Category Archives: Social Media

Pulsar update: Visibility 2.0

Today we are introducing a new updated version of the Visibility algorithm that’s powering the Pulsar platform: Visibility 2.0.

The main reason why Pulsar is called Pulsar is that the whole platform is built around the idea of making it easier for anyone to sift through vast amounts of social data by making “important” social media content more “visible”.

One of the key ways Pulsar does this is through its proprietary Visibility algorithm. The algorithm defines “importance” as the ability of a piece of content to reach a larger then average audience and engage a larger than average crowd. The algorithm weights every content on the platform and applies a Visibility score to each post which is then available amongst the metadata used to index and filter the data.

Since we launched Pulsar the Visibility Algorithm has been one of the pillars of the platform allowing you to slice any data view (e.g. trends, influencers, topics) by Volume of data or by the Visibility of the content analysed. Below a series of comparative screens that show how different the same social data looks like when analysed by Volumes vs Visibility:

Posts per Day VS Visibility per Day


Sentiment Volume per Day VS Sentiment Visibility per Day

Top Posts by Volume vs Top Posts by Visibility
But the web is an ever-changing ecosystem: new channels are born, new behaviours are introduced, old behaviours evolve to a new scale or disappear and new ways of measuring them are introduced on a weekly basis. In an effort to keep up with the evolution of the web and continue to deliver effective measures of reach and engagement, over the last three months we have been working hard updating the Visibility algorithm.

The new algorithm takes into account:

  • New sources of engagement data, which are now factored in the calculation of reach;
  • New sources of online viewership data which are now factored in the calculation of reach;
  • New sharing and engagement metrics introduced by the new channels we have integrated, such as Tumblr;
  • Raising levels of engagement across all channels resulting in a need for new engagement and reach benchmarks;
  • New behaviours introduced by new channels like Tumblr, where for example the “weight” of a reaction (a re-blog) is completely different from the weight of a reaction on Twitter or Facebook.

Overall, the new algorithm introduces three key improvements:

  1. More accurate audience size estimates for all channels, particularly for News, Blogs, Forums and Review sites;
  2. More accurate engagement figures across all channels;
  3. A more balanced cross-channel view of reach, to enable effective comparisons between the reach of top down and bottom up media (eg. news vs. tweets).

The new visibility weighting applies from April 10 onwards. However, should you want to re-analyse historical data you can extend the reach of the algorithm to historical data from the Data Management interface in the Results View.

We think the new Visibility algorithm is going to help you run better analysis and make more effective decisions and we look forward to hearing your feedback as you start seeing the new data coming through on the Pulsar platform.

If you are not yet using Pulsar and want to know more about Visibility and Pulsar get in touch here.

Identifying Influencers with Social Network Analysis

Part 1 of our Network Analysis for Market Research series by Rob Parkin – read the introduction here.


In our work as social media researchers we are regularly answering clients’ questions about online influence and influencers. They know that they’re not the only force influencing perceptions of their brands, and they want to reach out to the other people who are. This could mean identifying the right bloggers to bring on board to increase the likelihood of a successful social campaign, or tracking who is most shaping a discussion about a brand or topic.

Pinning down who is influential isn’t straightforward. The data hardly ever exists to connect a social media message with the actions it may have inspired, such as products purchased or businesses boycotted. Instead what we can really assess is ‘potential to influence’: who’s reaching a big audience, who’s engaging that audience the most and getting a lot of interaction, and who’s demonstrating consistent expertise on a topic. So influence is complex, an outcome of a combination of properties about people, contexts and relationships.

That’s why here at FACE we developed our own proprietary metric to analyse which messages were reaching the biggest audience. Our visibility algorithm assigns each piece of content a visibility score, taking into account the properties of the channel it’s on (e.g. blog content lasts longer than Twitter), the size of the author or website’s audience, and the virality of the post – how many times it’s been shared.

Influencers ranked by Engagement & RTs generated (Pulsar visualisation)

Alongside visibility, we also use Social Network Analysis to understand influence through analyzing the dynamics of online behaviours and relationships. It provides the theory, the algorithms and the software to capture, visualize and explore the data gathered using Pulsar. This can enable us to take influencer analysis to the next level – and it’s what we’re going to discuss in today’s blog.

