For the last several years the craze in the marketing departments of large companies has been the installation of “social command centers” supposedly to empower a company to interact with live customer or market data from social media. The hope is to quickly alert teams about changing customer behavior to react more quickly.

In reality, the average employee, even in the marketing department, does not understand the array of charts and posts flashing at them on a command center screen. So your staff, and even your executives, walk away from your bank of screens with one of two reactions: 1) “Hmmm, that was cool.” or 2) “So what do I do now?

It’s the first reaction that got these projects funded in the first place.

This is why I’m going to present to you five critical things to consider to plan for your new command center as you contemplate your marketing budget.

1. Plan for the expense

Let’s take a look at your expenses to launch a command center…

The hardware expense for a command center will easily run you over $50,000. What does this include? The commercial-grade screens, computers for each screen source, racking or cooling systems, additional cost for increased internet bandwidth, labor costs for installation, and maybe even physical construction changes. For big installations it can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

(And if you are thinking you can go cheap and just buy consumer-grade hardware, think again. They will burn out within a year.)

The software to run your command center (depending on your provider) can be anywhere from $10,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Firehose access to social data is not cheap, nor is the cost of storage and hosting required to run your visualizations with 100% uptime 24×7. If you want custom imagery that costs your provider additional design and coding resources. The social software company needs to pass these costs on somehow, you can’t expect that they will provide it for free.

Invariably low-end providers have limited data and a limited set of visualizations. They end up being a good add on for an event but not enough data to survive the needs of a multi-billion dollar brand portfolio.

Make sure your expectations of the data match your budget. If you can afford only a little, be ok with the fact that you may not actually be getting all the data about a given topic.

2. Consider positions to “produce” a story for these screens

A person with the skill set understanding social data, the needs of their business, and how to tell a story with data visualizations is not easy to find. If you aren’t a billion-dollar business with a large brand portfolio, you may be able to find a mid-level social pro who can do a decent job. However, if the role takes coordination across multiple business units and departments you will need someone more senior to understand the larger business strategy.

But look at the job listings right now related to social media or digital media programs. Companies are not investing in roles to run a command center. They need people to produce external content, run and optimize paid social campaigns, do analytics, or integrate their digital program with lead generation or customer care. Those are full-time positions that won’t have time for the added task of babysitting screens.

If you are going to visualize data on a screen, consider hiring a person whose job it is to produce stories on these screens in a way that others can understand it. If you can, come from a deeper analytics story that you are already telling internally, not just social data.

2. Most of your people aren’t in one room, find a mobile solution too

For a large multi-national company (MNC), your marketing and social teams are distributed around the world in each country where you operate. These extensions of your corporate team don’t have access to your shiny new bank of screens in your corporate office. For an MNC to truly transform it has to be in the DNA of the company everywhere, not just in a room sitting in corporate headquarters. Don’t get me wrong, I have been part of communications and social teams where physically sitting together definitely helps speed the ability to make decisions and push content out. For a visualization tool to be effective, it needs to be a cost-efficient, distributed network of content with more context to offer that is simple to understand.

This means if you are going to deploy a command center, ensure that you also have versions of your stories that can be accessed by other devices such as desktop computers, laptops, iPads or even mobile phones. You want your staff in the field ready to interact with the data where they need to, not just where the screens are.

3. Your staff are looking at their computers, not always the Command Center

This one is obvious. You are paying people to do their day jobs and that involves looking at their own computer. If the premise is that you need to prompt your team to respond faster they are only going to do that when they get an alert in the other systems they use to run your business. That could be a social team posting natively or through social management software, changing a campaign in your marketing automation tool, swapping content on your website, your logistics team changing the stock of inventory … so if the “alert” needs to go somewhere, it’s where your employee is already looking. You need an analytics system that can integrate alert notifications to your existing tools, or even email when insights happen. Don’t leave the story only on the big screen. It needs to interact with software deployed in the field too.

4. Show the rest of the marketing picture

Yes some systems can let you show Web URLs from any system so you can put your web analytics or e-commerce sales side by side with social. So what? You still need to rely on your people to know what they are seeing when they look at the screens. What you really need to do is invest in data collection to merge all of the marketing data you have access to and detect patterns. THOSE are the insights that you need to be taking action on. So if you were going to visualize something useful it’s really your analytics tool sitting over top of your data lake or DMP. BUT be careful about the license required to drill down to the display of actual social posts; those are governed by terms of service and special licenses you need to make sure your tool has.

5. It is impossible to prove the ROI of the capital expense, so don’t try

The investment you make in content, engagement, and advertising in your social program has a straight line to ROI. You can show what content or ads are converting people to your website and whether they buy. You can score the satisfaction of your customers after a support experience via social to compare NPS from traditional care operations. You can calculate the cost savings of agent time when you employ bots, SEO or targeted advertising…But the hundreds of thousands of dollars you invest in building a set of screens for a social media command center have no direct correlation. At best you will get anecdotes. But that’s ok. The point of a physical installation is about the presence of the command center as a visual expression of all the work going on globally across the organization. Its power is in the conversation starters that happen as a result of experiencing it.

When the end of the year comes around and you need to argue for dollars to be spent on your marketing budget, make sure you are anticipating the right expenses and measures of success if a command center is in your wishlist of tactics to deploy.

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