The evolution of social intelligence: Q&A with Dr. Jillian Ney

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Dr. Jillian Ney is founder of the Social Intelligence Lab, a membership organization for people leading social listening programs. I recently spoke with her about the evolution of social intelligence within organizations and what the most successful ones are getting right.

Joe: To start, who’s your favorite Twitter follow?
Generally, I love following Scottish Twitter, it’s very funny! My favourite account is Daily Overview (@DOverview) where you view the world looking down from the sky. It’s beautiful.

Joe: Tell us about the history of The SILab and where the idea came from?
All of this started off as a passion project for me. I was in Scotland doing my PhD on social media and looking to connect with others with an interest in the space.  This was 2018 and I found that people in the research and insights industry didn't understand it properly and treated social insights with a bit of skepticism. But I kept looking and interestingly enough, I found that there was quite a community of practitioners out there, but they weren't connected.  So, the whole premise of the Social Intelligence Lab was to bring these people together to further our knowledge of this emerging source of insight. Key to this was it being driven by the practitioners themselves and not the vendors who would have their own agenda.

Joe: We first met in the autumn of 2018 at your conference which was probably the first dedicated to this idea of social intelligence. Has it since matured and spread as much as you had hoped?
The idea that organizations need to be aware of signals from social media data is quite mainstream these days, however in many cases it’s not true social intelligence but rather a narrower focus on using social data to better optimize your social media marketing strategy. This is a legitimate use case of course, but it misses out on the value social data brings to making better decisions across the organization. If you are not doing that, and just tracking mentions, then you are just doing social listening.

Joe: What is your definition of social intelligence by the way?
Social intelligence is the analysis of digital conversations to answer questions, test hypotheses or find insights that can be used to guide decision making. It has recently morphed into consumer intelligence or digital consumer intelligence, which I would say is an effort by the tech companies to differentiate their products as they begin to explore a wider variety of data sources rather than being a whole new discipline. Most practitioners would typically use these data sources anyway. If you Google ‘social intelligence’ you'll get a lot of links to do with emotional intelligence, which is quite interesting to me because I think they're very similar. A real strength of social data is the ability to understand people’s authentic emotions on a topic.

Joe: Covid and the ensuing lockdowns were a big shock to the consumer insights industry forcing many to pivot their opinion gathering techniques. Do you think this experience has opened the industry’s eyes to the value of social insights?
I think it has, but the bigger issue is the ability to get the work done successfully. I know of several brands that went out and procured new solutions to help them gather social insights but once they had them, realized they couldn’t use them because they lacked the expertise to get value from these solutions. This highlights the skills gap that exists and probably also highlights why the specialist social intelligence agencies are doing so well: brands can’t do this analysis work themselves and are having to outsource it. All the specialist agencies we work with have reported dramatic increases in their work and are hiring staff to keep up.

Joe: Can you talk more about the skills gap you mentioned?
Social listening solutions are often billed as DIY insight tools with this idea that you can give it to anybody in the organization, train them up and off they go. This democratization of social data certainly sounds great in theory, but we know from the more mature, advanced organizations that this approach of onboarding half the company on a tool doesn’t work, and what you need to democratize instead is the insights. And that’s because it's time consuming to cleanse and segment data and interpret the findings in a meaningful way. It’s certainly not for a novice to do or someone who is only logging-in once a week to take a quick look at a dashboard.

Joe: You’re therefore arguing for a ‘Centre of Excellence’ that can feed different parts of the organization with social insights tailored to their specific needs?
Yes, definitely. We are seeing many enterprise organizations building out listening teams or social intelligence teams that often are part of the org’s broader insights function. Their job is to embed themselves into specific business units or departments delivering social insights to those teams and educating them on the kinds of problems or questions that social data can answer. It’s one part delivery and another part education.

Joe: What’s a best practice for getting this set up?
Many organizations’ success has started with their senior leadership promoting the importance of not just social intelligence, but data driven decision making, of which social data is one part. Your interview with Adam Mills highlighting British Telecom’s journey is a great example. I’d also say that a vast majority of the time, when an organization is investing in social data heavily, it’s because social insights helped them come through some sort of crisis where it provided a real-time pulse of what was happening that they couldn’t get anywhere else. Utilizing this type of experience to your advantage is important. We’ve also seen organizations grow internal adoption by sending daily briefings customized to specific departments and personas. This makes it more tangible, and people get interested.

Joe: You mentioned that more and more organizations are seeing the value in insights from social data. What’s keeping it from being used more consistently in market research?
: I think a big part of it is in the data access models available to market researchers. Most of the social listening solutions have historically required a year-long contract which doesn’t always fit well with the episodic, project-based world of market researchers who may only need access for a few weeks at a time. More flexible consumption models would certainly make it easier for them to access the data they need. Another challenge is that most of the solutions haven’t been built with market researchers in mind. They [market researchers] tend to want to get the data out of the solution so they can create their own code frames and segmentations and that’s not particularly easy. I do see it improving however as the listening solutions see a huge growth opportunity in market research.

Joe: On that point of technology, text and image analytics have come a long way in just the past few years. Are these advances the missing link allowing new personas to unlock more insight across new use cases?
: There has been technological development in the area, but it is not the technology that unlocks the value. We’re not in a place yet where having the technology is going to be the missing link and I’d argue that we should never sell social intelligence in this way. Businesses need to invest in skills, the experts with social insight experience. It is these people who are going to unlock more insight and use cases across the organization. We need to identify the use cases and questions where social data can support the business, not be led by new functionality in technology to tell us what we should be doing. If we look at image analysis, there is huge potential for insights here but if you speak to a semiotician they would say the tech does not help them gain insights from the data easily. I think this is the main reason organizations are struggling to make visual listening work for them, as just one example.

Joe: Final question then...what’s Twitter data’s superpower?
In wider society, it's the surfacing of cultural trends, meaning what big trends are becoming important. Your cultural trends report is always a good read. At a brand level, it’s customer experience - instead of looking at cx data at the individual level, go macro and you can learn a lot.

Joe: Many thanks for your time today, Jillian!


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