The role of influencers 

Previous research carried out here at FACE by Francesco D’Orazio and Jess Owens highlighted the role of influencers in how information spreads through social media. It discovered that while influencers may only represent a small percentage of an overall conversation, their role does ultimately shape how information spreads. Tapping into close communities makes content shareable, but top-down influence is essential for content to achieve truly viral speed and scale.

We’ll cover communities in more detail in our next blog, but for the moment let’s understand that influencers play a vital role in shaping conversations, and insight into how their influence is structured can also prove important.

Pulsar_Twitter_Hadfield_Visibility crop for website

Network visualisation of how the Commander Hadfield video was shared on Twitter, with nodes sized by Visibility

Identifying influencers

In essence Network Analysis views relationships as connections. Some people in the network might have only one or two connections (e.g. they only have 1 or 2 Twitter followers), and others might have hundreds or thousands.

So hubs or influencers in networks can be identified by looking for people who are highly connected in comparison to the remainder of the network. Because they’re better connected, these are the people who you may wish to bring on board with an online campaign, to help maximize its chance of successfully reaching the greatest number of people.

So let’s look at an example that demonstrates how networks can help us investigate relationships between nodes and identify influencers.

Investigating my ego network

I’m going to use a very self-centered approach and investigate my Facebook network! I used an application called netvizz to capture the data, and Gephi to perform the analysis.

When compiling a list of influencers you may start with a very basic measure, the number of friends/followers. Using Network Analysis and my social graph, we’ll explore the limitations of this metric, and how we might do a better job.

Introducing my friends & family…..

Rob Identifying influencers 1

In this visualisation the nodes are people who are my friends on Facebook, and the edges are the friend relationships between them. It’s important to note that I’m not on the chart – so the connections aren’t their relationships with me. Instead, the connections shown are the friendships that they have with each other e.g. I’m friends with Amy and Bob, and if Amy and Bob are also friends, there’d be a connection between them. If they’re not friends, no connection.

We can rank nodes by a number of measures; in this instance I’ve chosen degree centrality, which is the number of connections each person has. I’ve used this to determine the size of each node: the larger the node the greater the number of connections. This makes the highly-connected people easier to spot.

We’ve also used what’s called a “force directed layout algorithm” to visualize the graph. This means that linked nodes attract each other and non-linked nodes are pushed apart. So the most-connected people tend to end up towards the middle of the chart.

The first analysis that can be taken from the graph is that a lot of nodes share connections. This why why there is one large giant component in the centre of the graph with lots of highly-connected people all clustered together. This is to be expected as the sample of individuals is taken from my Facebook account, the majority of whom do share common acquaintances.

The thing is, we can also see that the biggest nodes are basically the same size, meaning that they’ve got the same number of connections. This isn’t really telling us the story we need – but using network analysis we can go further.

Identifying Influencers 2

Here we’ve taken the same graph and ranked nodes by betweeness centrality. A betweeness centrality algorithm starts by finding all the shortest paths between any two individuals in the network. It then counts the number of these shortest paths that go through each node. Nodes with high betweeness centrality can be considered information brokers that can connect disparate parts of the network.

The result is a smaller list of potential influencers, pin-pointing the people who are vital in connecting the different sub-networks (i.e. the different social groups) in the wider graph. We have identified four people who are now shown to hold a position of influence on the graph. And the layout of the graph begins to tell us how their spheres of influence are structured.

The person over on the right for example is crucial in connecting two small clusters of individuals to the rest of the graph. I know network analysis has correctly identified this node as an influencer – because she happens to be my girlfriend! So she’s the key person connecting both our families to the larger network of my friends.

How can this work for you?

Admittedly there’s a very short list of people who are interested in the finer details of the network structure of my Facebook graph! Nonetheless it’s an interesting example to demonstrate some of the principles of Social Network Analysis.

