The listening platform landscape is vast, fragmented, and confusing. As a result, I handle more client inquiries around vendor selection than any other single topic. Companies want to track customer conversations, monitor their brands and competitors, measure their social marketing, learn from online discussion, identify customers online, and more. And they need technology help getting there but don't always know where to turn.

To address these questions, we've just published The Forrester Wave: Listening Platforms, Q3 2010. This research is the result of nearly four months of vendor interviews, product demos, lab evaluations, reference checks, client interviews, and customer surveys. All in all, we evaluated nine leading vendors across 76 criteria, talked to dozens of buyers, and surveyed nearly 200 customers to determine the state of the listening platform market today.

This Wave covers vendors that best address an enterprise's Social Intelligence technology needs, through a listening platform's three main steps: social media data retrieval, unstructured text processing, and insight delivery. Each vendor has its own technology platform and professional services team for consulting and can scale to meet vast enterprise needs, both in a large installation-base and between different parts of the organization — such as marketing, PR, market research, and/or customer support. We evaluated the following vendors: Alterian (SM2), Collective Intellect, Converseon, Cymfony, Dow Jones, Evolve24, Nielsen, Radian6, and Visible Technologies.

You'll have to read the full report to see how the vendors match up, but from my evaluation I uncovered a few emerging trends:

  • Integration is key. Each of the leading listening platform vendors knows well that social media data becomes even more powerful when it combines with other data. Vendors focused on two distinct areas of integration: integrating data in by combining social media data with traditional marketing or enterprise data, such as campaign measurement data, or text from call centers, surveys, or chat logs — and integrating data out, into existing CRM databases, support ticket systems, workflow software, or into raw data format for custom integration. Companies that take social media data seriously must integrate the data both in and out, to make it fully functional, and therefore all vendors have built tools to address this demand.
  • Services take focus. Every vendor told me that they've seen increased requests for consulting services around social media data. This is because companies know the importance of social and are ready to listen but may not be readily equipped with the internal resources to make it happen. Through this Wave process, we dove deeply into the level and quality of vendors' service offerings — because the insights found in social media are only as good as the people analyzing the data.
  • Dashboards need work. Regardless of how customers rated a vendor's dashboard, nearly every vendor either just revamped, or is planning to revamp, its user interface. Of the clients I spoke to, many complain about the difficult user experience with their vendor's dashboard. But, upon deeper questioning, most were actually frustrated with the data within the dashboard, not the dashboard itself. For example, many often complained about the dashboard, saying they spend too much time digging through spam — a complaint directed at text processing, not the user interface. Vendors must still perfect their dashboard experiences, but text processing and improved analytics are step one.

There are many, many other vendors in the landscape that also deliver quality technology and services. Due to the market's large scale and fragmented nature, I've already begun working on an accompanying landscape report that covers the broader spectrum of vendors in the space. If you're a vendor interested in participating, let me know through a comment below or a Tweet, and I'll be in touch later this month for more information.

There is much more analysis of the market within the report; if you get a chance to read it, I'd love to hear your feedback.

Lastly, a huge THANK YOU to my supporting team on this research, Suresh Vittal, Emily Murphy, and Michael Grant.