Reading the minds of millions

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Social markets, just like their financial counterparts, are driven by sentiment and the interactions of many. What’s being said about you now – right now – on Twitter, Facebook et al represents your likeability in real time. Some days you’ll trend up – meaning people generally feel good about you. At other times, the mass of opinion will be negative, impartial or absent. Same for your competitors.

A spike in your Likes does not automatically correspond to a surge in your brand equity. Equally, a hail of comments is not necessarily a condemnation or an endorsement. It is a reaction.

Understanding the sentiments behind these shifts in collective mood, quantifying them and responding to them is important – and yet what you’re seeing through your analytics feeds is often just momentary. They can mean as little as instant celebrity. Your brand is the subject of a meme – and then it’s not. The risk of reading too much into the numbers is that you essentially treat social media as polling booths for your brand strategy, and allow yourselves to be unduly influenced by the flood of comments and opinions ebbing and flowing across the social universe. And yet, at the same time, we can all name brands that have ignored what is being said online and have come to regret it.

So when should you read a lot into people are saying – and when should you not? Here are my four guidelines on how to read what’s happening

1. Is the feedback to an event, a decision or a strategy? That’s important because you need to assess how much information or what developments people are reacting to. Will that change when they learn more? If you are going to release more information and you get caught in a rip or find yourselves riding a nice wave, it makes sense, and it adds credibility, to tell people what further information is coming and when.

2. Can you fix it or capitalise on it? Are people sounding off about something and using your brand to do it, or is the feedback specific to you and something that you have done? If the problem can be fixed, acknowledge, undertake to fix it and thank people for their input. If you have stuffed up, apologise. If the problem is wider, think about starting a conversation about it, using the online buzz to get media interested. But people also engage on an issue because they want something to change – for example, they may want less of it, more of it, or access to it. It can be hugely powerful to agree with a proposed change and take actions to progress it.

3. What are the competitive dynamics? If you trade in a highly competitive environment, you will need to act/react quickly to secure loyalty. If your environment is less competitive, you still need to take notice but you may be able to buy a bit more time to make more considered changes. Either way, you still need to keep people informed and you still need to address what sparked their action/reaction in the first place.

4. Have a trigger. Have an agreed “flash point” at which you agree that a situation has gathered enough momentum to warrant social intervention. That way, you can push the wave up further, or get involved before the situation suddenly worsens. Such a point allows you to use your social resources wisely, engage in conversations appropriately and remain on course and yet responsive.

The key point to remember is that your interactions with people through social media are only likely to increase, and therefore the dynamics of what I refer to as “critical mass” are only going to increase. As Brian Solis observes in this post on Global Web Trends , “Social media is a global phenomenon indeed … The distance between any two people is shrinking as the number of network connections continues to proliferate … According to comScore, numbers show that social networking is the most popular online activity worldwide … Social networks for many, are the hub for their entire online experience. They introduce the need for any organization with a content strategy to rethink what they create, when, where and how.” Mobile devices, he says, will further fuel social addiction.

So expect the market that could react to you to keep growing. Expect the reactions as a consequence to be potentially bigger and therefore more explosive. Expect more volatility in how you are valued online. Expect the patience that consumers have with your reaction times to their opinions to keep falling.

Your ability to interprete what’s being said about your brand as whim, outrage, chatter or opportunity will be tested exponentially as numbers continue to spiral. At the same time, the sheer volume of people engaged in social communities will give social networks extraordinary influence potentially.

What will it do to your strategies and what will happen to your sales funnel as the size of the market that buys continues to shrink in proportion to the size of the market that talks? Logic suggests a tipping point – but to what, and when? Solis suggests in his post that hyperconnected networks (Generation C) will see brands looking to unite people with a global strategy and at the same time using local presence and content to increase relevance, engagement and resonance. Brands, in other words, even the biggest of them, will engage with people at both universal and dialectal levels – meaning in turn that conversations can start and scale from more and more neighbourhoods at so many different points on the globe. And then, they can scale in different ways, to different networks, at different speeds and with different consequences.

If Solis is right, brands will then need to listen even more closely … to understand what they should ignore.

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