Karl Havard posted a provocative article this week on Econsultancy entitled "Social Media Monitoring: Time To Say 'Sod It'?" (for my non-Anglophile friends, "sod it" is a nicer way of saying "F@%k it." Just so you know.) His contention: as more and more people join the social web, the task of monitoring and responding will become more and more onerous, and ultimately unscalable. After all, how many conversations can you possibly have at once? At what point does responding to "everything" become unsustainable? I can't speak to the potential tactical burdens of the growth of the social web, but my suspicion is that as more and more middle-of-the-bell curve folks join in online conversations, the ratio of people talking about brands will diminish, not increase, and the corresponding burden on a company's customer service/social response teams will not grow linearly, but begin to taper off. Besides, the best way to conserve resources on the reputation management/customer service side of things is not to stop listening, it's to make better stuff, right?
In any case, I don't think companies today have any obligation to listen and react to every conversation online, let alone in a future where everyone who is going to be on the social boat is all aboard. Social media monitoring does, however, have to prove its worth beyond mere tactical interaction in order to evolve and become more central to the theory of the firm. In order to do that, social media monitoring has to graduate from "fire-fighting" app to a reliable source for consumer insights. Today, monitoring enables companies to find and respond to people having issues with the widgets they sell; tomorrow, it will enable companies to design better widgets.
The only way that social media monitoring can make this leap is if companies can trust the data they see as representative and reflective of reality. That's a little dicey today - the high percentage of Twitterers having brand conversations is less indicative of the actual prevalence of those conversations online than it is the size of Twitter's fishbowl. When you don't know who isn't on the social web (and who isn't having brand conversations), you can't model non-response bias. When you can't model that, then you can't reach any projectable conclusions from what you do hear on the social web. Do the 5-6 people piling on your brand on a message board speak for 500? 50,000? Just themselves?
When more and more people join the social web and, perhaps, engage in brand conversations, then yes, the burden of listening to each and every conversation will increase. But sampling those conversations, which is what a competent CMO or market research analyst would do, will get more reliable and representative. The more "regular" people chatting about brands online, the more representative a sampling of those conversations will be - and the more important social media monitoring will become as it graduates to genuine social media research.
So, to sum up, more is not worse. More is better. And the more people participate in the social web, the more important it will be to have ears to listen. The key is to be able to see the forest, and not just the trees. Or the sod.