What can we take from this example? Using network analysis it is possible to study social groups in-depth, not just as homogenous wholes but understanding them as comprised of dynamic relationships between different individuals. And using data visualization and data exploration it is possible to infer a level of understanding which would be otherwise difficult to get hold of without real-world personal knowledge of the individuals involved.

Using Pulsar TRAC it’s possible to scale this analysis up significantly, sampling mentions by keyword, content or user, and applying network analysis we can powerfully:

  • Identify individual messages driving engagement
  • Explore who is influential in shaping a discussion
  • Map a network of individuals following a brand online
  • Better inform future outreach strategy

Exactly the same methods would apply if we were studying, for example, the community of people talking online about beauty & make-up, or audiophile hi-fi equipment, or photography. We could first find the best-connected people, who a brand might want to target to promote their product to the largest number of people. But we could also find the connectors, the people that allow discussions to travel into new communities and ultimately travel further.

In the next blog in our series we’re going to dive into this further, explore how we can identify communities in network structures and get stuck into some more network analysis previously carried out here at FACE.

India’s love affair with WhatsApp

Whats app logo

Earlier this month, a news story broke: “India police use WhatsApp to trace missing boy”.

It’s an  interesting and highly contemporary story. Police in Bareilly took a photo of the pamphlet they had posted all over the city which carried a picture of the missing boy and his father’s contact details, and sent it by WhatsApp to nearby police stations and the boy’s family and relatives. They in turn forwarded the message to everyone in their WhatsApp address books. A man called Daanish  received the WhatsApp message from a friend known to the boy’s father, and recognised the boy in the photo as being on his train. And the rest, as they say, is news!

This story caught my imagination, as another WhatsApp user from India myself. So I thought I’d write a little bit about how I’m seeing the app work in my own social circle – and how I think WhatsApp fits so well into Indian society and culture.

Now, WhatsApp’s not reached the whole of India yet – in fact, the app only rolled out in Hindi between January and March this year. Previously Indian people had to use the English interface, which of course restricts uptake to a more urban and educated social sphere (only about 20% of people in India speak some English, and 5% are fluent.)

But this move into Hindi should see the app gain a wider user-base, making it increasingly important in both the research and the marketing mix. So far the app already has over 40 million active users, the company’s VP Business Development, Neeraj Arora, told Times of India in an interview last month.

What’s up with WhatsApp? 

I don’t currently live in India, but I too am on WhatsApp. The biggest group I’m part of is a bunch of women who were at school with me. When I recently sent out an email to the group, the response I got was, “Please don’t send email – send it through WhatsApp.” It appears that for them this new mobile app has for the most part replaced email, SMS and even social media options like Facebook. The volume of messages I get from this one group is amazing – every day 100 or more. One might be justified in asking whether being on WhatsApp is a full-time occupation. I know I find it hard to keep up.

The messages are quite varied: a chorus of “Good Mornings” every day either through images or text accompanied by a lot of emoticons, greetings for festivals (no matter how minor), images and videos of members of the group as well as their children – and grandchildren, lots of jokes (many of them surprisingly risqué), items of news about the impending elections and sometimes political cartoons (there’s a lot of that going around just now), philosophical or spiritual pieces that have moved or inspired them, as well as more practical things like planning a get together or a holiday, or asking for travel or shopping tips and advice.

It almost seems like their lives are being played out on WhatsApp. Does this sound familiar – like something that was said about Facebook users?

So why’s WhatsApp been such a hit in India?

1. Sociable and social Indian culture

Kinship and belonging are central to the Indian psyche. Indians love keeping in touch with family and friends, and want to know what’s happening with them.  While that can be said about people in other countries and cultures too, among Indians, the sheer size of the family group and the extent of obligation to keep in touch takes it to another level.

WhatsApp is a mobile app, and since the mobile is at hand at all times, the interactions can be almost like conversations and you never have to miss out on anything that’s going on.

Another feature that supports this need for relationships is that WhatsApp allows a fairly large group size (30 people). This means it’s perfect for family groups, friend groups, or company groups to share news, pictures, greetings, instructions, or for people to seek advice from a larger community. With a single message on WhatsApp, the word can go out to up to 30 people.

