend setting quarterly growth targets for your team to keep them focused on the end goal and stretch them to try new approaches.

One of the fastest ways to grow share of conversation is by influencing the influencers. Within the universes you define, with a little analytics, you can quickly identify those conversationalists who are more active, responded too, and followed than anyone else – those users who have a high share of conversation themselves. If you find that they are consistently discussing your brand in a positive light, bring them closer and arm them with more information. If you see that they are not discussing your brand at all, introduce yourself to them. For those who are complaining about your brand, it may be worthwhile to reach out and try to turn them around. Influencers matter in the social-scape and it is worth engaging with them in a transparent, authentic manner.

Content is the currency

Bonnie Raitt’s song, “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About” rings true in the digital world. To increase your brand’s share of conversation, you need great content. The social-scape is highly efficient about filtering bad content from good – the good stuff gets shared, and the bad stuff falls through the cracks, ignored. Unlike share of voice, share of conversation measures not your output but rather the market’s response to it. Unique industry perspectives, rock star employees, new technology, or interesting case studies all make excellent fodder to spark discussions. In the past, I’ve hired former journalists into my marketing organization to run editorial departments just like the magazines or news websites they worked for in the past. A consistent volume of interesting content is what gets talked about.

Target closely

The quality and depth of your reporting depends entirely on how well you establish your search parameters. If you are a PC hard drive manufacturer, for example, and you set your listening to track the “storage” industry, you’ll not only aggregate the conversations that you intended to track but also every other industry that contains the word “storage,” such as: storage sheds, rental storage units, food storage containers, and the like. To get the most precise data, take the time to disambiguate your terms. You can add a long list of exclusion key words such as “AND NOT rental storage units” to your universe definition to sharpen focus and to avoid skewed results. This same attention is also required if one of the brands you are tracking is a common word with multiple meanings. The tighter you define, the more precise the resulting data.

Beware of the caveats

As is the case with all unstructured content, this is not a perfect science. For industries with a lot of spammers, some manual filtering may be required. The same may be true to filter for language nuances. For example, a post that states “my hotel room was as small as my kitchen oven and just as stuffy – just great!” will probably register as a positive with most sentiment tools due to the word “great” and the lack of any notable negative words. Coca-Cola found that, found that, when a human would rate a mention as positive, listening software labeled it negative about 21% of the time. This, too, may require some manual filtering.

Additionally, web bots that continually crawl the internet can exaggerate the volume of web traffic in any calculation. As share of voice is both a relative percentage and trending is tracked over time, some of the web bot noise can be neutralized in the process but this is also an area to approach pragmatically. I raise these important factors to you because if you don’t pay attention to them, your metrics can provide erroneous info. Manual checks, healthy pragmatism, and relative trending vs. just a single definitive snapshot are all absolute musts to deliver the value this investment can offer.

Business benefits abound

Building a systematic way to track and analyze share of conversation unlocks a number of benefits for any marketing organization. You can: Understand your impact amongst active consumers; target the right conversations to participate in; identify important influencers to help amplify your message; and most importantly, gain customer insights about the brand you support. As is the case with any business related social conversations, the closer you steer toward consumers who are actually in the buying process, the higher the value gained from their conversations.