Some of America's most compelling brands are harnessing the conversational aspect of social media by setting up "listening command centers" to capture, monitor, and utilize social media conversations. In doing so, they are monitoring online conversations about their brands, reacting instantly to viral buzz, and creating companies that consumers feel involved in--and in some cases, even bringing in bigger profits as a direct result.
One of the first to introduce this technology was Gatorade, which launched its mission control center  in its Chicago offices in June 2010. The technology allows the company to monitor social media conversations about the company through a range of visualisations and data streams.
It also enables fans to participate in the company on a new level. During the Super Bowl, Gatorade enabled fans to interact with NFL starts through Ustream, and they're now running regular live social media events, such as having sports stars answer questions using Twitter and Ustream.
And this command center technology isn't just for big companies--it can benefit public services and charities as well. The American Red Cross believes social media will play an increasing role in disaster response, as it can provide real-time information and give relief workers a direct line to affected individuals. Its new digital command center  launched in March, just in time to respond to the thousands affected by dozens of tornadoes that ripped through 10 states.
Dell played a major part in helping the Red Cross launch its command center, modelling it after its own social media listening center and providing equipment and funding. Dell's center launched in 2010 and has since been at the forefront of its marketing and customer response strategies. Said Dell's VP of social media and community, Manish Mehta , "Ground Control is about tracking the largest number of possible conversations across the web and making sure we 'internalize' that feedback, good or bad … It's also about tracking what you might call the 'long tail'--those smaller matters that might not bubble to the surface today, but are out there, and deserve to be heard."
Dell's ground control center tracks around 22,000 daily posts about the company across a wide range of social media, and enables Dell to participate in online dialogue about their brand and use social media insights to improve their products and marketing.
The technologies that makes this listening possible come from multiple different monitoring platforms like Salesforce Radian6, Sysomos, Nielson BuzzMetrics, and others--the platforms capture millions of social media conversations from sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs, and presents them in a graphic display showing trend information, sentiment, geographical data, and share of voice.
Clemson University has also built a listening center with support from Dell and Radian6. Chief officer Jim Bottum believes Clemson may be the first academic environment  to adapt listening command center technology. Students monitor the six large display screens and conduct research projects based on the data, including a recent project aimed at conversations about emergencies to help law enforcement agencies deliver better service in their communities.
Brands are not the only ones that realize the amazing benefits of command centers. Progressive agencies also get on board with the concept.
David Armano, executive VP of global innovation and integration at Edelman Digital, and his team just launched their first social intelligence command center (SICC) in its Chicago office. It combines four listening and engagement stations, a briefing workspace with cable television newsfeed, Polycom, and a content production section. The room is self contained and designed for real time monitoring, analytics, engagement and ultimately content production informed by the data coming in. It also has a full whiteboard wall where teams can actively work and plan.
"It's essentially ground zero for real time communications," says Armano. "Social intelligence or the insights we can gain from real time data is nothing without the ability to act upon it. Our SICC initiative is designed to not only master real time data, but act intelligently upon it."
Taulbee Jackson, president and CEO of Radius and a member of the Super Bowl XLVI host committee, talked to me about the Super Bowl's first-ever social media command center  and his experience in managing the host committee's interactive communications hub. "We had staff of about 50 people who worked two shifts for two weeks for fifteen hours a day. Our team was comprised of senior level social media managers, content developers, analysts, strategists and tech-savvy volunteers."
Working out of a 2,800-square-foot space in downtown Indianapolis just blocks from the event, team's objectives were clear. One: hospitality. "We are known for our friendliness, we wanted to make sure everyone had great experience at the Super Bowl coming from different parts of the country (whether it was on the aiplane, airport, street, cab, online)", said Jackson. Two: safety. The team not only moderated conversations, it also was connected to other command centers in town that housed logistics and public safety teams so that in the event of the emergency their combined response would be instant. Three: create content and capture the experience to share with those who weren't able to attend in person. Four: amplification. The team's role was to amplify the positive experience fans had at the event.
The response rate of the command center staff was less than 3 minutes. Jackson says the event received over 64 million social impressions in one month from organic social amplification, which he estimates are worth $3.2 million. The main metric was the sentiment analysis, though. Real-time response and conversations moved the sentiment measure from 3.2 before the start of the event to 3.6 at the kick off (for every time someone said something negative online, 3.6 people said something positive).
Benefits of Listening Command Centers
So what benefits could a social media command center bring to a company or organization? The command centers enable brands to respond rapidly to trending topics in social media. For example, after Gatorade launched the "Gatorade has Evolved " campaign--which featured a song by rap artist David Banner--it was heavily talked up in social media, Gatorade was able to work with Banner to have a full-length version of the song ready to distribute to its Facebook and Twitter followers within 24 hours.
Listening command centers also allow consumers to participate in brand activities and shape their own experiences with the company. Thanks to its listening command center, Dell is able to provide almost instantaneous assistance to customers, and thanks to conversations and insights gained from social media , they've launched the (RED) line of products and FastTrack PC shipment, and redesigned the keyboard on their highest selling laptop after feedback that the apostrophe was positioned awkwardly.
The technology is being used for the more mundane day-to-day tasks of optimising landing pages and sending followers to the most high performing pages of the company's website. Gatorade says it has been able to reduce exit rates  from 25% to 9%, and has increased views of its product videos  and other education material by 250%.
At Edelman, Armano says the company has used its SICC to train and act as a model to help several clients plan, design, and staff their own. "Not only that; internally for Edelman, the SICC initiative helps to break down traditional silos," Armano says. "When analysts, strategists, content developers and media relations teams all see real time data in action--the silos melt away."
Talking about companies and brands on social media is increasingly a two-way conversation, with listening command centers at the heart of marketing and customer interaction strategies. With application across a variety of industries, from Fortune 500 companies to the public service to education, it won't be long before listening command centers are standard practice for engaging and monitoring customers.
[Image: Flickr user Ludovic Bertron ]