2. I’m the first to know, and you’d better know it! 

Who’s getting married? What job the prospective bridegroom has, when the baby is due, which colleague just got promoted… you get the gist. Indians love to be the first to know, and to be seen as people who get the news and gossip first.

Each group has a few members who dispense most of the news and gossip, and the rest react with appreciative comments, and quite possibly forward the tidbit on to their other groups!

3. Can’t do without SMS/text

With the advent of mobile and the possibility of SMS, Indians found a way to keep in touch at relatively low cost. A 2013 GSMA Intelligence report shows that non-voice revenues are growing at 16%, twice the rate of voice traffic growth.  And text messaging is 45% of what people are using mobile for. So, when WhatsApp came along offering ‘free SMS’, it tapped right into the Indians’ preferred mode of using mobile.

Whatsapp India 1

4. Love a good deal, and ‘free’ is even better

Using WhatsApp, people can at one stroke both eliminate their SMS bill and at the same time get additional features. The free 1st year (which means they’re hooked!), and low cost thereafter ($0.99) makes it ridiculously cheap, even by Indian standards.

This has encouraged its use, not only by ordinary people, but also by political parties. There’s a general election this year, and political cartoons and jokes against both candidates are all over the social media sites – including WhatsApp. And if the material is funny or interesting, people help in the ‘marketing’ task by sending it on to their groups. For example, I received a WhatsApp message this morning that read “India needs to be MODIfied” (Narendra MODI is the opposition party’s Prime Ministerial candidate).

5. Makes me feel SO good!

Indians seem to need validation and acknowledgement just as much as (if not more than) other cultures. Within a WhatsApp group there’s a great return on a very small investment. The app is very intuitive and easy to use and a wealth of emoticons enables an instant response that doesn’t require much thought. It allows people to maintain relationships and be part of the group with very little effort. As with Facebook, this small effort on WhatsApp brings its users rich emotional rewards – appreciation from many for passing on a joke, poem, piece of wisdom, news, and the sense of solidarity with kindred spirits.

What does WhatsApp’s success tell us?

The image below – which was sent to me on WhatsApp (of course!) – shows what WhatsApp means to Indian consumers

WHats app India 3Translated, it reads:

A way to share the secrets of the heart

A way to remind others of you

A companion who helps you forget your sorrows

And a way to keep your relationships even when you don’t meet!

Firstly, WhatsApp’s success tells us that relationships are important to people, and that’s a domain that marketers and product designers need to think carefully about. How can your product help people have better relationships with those around them?

It also reminds us that there’s definitely a place for products that are simple and focused, and put users’ needs first. The dedicated WhatsApp messenger has succeeded where Facebook’s messaging functionality hasn’t. So there’s a lesson in simplicity here too.

So, now WhatsApp’s included Hindi in its supported languages, we look forward to seeing how the love affair with WhatsApp will spread beyond the English-speaking population to a still wider Indian audience.

An Introduction to our Network Analysis for Market Research blog series

As social media researchers we help clients make sense of people’s online behavior, which is of course complex. While they have their uses, KPIs such as volume and sentiment can only get you so far. One key limitation is that they only measure what people say – not what they do as well.

Social media research is moving beyond keyword tracking, something we’ve been innovating here at FACE with Pulsar’s content and audience tracking technologies. To really dig into online activity, we need to analyse metadata, the information spun off by social behavior, just as much as the messages people produce. And we need to embrace a wider range of methodologies drawn from the field of computational social statistics.

We can do this through social network analysis (SNA), a research framework giving us the tools and concepts to investigate questions such as how content is shared and how communities are formed.

We are going to dive into examples in more detail for our ‘Network Analysis for Market Research’ blog series, covering topics including:

  • Visualising networks to make sense of large & complex data sets
  • Methods for identifying influencers
  • Identifying communities
  • Tracking how networks evolve over time
  • Mapping how information spreads
  • Overlaying networks with other metrics

For great examples of how we can benefit from investigating social structures using network analysis you need look no further that FACE’s research carried out by Francesco D’Orazio and Jess Owens for Twitter on How Videos Go Viral, & How Stuff Spreads: Gangnam Style vs. Harlem Shake in partnership with Datasift.


