Which would you rather be – an explorer or a tourist? Actually, let me reframe the question: Which sounds more EXCITING – explorer or tourist?

Explorer, right? Obviously. Just imagine the thrill of finding a hidden gem of a place that no one’s ever seen… How must that feel? Sharing it with others would be part of the fun after-the-fact, but they’d never be able to truly understand how it felt to experience making the discovery first-hand.

Well, there are lots of opportunities for explorers in the digital age – though we don’t call them that. Throwing caution to the wind when it comes to technology is the job of early adopters – and without them not much would get done.

Brands count on early adopters to get the word out about their products by using and advocating for them on social media. But what brands don’t realize is that THEY need to be early adopters as well – because social media marketing is on the brink of another major shift, and it’s time for brands to decide if they want to be leaders or followers as the next wave of social data comes rolling in.

Here are some of the things that will impact the way we use social data – and your business – going forward:

Social customer service – Phone calls and letters are not the way most people share dissatisfaction with brands, products, and services anymore. Social media offers an easy and immediate outlet for consumers wishing to vent their feelings when brands fall short of expectations – with the added emotional validation of other consumers chiming in about similar experiences. Effective damage control means addressing social complaints in real-time. Brands that don’t have social customer service systems in place need to catch up.

Social in the C-suite – Once upon a time, marketers and analysts tag-teamed brand social concerns, keeping the C-suite in the loop via complicated reports highlighting past events. But times are changing. Social decisions can be make or break, and in the time it takes to compile and analyze a report, the damage has been done. While marketers and analysts still have their place, decision-makers in the boardroom need to be able to make calls in real-time. That means they need to know everything that matters to their brand on social in real-time – all the time.

The Internet of Things – What time does Mr. Smith arrive home from work, pop dinner in the oven, and turn on Netflix? What does he eat and what does he watch? Soon enough all of this information could be available as part of the social data avalanche, along with all kinds of other device information up for consideration. Brands will need to establish quickly which information is valuable and which is worthless if they’re going to get ahead without wasting time.

Understanding Net Sentiment – Consider something as simple as the word “love.” At face value (and to most social analytics algorithms) it means one thing, for example, “I love DiGiorno’s pizza!” But what about in this instance: “I just LOVE DiGiorno’s pizza. #heartburn #neveragain”

Tracking keywords or brand mentions is useless without the context of sentiment – clearly illustrated by the sample tweets above, positive in the first instance, negative in the second. Unfortunately, most brands are not accounting for Net Sentiment in their social analytics.

Early adopters need to get out in front of understanding emotion- and language-based social data. They’re helping companies gather insights not just about their own customers, but about YOURS. The early bird (er, adopter) gets the worm, right? Now, back to our “must conquer” list.

Data Visualization Capabilities – Forget spreadsheets and numbers after the fact – you’ll need real-time dashboards offering a visual snapshot of key social data as it’s happening. Why? Your decision-makers in the boardroom need to act on insights immediately. You can learn all about where data visualization is headed and why you need to care here.

The “speed of social” is NOW – and brands that want to get ahead can’t stand still and wait to see what everyone else is doing. They need to be the early adopters of new social data technology and best practices, working out the kinks as they go, so that by the time their competitors figure out the lay of the land, they’ve seen all the sights and learned all the shortcuts.

Which is much better than being the brand that has to stop and ask for directions, isn’t it?

This post originally appeared on Commpro.

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