The Digital Social Ecosystem Audit: The Key to Optimal Interactions

The Digital Social Ecosystem Audit The Key to Optimal Interactions: The MapThe Digital Social Ecosystem Audit shows you where to interact to produce the best outcomes at the minimal cost, so it is critical to social business initiatives. CSRA launched its “Ecosystem Audit” process in 2008, and we’ve conducted them for many businesses and brands, which get to know the digital world around them in an unprecedented way. Think of the ecosystem audit as an xray of the social ecosystem. Try operating without it ;^) – but most firms do!

Here I’ll offer my insights into client outcomes as well as how we’ve evolved the process and why. You will get some practical pointers about how you can do your own.

The Ecosystem Audit—What and Why

When enterprises, whether commercial, government or nonprofit, contemplate social business, they always have a desire to create a result that’s relevant to their strategy with the minimal amount of effort. This is due to the fact that they all have costs they must manage, and they must either pay employees to interact or enlist non-paid volunteers, both of which carry management costs at least. Therefore, our clients’ challenge is to interact in the “right” digital social venues, so the resulting interactions will tend to be relevant and favorable. We refer to this as having “optimal interactions.” An important assumption is that it is almost always better for enterprises to play a contributing role rather than to dominate interactions. People listen more when you say less. Having optimal interactions begins with knowing where to interact. That’s what the ecosystem audit reveals.

Prior to their ecosystem audits, all of our clients were interacting very inefficiently; they had chosen the popular triumvirate* “because everybody else was there.”

How to Evaluate Digital Social Venues

We have found that two “lenses” are sufficient to rank social venues in terms of relevance and desirability. First, we define very specifically the people with whom you want to interact. We call this the “stakeholder” lens. Venues that have a higher portion of your most desired stakeholders will rank higher in your ecosystem audit. The second lens is activity. People usually talk about things they are trying to do. When you think about it, decisions usually revolve around actions. Actions produce outcomes. Most people spend most of their precious time acting or deciding on what actions to take. They often ask for help in making the right decisions. We call this the “workstream” lens. Social venues with higher portions of desirable workstreams rank higher.

Just like the lenses in your eyes or glasses, each lens is independent but they work together to create a rich view.

Defining Stakeholders

Most firms do not know their stakeholders very well, and this is understandable. It has been very expensive to have direct contact with stakeholders, who may be clients, customers, prospects, employees, partners, regulators—before Web 2.0 appeared, social information about people was difficult and costly to get, but most organizations don’t know how to work with online social data. We’ll cover that partially here.

CSRA is often retained by CMOs, who are the authorities on their organizations’ customer/client information. CMOs, though, have rarely interacted with people, their practice is communicating to demographics/psychographics. The latter are people in a blender. They don’t work well when interacting with individuals because they don’t consider individuals’ desired outcomes finely enough. Please note this very important point. Marketing teams will require a learning curve to grasp it fully. Regarding other stakeholders, Human Resources is the authority on employees. If you are a utility, you have a division that interacts with regulators.

The first step is defining stakeholders at a very granular level. Aim to develop six-twelve stakeholder profiles. Define them according to characteristics that are relevant to how you want to interact with them. This is predicated on how influential they are in making a meaningful impact on your ability to execute your strategy; note that they need not be the people who buy the most. Some example characteristics might be job title, product-relationship, service-relationship, person-relationship, organization-relationship, age, location… “Organization” might be a firm, a school, an NGO. “Person” might be high school teen, parent with Alzheimer’s… “Product” might be  a car, household appliance, a mobile phone plan… By triangulating along several characteristics, you can define stakeholders finely. It is also important to rank them in importance. It’s okay to start with “primary” and “secondary,” but be aware of the rankings within those groups, too. Discuss and get agreement around the rankings within your team.

Stakeholders are people who have the biggest impact on your strategy, not necessarily the biggest “buyers.”

Defining Workstreams

The second step is defining workstreams. This is grounded in the fact that, when you observe someone online, s/he has an intention. His/her online interactions have a goal. Moreover, s/he has done something before the online interaction and, based on the online interaction, s/he will have actions afterward, online or off. You want to define workstreams to which you can add unusual value based on what your organization does and what knowledge you have. The action sets the context for the interaction. Another underlying assumption is that you will be serving people who are doing things. Define workstreams that are meaningful for you to serve. Rank the workstreams by asking your team, “If we could choose to serve people who are doing certain activities, what would be most meaningful and distinctive for us?” This point is very important; pick things that are relevant and unusual because they will distinguish you more (and encourage more comments and mentions).

Workstreams are the ultimate context for your ability to serve people in unique and memorable ways, which will increase your impact online.

Using the Lenses

Iterate, iterate…

Don’t boil the ocean on stakeholders and workstreams; you just need to get them good enough to start using them because now you will test them. Note that they need to be fine grained enough to be somewhat distinguishable from each other, although there will be overlap at first. The next step is creating keyword families that identify stakeholders and workstreams online. This is an iterative process whose outcome depends on your team’s skill with using keyword combinations to filter the social ecosystem.

