Social Intelligence, More than Listening (Part 1)

I was asked recently by the good folks from Digimind to speak at their Social Intelligence Masterclass at Social Media Week Chicago.

I was happy to do this for a couple reasons. First, Digimind is a great company who understands the importance of being Customer Obsessed. For like-minded folks, I am always happy to help out and speak about any of my professional passions.  

My First Question: Why should Social Intelligence be important to my company?

Social Intelligence done right should have impact across the organization from product development to branded content planning and through your sCRM efforts to the way you behave in your customer service practice. Knowing what to look for and how to apply it across the organization takes discipline and acceptance of the growing importance of not only integrating the customer into the process, but also making them the central player in it. The idea and capability of social intelligence is changing all the time and as it does, we need to figure out what the learning means to our brands and how to use the insights in an ever-evolving discipline where new information types constantly becomes available. 

First, why is it important to listen to what people have to say on social media, in their blogs or online at all? If you are asking this question, you probably think your research, (paid for or done by your organization), is enough. You probably also subscribe to the idea that your customer, or consumer, can be bucketed into a few profiles, ethnographies or demographic targets. If you do, this article probably isn’t for you… yet. I have faith that you will come around. I think a more valid question is where does social intelligence sit in relation to quantitative, qualitative, ethnographic and more traditional forms of insight inspiration. In short, it sits at the same table and needs not defer to anyone else’s opinion. It’s thoughts and insights are equally valid.  

Whereas traditional research suffers from the misguidance and misconceptions created by the Observer EffectExpectancy Bias and Response Bias, Social Intelligence would seem to offer an unadulterated and raw view into the consumer psyche. We all know that not everything we say online should be taken with 100% sincerity. However, if you know how to parse out the partial truths into known truths, you are given context and unlimited unbiased insights into the psyche, desires, opinions and mindset of those you should want to know better and an understanding of how they express themselves.

In the industry, we often hear the ideas of Social Listening and Social Intelligence used interchangeably, but there are some important differences. Today with the rapid increase in media we consume, we frequently say we "listened" to a piece of new music or a podcast to imply that we are familiar with it but consumed it in passing while looking at and listening to many other pieces of stimulus. Similarly today, when we "hear" what you are saying, we have thought about it and have an opinion about what it means. In many ways, the connotation of these two words is in as much evolution as the concept we are about to explore. For the purposes of the article, please assume we are referring to the more popular culture use of the terms today.

With that in mind, here is how our team would define the difference between the 2 social disciplines of Social Listening and Social Intelligence:

Social Listening is the aggregation of what was said into trends, themes, observations and analytical commentary.  

Social Intelligence is the thoughtful application of data and social sciences to what you HEARD from that LISTENING and ultimately is the insight derived from it. 

A “social listener” monitors what you say and uncovers trends, whereas a social intelligence pro listens to what you say and HEARS what it means to be YOU. In doing so, they try to UNDERSTAND what is important about what you said in order to derive meaning from it. Most importantly, Social Intelligence as a discipline is meant to TRANSLATE that observational meaning to people who can make a difference within your company.

In the real world, Social Listening gives you information, such as people wishing you had a certain product feature, that your product is too sweet for them or that your instructional materials read like a Wile E. Coyote Acme schematic.

Conversely, Social Intelligence might tell us that while people are saying that the product is too sweet, what they actually are responding to is a desire for healthier options. And in the case of Wile E. Coyote, it can give a glimpse into the core customer’s capability to decipher technical information allowing you to create more usable instructions and reduce customer service costs.      

Interestingly, Social Intelligence is one of the only marketing disciplines growing out of consumer need, input and demands. For the first time in the history of marketing technology, the evolution of a discipline is directly growing out of customer/client needs instead of the opinion of company experts and influencers. The highly competitive tools available today are constantly evolving new feature sets, as their clients are demanding more salient information from the tools.  

This would be a good example of the importance of Social Intelligence. The most forward providers are listening to their customers to impact the future development of a product or service offering they happily no longer singularly shoulder the burden of its development as it is being designed in real-time by their customers. For Business-to-Business providers, this is a smart move and clearly the path of the future. Listen, learn and apply the desires of your customers to the evolution of your company in the most responsive way possible.  

For consumer companies, sometimes things are a bit more complicated, especially if you are geared to innovate in your space. While adherence, understanding and listening to your customer will no doubt inform you where you are succeeding and failing, innovators need to find the grey space between the known desire and the unknown need. 

Apple has made a career out of bringing their customers things they didn’t know they couldn’t live without. Famously, when asked, people said they didn’t want a portable music player that forced them to digitize their libraries but Apple created the device that changed the way we listen to music anyway.   Because while people said they didn’t want it, their actual desires said otherwise. 

That is one example of the difference between “listening” to and “hearing” your customers. 

I always think about the following when asked to decipher expressed versus actual desire.   Malcolm Gladwell tells a fantastic story about Howard Moskowitz and how he changed the food industry to better serve the desires of its consumers. It is very much a story about “hearing” and “understanding” what people want over superficially “observing” and “listening” to what they have to say.