Critical: Listening

I was in New York City attending a conference on “social media listening” when a shelter-in-place alert flashed across my phone. In that moment, social media was what I wanted to listen to.

Julie Wittes Schlack

SVP of Product Innovation at C Space

Julie Wittes Schlack is SVP of Innovation and a founder of C Space. A respected leader within the market research industry, and an oracle within the company, she has changed how companies understand customers, respond to emerging trends, and apply new technologies to create growth. Julie is a prolific and accomplished writer, with work featured in Harvard Business Review, Mashable, Ad Age and other publications. Julie is also a teacher, editor, and researcher and has won awards for her fiction, essays, and research.

Twitter told me that the second of what would be 13 pipe bombs had been found in the CNN mailroom a mile away. Seconds later, I saw the first of what would become a legion of conspiracy theory tweets, charging that everything I read was fake and this was all orchestrated by leftists meant to derail Republican momentum heading into the midterm elections.

Three days later, a shooter in Pittsburgh killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue. It didn’t take long for people to post that the shooter didn’t exist. It was a Zionist conspiracy. A “false flag.” On social media, lies compete with truth, and, too often, lies have the advantage. Indeed, according to scientists at MIT, fake news stories on Twitter are 70% more likely to be retweeted than accurate news, and they spread 6 times faster than true stories. And people are more culpable than bots in spreading it.

Falsehoods, fake news, fabrications, or whatever euphemism for lies you like – they’re a form of guerrilla cultural warfare. The modus operandi is simple: Post an outrageous fabrication, get some friends and some bots to retweet it, then delete it when the inconvenient truth becomes a bit too evident. Or worse, double down and twist the truth further until it spreads, until conspiracy contorts into mainstream anxiety.

The craft of using social media to inflate public sentiment – both positive and negative – doesn’t play out just in politics. It spans every category and domain. I encounter this in my work with companies. Just recently, we did a social media listening project for a financial services client and saw two significant spikes in “conversation” about a new product. The spikes consisted almost entirely of sponsored blog posts, not of organic chatter among real, ordinary people. This is social media marketing at work, and while its effectiveness is still to be determined, there’s no doubt that it can drown out the voices of the people brands are most interested in hearing from.

Also, not everyone is active on social media; its most active users are far from a “typical” population, let alone your target customer. These channels still attract demographics that are disproportionately female, disproportionately young, and people who take extreme stances, whether positive or negative.

If the problems and flaws are so pervasive, and if conversation is driven by bots or paid shills or people who are not “typical” of a given audience, what does this mean for the companies that rely on “social media listening”? Can it inform their marketing strategies and help them learn more about their customers?

Yes, if you’re looking for your next question. No, if you’re looking for deeper human truths.

Bots and trolls notwithstanding, there are a lot of real people with real opinions on social media. Social mining and listening platforms are advancing quickly and can help filter out the faux noise, separating the paid and sponsored content from the organic conversation. For instance, in analyzing social conversation for a pharmaceutical client, we encountered a significant amount of content generated and retweeted by bots. But we were able to filter the fire hose and discern the true influencers. And in so doing, we discovered that these influencers turned out not to be the people with whom our client had originally partnered. Listening helped us find a new and valuable audience to guide their marketing.

Social listening can also reveal customer sentiment that can inspire and embolden marketers to take more risks. And the better tools let you do a much more nuanced analysis than looking at simple sentiment. When examining perceptions of a product or brand, we look for emotions like frustration or surprise. Then, we examine what moments those feelings are associated with, which results in more actionable insights. Good social media analysts will also look at verbs that are indicative of behavior. For instance, had Nike relied just on measuring simple sentiment about their Colin Kaepernick campaign, they might have thought they’d made a terrible mistake. But as Joe Panepinto observes in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Rather than just look at the overall sentiment, the company examined tweets that had any purchase-intent statements – either positive (“going to buy”) or negative (“will never buy”) – and found that positive outnumbered negative by 5 to 1.” Nike’s post-Kaepernick campaign sales back that up.

Better still, the ability to listen and analyze your audience’s behavior “in the wild” and identify natural, interest-based segments within your larger audience, can be invaluable. Some innovative technologies let us identify an audience based on some specific online behavior, such as people who follow a specific account, share a particular like, or use certain terms in their bios or hashtags. Then, by looking at who else these people are following, what other content they’re consuming, when and where they are when active on social media, and what else they’re posting, we can get a more holistic understanding of who they are. This approach breaks through the narrow, self-referential lens that most segmentation schemes fall prey to, and lets you develop more resonant, relevant digital marketing strategies.

But knowing the right audience and spotting nuanced sentiments will only get you so far. Like all relationships, brand relationships form (and generally erode) over the course of months and years; they are both slower to form and slower to disappear than the ephemeral posts that comprise the peaks and dips in social buzz.

And whether it’s due to, or in addition to, these differences between digitally vocal consumers and the rest of us, recent research by Engagement Labs has also shown little correlation between what’s being said online and offline about the same brand. Perhaps that’s why, according to Panepinto, “There appears to be very little predictive power between how people appear to feel online and how consumers who have experiences with those brands rate them.”

That’s why social listening is not about finding answers; rather it’s about finding the areas to explore and the questions – and people – you should be asking. Because the most important caveat about social listening is that much of the really juicy, nuanced content that could help us develop empathetic understanding of people’s lives tends to be private (if it’s online at all). It flowers in the context of real interpersonal encounters and reciprocal relationships. And the really rich, transformative insights come from inquiry versus consumption, consideration rather than reaction.

Now, that’s worth tweeting about.

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