You might call Seth Eisen a corporate voyeur.
In the airy atrium of MasterCard's corporate headquarters in Purchase, the 6-foot-8 company executive fixes his gaze on the slightly concave, 40-foot LED screen that stands in the middle of the room.
When Montana Marks uses the MasterCard-promoted hashtag #lovethiscity, an image of the aspiring actress pops into a box on the huge screen.
When pop singer and MasterCard pitchman Justin Timberlake and his followers post on Facebook about exclusive offers relating to Timberlake's "20/20" tour, MasterCard's social media vacuum scoops the posts up and displays them.
The company's unique social media listening post -- rolled out in April 2012 -- now filters, analyzes and displays postings from 43 counties, in 26 languages, 24 hours a day. Among other functions, it keeps score on where MasterCard stands in social media conversation relating to credit cards. If your post mentions MasterCard, the company's listening post is going to snag it, as long as it is not password-protected.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the breakdown of social media mentions of credit card companies -- as monitored by MasterCard -- was MasterCard, 27 percent; Visa, 25; PayPal, 22; American Express, 21, and Discover, 5.
So why is No. 348 on the Fortune 500, a company that made $2.8 billion in profit in 2012, monitoring social media so aggressively?
The reason, said Eisen, is that MasterCard is not all about credit cards.
"We're not a credit card company," he said. "We're a technology company in the payments area."
DIFFERENTIATING THE BRAND WITH TWEETS
For most of its 47-year history, the company has catered to the bank partners that issue MasterCards, Eisen said. In an increasingly saturated market, dependability with plain vanilla credit cards is not enough, and the company must appeal directly to prospective card holders via social media, he said.
The way Eisen puts it, the business-to-business company has become a business-to-business-to-consumer company. He explains how the company launched an @askmastercard Twitter handle used to address questions about payments and share tips on card features. In May, the company staged a social media event around mobile payments, with participation from Bank of America, the website Mashable and technology writer Chuck Martin.
When MasterCard's monitors find users who have a question or concern, the company can respond directly or point to an online resource that will provide the answer, Eisen said.
MasterCard is far from the only company running a social media command center. Others can be found at Delta Air Lines, Cisco Systems and Dell, one of the first companies to adopt the technology. Armonk-based IBM and the Gatorade brand of Purchase-based PepsiCo also have rolled out social media monitoring sites.
CORPORATIONS FIND PLENTY OF REASONS TO GO SOCIAL
Mark McClennan, a national board member of the Public Relations Society of America, said that companies invest in social media monitoring software for a variety of reasons: keeping an eye on the brand; gathering business intelligence; learning of trends; engaging influencers; serving customers, and responding to crises.
The public relations executive said that he once tweeted about a bad breakfast experience at a major hotel. Within 10 minutes, a company representative called, asking how things could be put right.
Following trends on social media also lets companies capitalize on unpredictable developments. After a blackout struck Super Bowl XLVII in February, advertising executives working for Oreo famously seized the moment and cobbled together a promotion ("Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark") that they pushed through Twitter, where it went viral.
Jeremiah Owyang, an industry analyst at the Altimeter Group -- a social media consulting firm based in San Mateo, Calif. -- says that social media cockpits deliver an important statement about a company's values.
"The upside is it's a message to the market that they care about their customers," Owyang said.
Social media listening posts tend to make companies more efficient, Owyang said.
"It reduces costs, streamlines coordination and provides cohesive reporting," Owyang said.
In a back-of-the-napkin calculation, Owyang figured that an average listening post installation would cost $100,000 to $200,000 for the monitoring software, $10,000 for television screens, $18,000 for about nine computers and about $240,000 per year for staffing.
That can be a bargain, if it keeps a corporation fast on its social media feet, Owyang said.
Andrew Ciccone, principal at Hudson Valley Public Relations in Millbrook, said that companies can find value when they identify channels, keywords, conversations and opinion leaders that can sway their target audience.
"There are influencers on the Internet and people will listen to them as to what credit card to use," Ciccone said.
MASTERCARD MEANS TIMBERLAKE AND BEYONCÉ KNOWLES
MasterCard has hitched its wagon to major stars like Timberlake, who has more than 20 million Twitter followers, and Knowles, who has 8 million. The company has also staked out New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto as "pricelesscities," along with about two dozen cities abroad.
The company has taken a page from the playbook of rival American Express, as well, offering special access to concerts, sporting events and shops, says Ciccone. For instance, MasterCard holders can have a guard open the FAO Schwarz toy store in Manhattan for a before-hours tour, or go to the Batter's Eye Cafe in Yankee Stadium for a centerfielder's-eye-view of the field, Eisen said.
It's about more than influencing, according to Owyang. Social media monitoring can also help companies put out brushfires.
In 2012, for instance, McDonald's quickly ditched its #McDStories hashtag when the Twitter campaign took an unexpected turn and readers began tweeting stories about illness and unsavory ingredients.
"The cost of not doing it is PR backlash," Owyang said. "That's expensive . . . There are significant risks of not doing this."
Eisen, however, sees the social media monitoring center as a stride toward a new vision of MasterCard.
"This stands for cultural change," he said.
The value of that?