Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Social Media Listening does not Equal Social Media Understanding

As social media develops, I think it is getting increasingly important that the right operational definitions are created.  As I have stated many times, that operational definition or "defining what something means is the core of creating clarity" is the difference between success and failure in any sale of something new whether this is inside the company or from outside the company.

Currently, as I walk across the business landscape trying to get people to believe that social media is going to impact them whether they like it or not.  And one of the great misnomers in social media today is that almost EVERYONE uses the term listening almost exclusively.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say (as I did in my last post) that this is too broad a way to talk about social media.  While it is very true that we are listening to what is going on across all that data, because it is already there and we are peering into to what is being said, there is definitely more to it.  For instance, if I can tell you that in the last 24 hours there were 1,000,000 tweets on twitter MENTIONING a brand, what does that really tell you.  In addition, if someone decided to then give you 50 sound bites for a flavor of what is being said.  What does that tell you?  I would argue...not much at all.  Buzz volumes on specific sites are not going to give you much except a knowledge of how often you are mentioned.  IT WILL NOT GIVE YOU ANYTHING STATISTICALLY OF WHAT THEY FEEL ABOUT YOUR PRODUCT OR ISSUE.  This is the crux of the social media operational definition issue. 


Understanding is something that gives you depth where Listening only scratches the surface of social media's power.  To this end, if you can understand the vastness of what is being said, you can begin to come up with new ways to develop unbiased insights from all that information that is there already.  Understanding can get to the nuance of why someone likes or doesn't like something.  For instance, if people know that McDonald's is not healthy capturing mentions of that tells you little (what listening means).  If you can suddenly tease out the specifics of why consumers think it is unhealthy you are now understanding the key points.  Social media can do that if you have the right methods and the "natural language processing" that can really understand the sentences.  And while our company does have that I come back to the point I always make.   If you have good ability to parse sentences, you can then differentiate them accurately and ultimately have the data quality that gives you confidence.  With this confidence you can then dive into the data in a way that gets you the traditional answer you want when interacting with the consumer in a different way.

So why make a fuss about this?  Because if we don't differentiate these two terms in social media, then people will think incorrectly about what type of social media application will provide them.   If  you are talking about CRM of issues through the PR function, listening to the buzz can be very helpful especially if you can easily react and "stave off" the issue because you can hear the problem quickly.  In this case, understanding would be helpful, but could take too long (as of today) to solve the problem at hand.

On the other hand, if you have an "event" that has the potential to be cataclysmic to you business, there is going to be value in being able to listening quickly and react,  but think about if you can understand what is being said and where it is being said across the event (during the first day).  With listening you might start to react to something so quickly that you are putting out data into the social media sphere that could only add to the chaos (you create more).  If you can understand the real problem being expressed, you can actually THINK ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS AND THEN PROACTIVELY RESPONSE RATHER THAN REACT.  This example to me is the meat of the issue and the reason a better definition is needed.

Understanding in social media is underutilized term and one that needs to quickly make its way into the social media lexicon if people don't want apply social media incorrectly.  I would even argue listening and understanding have a cousin term that I can't even see yet, but creating better operational definition will make social media less of a fad (which it is not) and more scientific in the coming months and years.

I continue to worry for the companies who ignore social media.  It is my job to convince people of social media's relevance and I am actually paid to do this.  That being said, however, I have had the privilege of being involved with social media for 5 years now.  And within that, I have gotten the chance as a change agent to successfully apply it to business problems.  But what concerns me is that companies continue culturally to struggle to fit the social media box into their current measures and practices.  In fact, you would be shocked at how many very intelligent business people will challenge the validity of the social media as a data set.  And then when I ask them what they do first when buying a new appliance or electronic, the smile and say the web.  This shows me they get it but their culture is keeping them from acting because "no one told me to use this data." This cultural challenge and fear is limiting many companies chance to get ahead of the curve.  It is our job, however, to make sure we come up with the strongest ways possible to describe how to think about social media for those who are dancing with it.  Simply lumping everything into the concept of listening does no justice to the power of social media, because it can lead people to think incorrectly about how to apply it.

And because it is my job to help people believe in social media, I take full responsibility in making sure we define it clearly for those interested and do our best to link those definitions to applications that fit their category, business, function, usage case and most importantly culture.

John Lennon said give peace a chance.

In social media, I would say the same thing to separating Social Media Understanding from Social Media Listening.

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