When it Comes to Social Media, Clemson is All Ears

By Becky Mann
February 01, 2013
In the world of academia, the name Yale University carries a lot of clout. In the realm of social media studies, Clemson University is being named as a leader, and Yale is paying attention. Jason Thatcher, a Clemson Associate Professor in the Department of Management, recently returned from Yale, where he presented information on Clemson’s Social Media Listening Center, which opened in February 2012.

The center’s existence traces back to a visit to Dell headquarters by Clemson Chief Information Officer Jim Bottum. There, Bottum saw how Dell was using Salesforce Radian6 technology to monitor conversations across social media sites about the company and its products. Bottum’s idea of bringing the industry model into an environment where it could encompass research and education was well received at the university across many areas of study. Now students in management, marketing, communications, engineering, and other majors are learning cutting edge skills at the center, a partnership between Clemson, Dell, and Salesforce Radian6.

Students and faculty create custom searches that allow them to analyze topics, trends, and sentiment on brands, issues, and organizations from the millions of sources that make up the social media stream. These aren’t random topics assigned in class. Searches are providing information for real world uses.

On Election Day, for example, WSPA-TV engaged the center in taking news coverage to the next level. WSPA News Anchor Amy Wood, a leader in using social media to connect with viewers, hosted an online webcast, using webcams to bring in the Listening Center students along with many political and issue experts.

The center allowed WSPA to listen with greater accuracy. “It’s wonderful to ‘listen’ to our audience and read their comments,” Wood said. “But what is always missing is context. The Social Media Listening Center provides the big picture. It puts the commentary in perspective and digs deeper into the real meaning of the conversation.”

As words and topics emerged on Election Day, Listening Center students explored the depth and breadth of what was being said. “Word clouds can give us an idea of what key words pop. But the Listening Center was able to dig into the word ‘illegal’ that kept popping up on election night. The drill down into the specifics revealed this was not about illegal immigration being hot at the polls. It was a discussion about people taking ‘illegal’ photos of their ballots. This kind of detail is critical when trying to grab the pulse of what is developing during a breaking story,” Wood said.

Allison David, a senior marketing major, was involved in the WSPA project. A demonstration of Listening Center capabilities by Jason Thatcher during her junior year left her knowing that she wanted to be a part of it before she graduated from Clemson. So she enrolled in a Creative Inquiry class that allowed her to experiment with the technology and explore topics that interested her. The presidential election was one of those topics.

David worked with Professor Thatcher and other students to monitor what was being said on Election Day by people across the country. “We stayed in contact with Amy at WSPA through a video monitor to give information on popular topics that were being talked about,” she said. “We were able to monitor the sentiment of the two candidates throughout the day based off of the amount of action on Twitter, Facebook, and in the news.”

Like most college students, David is an active user of social media, keeping up with friends and family through Facebook on a daily basis, using LinkedIn as she gets closer to graduation to aid in her job search, and distracting herself a couple of times a week with Pinterest. Still, the Listening Center can teach even social media savvy people a thing or two about these information vehicles. “I’m a lot more aware of what I put up on social media after spending time using the Listening Center because I see how easy it is for information to spread,” she said. “I don’t think people realize just how public their information is.”

The skills David has learned through this opportunity at Clemson should set her resume apart. “Marketing is all about how a company, brand, or product presents itself to the consumer,” she said. “My knowledge of social media will help me in the future by making me more aware of what appeals to customers most and what tactics are most talked about.”

Gaines Warner, a senior in Communications Studies at Clemson, hopes to use his experience in social media listening in the public relations field. “There aren’t very many people who have used Radian6,” he said. “There aren’t a whole lot of people who even know that you can actively build profiles and create searches and listen into businesses and events, so I’m hoping it gives me a leg up.”

Warner built a profile for a Listening Center project with the National Park Service. The work was initially aimed at taking a broad view of what people think about the park at Cape Hatteras. He conducted preliminary research on the project and entered search parameters around Cape Hatteras and tourism.

Information collected took the social media study in a more focused direction, and the profile was revised. “Once we really started looking at it, we saw that people were mostly talking about beach driving, legislation that had just gotten passed, and they were pretty upset about it,” Warner said. Views were polarized between those upset that drivers had been causing erosion and crushing sea turtle nests and those who felt driving on the beach was a generations-old right.

According to Thatcher, the National Park Service project is not only monitoring sentiment but establishing a process the organization can use going forward. “We’re helping them sort out how to listen to conversations and how to respond to people that are particularly influential,” he said.
Park Service personnel and students aren’t the only ones learning through the Listening Center. Thatcher says the study of social media has energized him. “This brings me back into the new generation,” he said. “It’s been neat to learn the new technology.”
Some other professors across the country aren’t moving into new technology as readily. In fact, a 2012 study on use of social media on college campuses by textbook publisher Pearson shows that faculty continue to see significant barriers to widespread adoption of social media for teaching with some professors viewing social media as more of a distraction than an enhancement to instruction.

Not surprisingly, Thatcher disagrees. “I think this is how kids communicate. If we’re going to work with them and we’re going to communicate with them using the tools they use to communicate, we have to learn to use their tools. Using social media tools will be like knowing how to read and write in 20 years,” he said.

Thatcher is excited about doing research in this growing area and building a curriculum that, he says, no one else offers in the world. “I read a report that said that 78 percent of firms aren’t using social media effectively if at all. The 22 percent that are, are spending a lot of money on it. This is the career path for kids. If we don’t get a handle on it, we run a risk of becoming irrelevant,” he said.





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