In our blog series we’re going to investigate methodologies used in these projects, provide additional examples of network analysis, dive into some theory & explain practically what this means for the process of social media research.

If you have any questions about what I’ve discussed in this blog or about our forthcoming blog series then please do get in touch.

Part 1 of the blog series has now been published. Read about Identifying Influencers with Social Network Analysis here

The ‘Absolute Value’ of listening to social media forums

Social media researcher Jess Owens (@hautepop) on consumer decision-making and why brands need to listen to social media forums:

There’s a new book out about how social media’s changed how people buy things.Absolute Value Simonson & Rosen

In Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information, Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen argue that amid more reliable sources of information, branding is losing its value:

“How people buy things has changed profoundly—yet the fundamental thinking about consumer decision making and marketing has not. Most marketers still believe that they can shape consumers’ perception and drive their behavior. [… But] when consumers base their decisions on reviews from other users, easily accessed expert opinions, price comparison apps, and other emerging technologies, everything changes. Counter to what we frequently hear, consumers will (on average) make better choices and act more rationally.”

So it sounds like a book we at FACE ought to buy, right?

But we wouldn’t want to be under-informed consumers!  If social media is so good for helping people reach informed decisions, we thought we’d first turn to social to see what people were saying…

Turns out it’s pretty contentious.

What’s driving discussion is the “bad news” Simonson & Rosen have for brands:  “…brands are less needed when consumers can assess product quality using better sources of information such as reviews from other users [or] expert opinion,” they said in HBR last month.  This was picked up by James Surowieki in the New Yorker with a long piece on The Twilight of the Brands

This is a big claim, and it’s driving reaction from the plannersphere.

Twilight of the brand? Don’t bet on it – says Edward Boche. He argues in defence of branding: it’s not just a label and an advert, it’s the shaping of the whole product experience.

Patricia McDonald, Chief Strategy Officer at Isobar UK, was more practical. She tweeted:

“I think the idea of “perfect competition” implies a lot higher interest in many categories than consumers have and ignores the fact that many purchases are impulsive/emotional.” [12]

This is a great point. Sometimes we can overcomplicate things in the marketing world – but really, who researches the chocolate bar they buy at the station, or the toothpaste they pick up at lunchtime? What does drive those purchases? Habit, price – and brand recognition at the shelf.

Simonson & Rosen’s claim that there’s no such thing as “information overload” (and so everything can be researched) just doesn’t stack up against the common sense of what we know of our own shopping behaviour. Much of the time it’s not rational to spend time researching and making a rational decision, right? The automatic, stereotype driven instinct of Daniel Kahneman’s “System 1” thinking is usually good enough.

So brand functions as a decision-making short-cut, making sure consumers have the stereotypes and emotional associations to mind when it comes to making a decision at the shelf.

No new ideas

‘Absolute Value’ ultimately reminds us of the Cluetrain Manifesto. Arguably Simonson & Rosen’s book is just fleshing out Cluetrain points 6-12, written fully 15 years ago:


6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.

7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.

8. In both internetworked markets and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.

9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.

10. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.

11. People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products.

12. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.

It’s funny how little changes, right?

The answer Cluetrain give is a lot more listening.

34. To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.
35. But first, they must belong to a community.

And companies have to listen to what this community is saying, and what it’s concerned about. Market research isn’t just about product testing: “Here’s what we’re doing. What do you think about it?” It’s got to be built on a solid foundation of listening. “What are you thinking about?” So the brand can go away and think about “How might we fit into that?”

This is arguably one of the strengths of social media forums and reviews: brands can’t talk back! The channel can’t be repurposed as a matter of comms and CSR. It’s just there for listening. So what can you get if you do that?

There’s value in social media reviews yet

Looking back to the book “Absolute Value’, it ultimately reaches a conclusion that’s still good news for market research.

