After an entire month without any acquisitions in the social media data space, there is no excuse but to get back to normal blogging. I assume I'll be back to posting on M&A again soon, but in the meantime I've been busy working on some big research and now it's finally ready to show off. Today we've published "The 2011 Listening Platform Landscape," a report aimed at helping Marketing and Customer Intelligence professionals navigate a crowded and fragmented array of social media data tools and technologies.

The inspiration for this report was easy: vendor selection is the single most popular topic from clients this year. Forrester clients know they need help managing online conversation, but don't know where to turn for that help. In the last six months alone I've spoken with over 100 companies about finding the right listening platform partner. And with hoards of competing vendors (thanks Ken Burbary for helping put together such a comprehensive list!), buyers across the board face challenges finding the partner(s) that best fits their listening needs. This report breaks down the market's fragmentation and helps Customer Intelligence professionals shortlist vendors based on their listening requirements.

After months of briefings with platforms and interviews with buyers, we found:

  • Listening platforms stick to their proven methodology. The listening platform landscape is constantly changing with vendors evolving through every release cycle. But as much as the vendors mature their functionality, they stick to the same three steps: data sourcing, data processing, insight delivery. All listening platforms share these three steps, but vary greatly in their approach to each. Some vendors have strengths in sourcing data, while some excel in cleaning and managing the data. Insight delivery varies greatly, with some vendors offering advanced dashboards and workflow tools, and others guiding their customers' strategies through consulting projects.  By evaluating the evolution in each of these steps, we uncovered the new fragmentation in the market.
  • The landscape consists of three overlapping sub groups. Nearly all of the listening platform players fit into one of the following categories: social dashboards, multichannel analytics providers, or listening service partners. Social dashboards are Web-based self service tools that focus on collecting and analyzing online conversation. A multichannel analytics provider is a technology infrastructure that processes social data, along with broader enterprise data – surveys, chat transcripts, call center logs, and more. A listening service partner combines proprietary technology with its own professional services or consulting team for strategic guidance. Each vendor sub group has strengths and weaknesses and better serves a different kind of listening need. But…
  • There is no perfect end-to-end solution. Buyers must compromise, as no vendor (or vendor group) does it all. And even though cost often correlates with functionality, even the top end vendors have limitations. Some firms choose multiple, complimenting vendors to cover their bases – but this can create redundancies in data and force end users to double their efforts. For example, some firms choose a social dashboard for day-to-day monitoring and work with a listening service partner for quarterly digest reports, while another part of the organization may turn to multichannel analytics providers for their enterprise data and social analytics needs. This solution may cover all of the firms needs, but can be costly and complicated.

I fully expect these technologies to further their evolution greatly in 2011, as well as more vendors to enter the market (both startups and technology behemoths), making this space even more confusing to navigate. But by leading the selection process with your goals and identifying the right subgroup for your requirements, you will find the right vendor for the job.

As always, I'm interested to hear your feedback. So if you get a chance to read the report, let me knowwhat you think here in the comments or on Twitter @znh.