Each iteration brings the stakeholders and workstreams into clearer focus, kind of like time-lapse photography. Some are more difficult than others. Some can be done in a 30 minutes while others may take hours to get right. Another key to success; when a workstream or stakeholder is proving difficult, set it aside and do another one because you’ll be able to apply what you learn from your success with others. For example, you have tried numerous combinations of keywords to identify Workstream1, and findings aren’t useful. Move on to Workstream2; the keywords you use for it will teach you about keyword combination possibilities in others. Note, too, that some workstreams and stakeholders might not show up online. Some types of conversations just aren’t occurring online. Be ready to change your concepts behind the workstreams or stakeholders based on what you learn.


It will often be helpful to combine workstream and stakeholder keyword families to create composite keyword families, and you will iterate those, too. Your results will tell you when this is useful and when to stop. The goal is understanding what venues are optimal in what situations.

In many cases, we have found workstreams to be more useful than stakeholders. We usually do them first because, although each case varies, the activity is often more important than the person when you are ranking venues. If you’re interested in people fixing flats on motor scooters, whether the person is a student or a grandmother may be less important. Both add value, but we have found that doing workstreams first is useful. That said, it is easier for client teams to define stakeholders first because people are less abstract than activities. People doing activities are more meaningful than activities themselves. Once we get the definitions, though, we do workstreams first.


We have used many kinds of tools on ecosystem audits, from enterprise social media monitoring (“SMM”) platforms (i.e. Radian6) to Google. I have developed a preference for Google because it is often more representative than the platforms, most of which build their own databases of the Web and search those. However, I should say that I use Google in very unusual ways, many of which aren’t documented, and those techniques are beyond the scope here. Start with Google Advanced Search. If you have a preference for a search tool, realize that it may impose structure on the data. Most of the enterprise SMMs enable sophisticated search with complex keyword combinations.

Regardless of the tool(s) you use, we have found that we improve efficiency and results when we  define keyword families in stages, without worrying about some overlap among them. Get them all working decently, then refine them. Another good practice: document your process to help you roll back. You will be swapping out and in various words in myriad combinations as you build and iterate, so you may go down a path that seemed promising but ends up with inferior results. In those cases, you’ll want to roll back and pursue a different path.

SMMs have tools that claim to automate this process, but we have found them to be quite inadequate. SMMs, at their core, are designed around brand mentions. They are designed for the social media industry, which is predicated on promotion, not interaction. The SMMs don’t seriously address the concept of optimal interactions. We use them, but they serve our process. Their engineers regularly tell us that we are using their platforms in ways that are “years ahead of the market.”

Ranking Social Venues

Once you have developed your keyword families, you use them to evaluate the social ecosystem. We have our own algorithms that quantitatively rank venues according to numerous criteria. You will need to develop your own process. Here are some ideas:

  • Venues that have more interactions with high priority stakeholders and workstreams get a higher ranking.
  • Interactivity: how much are people interacting with each other; another way to think about it is how long are the conversations? In general, the longer the higher rank.
  • Venues that are more networked get higher marks.
  • Cultural fit; as you review venues’ conversations, how do you feel? Would you like to interact there? You need to develop a rating system for this.
  • In most cases, venues in which you or your competitors are mentioned get a higher rank, even if some mentions are “negative.”
  • Venues that have higher Compete or Alexa ranks rate higher.


  • I hope you can see that auditing your ecosystem is pivotal in making your social business initiatives efficient and profitable. We have consistently found that optimal interactions happen in very specific venues, not the big platforms. By the way, all our clients also interact in the popular platforms, but their investment in the latter is different; it’s more outreach.
  • Optimal conversations offer far higher “returns” on your investment in interacting—because you get more relevant interactivity for the same cost. Most firms and brands get very little interactivity (interaction, mentions, sharing) from their investment (paying employees to tweet, facebook, etc.) And interactions they have tend to be shallow and unremarkable.
  • Workstreams are a breakthrough concept because they imply outcomes by stakeholders, and you will increase your profile online by serving stakeholders in meaningful ways, in venues that resonate with your culture.
  • The keyword studies are extremely valuable in themselves. They teach your team reams about what language to use when they want to connect with people. For example, during execution, you can suggest that your people use keyword combinations in their interactions, which will enable other relevant people to find the conversations in which you’re serving people like them.
  • Keyword families are reused later for monitoring the effectiveness of your social business interactions. They are gold to your SEO team, too.
  • Check out the Organization Audit, the second step in creating the social business strategy.
  • Review Ecosystem Audit case studies to see how other firms do them.
  • Here is a detailed list of the steps we use when conducting ecosystem audits.


* Facebook, Twitter, YouTube

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