MIAMI—Social media provide communicators with access to the world’s biggest modern focus group, Makovsky + Company’s Matt Makosvky told the audience at the second Global Public Relations Summit this afternoon, kicking off a panel on “How Social Intelligence is Redefining Business Strategy.

“When you think about the principles of market research, and how you have had to do it—get a focus group together, make sure you have the right sample size—things have changed because of social media,” said Jared Feldman, CEO and founder of Mashwork, a social media intelligence solution. “It gives you access to an enormous focus group, and allows you to listen in on conversations that are taking place all around the world.”

Makovsky and telecommunications company Sprint had worked together on the 4GLTE network expansion. There was a need for greater understanding of local markets and an appetite for new data, and a third party perspective on Sprint’s progress, the competitive landscape, and how the company could differentiate itself.

“At Sprint we have seen social grow up over the last few years,” said Jason Gertzen (pictured), group manager of social media and issues management at Sprint. “It started as an organic initiative by a number of different departments, depending on what are we trying to do—acquire customers through the marketing department, customer care through customer service, and my department is measuring and managing our corporate reputation. We are looking for early alerts about what companies feel about our brand and when there’s an issue.”

The overall mission was to use social intelligence to increase the impact of communications around the expansion.

The initial research project established a baseline, understanding exactly where the conversation was by drawing on 2.2 million mentions. According to Makovsky, “We wanted to understand what was driving the conversation about Sprint, and we wanted to understand what was going on at the local level.”

“We have members of our team looking for any issues we might have to address,” said Gertzen. “We wanted to answer a very specific question about how we were doing in getting our message across and really drill down to figure out what is working. We found that the traditional media and the social media and influencer outreach we were doing all worked hand-in-glove.”

The company learned that customers care about more than just network improvement, including device upgrades and promotions; that conversations spikes around new network announcements are short-lived, but that they could be extended; that competitive intelligence can provide a broader context for the information; and that—as Feldman explained—“opportunities exist in local markets, if you are listening,” which led to a more localized approach.

“We found that the partnerships we have within our organization were very important,” says Gertzen. “Our customer care agents, who engage on social sites and in our own communities, were very valuable. When they engaged immediately around the announcements, it made a big difference.

“We also have a very powerful employee engagement program, and there are people we can social ninjas who are very engaged in social media. We were able to activate them around the announcement and drive a lot of positive conversations.”