“Today, products are being evaluated more on their “absolute value, their quality,” Dr. Simonson said. Brand names mean less. The results suggest that companies should spend less money trying to shape consumer opinions in traditional ads, he said, and more on understanding what and who are shaping those opinions.”

Now, we disagree with Simonson & Rosen on advertising’s supposed death – how do people start talking about a new product on a forum if they’ve not been exposed to it through broadcast media to spark an interest?

But it’s a useful set of pointers for what might be worth researching.

And as Simonson & Rosen indicate, social forums and reviews are a huge information resource for this kind of study.  Sometimes they’re the most valuable sources for our research projects. Despite the rise in social media and social networks (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and so on), forums, reviews and blogs continue to be active sites of discussion – “Web 2.0” isn’t dead! Forums can be particularly valuable for research because they’re more in depth – people talk about details that couldn’t fit into Twitter’s 140 characters or that might bore their Facebook friends.

What can you get out of it as a researcher?

Firstly forum discussions give great insight into “System 2” decision-making: the rational thought-out stuff. This is most relevant for higher-ticket purchases such as mobile phones or personal electronics such as high-end audiophile headphones, or hair styling tools.

What kinds of things can you learn?

  • What factors do people mention most often in their comparison and decision making process? E.g. price, design, particular functionalities,
  • Which brands do people mention as the competitive set?
  • What strengths and weaknesses are associated with each brand?
  • What are the tensions and trade-offs they articulate? E.g. in headphones, it might be a fundamental tension between “warmth” and “clarity” of the sound. These “insights with tension” can be great creative inspiration for later product and comms platform development.
  • Who are they citing as people they’ve listened to? E.g. “My brother said that __”
  • What are the expert sources they’re citing, e.g. websites, reviews, or other forum members

But even for FMCG products, there’s sometimes a treasure trove of information. Take a look at this Mumsnet thread on shrinking chocolate bars with the above questions in mind.

mumsnet is chocolate getting smaller

But there’s another side as well – the bigger picture. Are you really listening if you just use forums to answer a fixed set of questions?  They contain a wealth of wider information about the context of people’s lives and the topics they’re passionate about. If you’re making baby buggies, read up on what mums say about the pleasures and difficulties getting out-and-about – and the wider question of how people negotiate the role of “staying at home” or “going out to work”.

Or sites such as Money Saving Expert‘s forums contain lengthy personal financial narratives, telling the story of how people ended up deep in debt – or the dreams of financial security they aspire to. It’s not exactly the quick, instinctive decision-making of the “System 1″ brain – but it is highly emotive.

From the “mortgage-free wannabees” trying to make my dream a reality!!  to threads talking about Why do you spend?, the wealth of insight is astounding. Often people talk about the families they grew up in and how this shaped their attitudes to money, spending and status – and they talk about how they’re trying to do better for their kids. Sometimes it’s pretty heartbreaking stuff to read.


Simonson & Rosen’s book, Absolute Value, is a useful reminder that consumer decision-making involves information gathering from many sources, many or most of which brands can’t control. It pushes the emphasis onto improving customer service and after-sales care over comms and marketing. Ultimately it’s a case for improving the product and product experience – make the object talk-worthy enough that it spawns all the positive word-of-mouth needed.

That said, all these things remain part of “brand”, the nexus of perceptions and associations people hold about a product. The claim that “brand is dead” is, shall we say, premature.

Where do we disagree with Simonson & Rosen? It’s not a brand new idea (Cluetrain got their first), and it holds more true for higher-spend, features-led techie product categories than others.

But mostly we disagree with the emphasis on rationality. Really studying social media forums shows that, yes, a certain amount of rational comparison and assessment is going on, to be sure. But forums and reviews say just as much about the emotive sides of purchase too – needs, hopes, fears. We wouldn’t call this irrational behaviour: what a purchase delivers socially and symbolically is just as much a source of value – and a valid reason to buy it  - as its objective functionality. That’s brand again.

And that’s why brands need to listen to people on forums.


Stay in touch with Jess on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Or, if you think forums could hold the key to your brand’s business challenges, speak to our Client Director James Hirst, on 07961 527 366 or email