May 17, 2023

The Journey from Loathing to Loving Social Intelligence with Kelly McKnight of Join the Dots

Date & Time (GMT):
May 17, 2023 12:47 PM
Date & Time (EST):
May 17, 2023 12:47 PM

What happens when you suddenly become the owner of your company's social listening programs but you secretly don’t want to be?

We think it probably looks a lot like the journey Kelly McKnight went through. Or [spoiler] at least you’ll end up loving it, and your clients loving you for it.

As the Head of Culture and Trends team at Join the Dots, Kelly, and her team of experts are more at home with trend forecasting, semiotics, intercultural communication and anthropology to help their clients understand cultural differences and profit from change than social listening.

Kelly was hesitant to take ownership of social listening at the time, well because Culture and Trends are about subtle shifts, culture, and big ideas. Culture and Trends aren’t about scraping, tagging or measuring – or so she thought.

After presenting her work at the Market Research Society’s, Social Research Summit, Kelly was kind enough to spend some time with us to tell us more about her journey into social intelligence.

In this article, you’ll learn about Kelly’s concerns for social listening in trends research, her first forays and failures in social listening, and how identifying vendor guilt helped her to reframe her approach.

You’ll also learn how she overcame the limitations of social listening tools (yes, there’s limitations) to develop four strong use cases for social listening at Join the Dots.

The Problem: Certainty on Measuring and Drawing Conclusions

Like many researchers, Kelly had concerns over exactly what she was measuring and how she could possibly draw reasonable conclusions from what she found.

She’d also never seen a social listening report that she’d liked the look of or couldn’t have found the answer without it.

Perhaps you can relate?

In the last few years, however, clients have been requesting social listening research, and other people are offering the service.

Being honest with herself, it also made perfect sense for her Culture and Trends team at the Join the Dots to take ownership with their ethos of understanding people around the world.

The trouble was she didn’t feel confident that she could draw relevant and rich insight from social data.

First Failure: A Lack of Conversation

The first project her team did was looking into a night-repair toothpaste in China and Japan.

Kelly and her team gathered a list of keywords, scraped and found, well little.

Unsurprisingly, you might learn that there is very little conversation on social around night-repair toothpaste.

Feeling vindicated, Kelly told us that she felt a little smug that her first thoughts were right – she can get better answers from other forms of research.

But, that didn’t help her with meeting her client’s needs. Kelly learned that clients feel reassured my analyzing online conversations – they absolutely need to and want to analyze social conversations.

So, she had to find a way to make it work. The trouble was there was a lot of hoops to jump through and her exchanges with her vendor of choice initially sent her in the wrong direction.

Identifying Vendor Guilt and Moving from Listening to Understanding

Initially frustrated with her first forays into social listening, Kelly felt like she couldn’t get it.

The thing holding her back?

Vendors have a very specific way of looking at things. Kelly found first hand that many social listening tools are oversold. Everything she learned was from the vendors point of view, and this didn’t help her tackle the larger research challenges she was looking at.

There wasn’t a fit between how vendors approached social listening and how she thought about research. It wasn’t until she began to reframe what she was doing with social listening that the pieces fell into place.

Kelly feels that instead of blindly following data, the approach at Join the Dots should be to help clients to make sense of social data by contextualizing it effectively – and, using it in combination with other research techniques.

She warns that social listening should never alone be seen as the answer. This is something that she feels vendors are a little guilty of having you believe.

The Join the Dots approach is to accept and address the limitations of social listening – and add the elements that are not available. Joining the dots between different data sources if you like!

The approach Kelly created moves from listening to understanding. And, the theory underpinning it – the concept of ‘Thick Data’.

Building on Thick Data

Thick Data involves qualitative informative materials, tools or techniques that help researchers to create granular, specific knowledge about audiences – to humanize the data.

It’s argued that Thick Data goes beyond big data to explain why consumers have certain preferences, the reasons they behave the way they do, and why certain trends stick.

Approaches to Thick data analysis draws upon ethnographical skills and is really interesting for approaching anthropology – something akin to the work that Kelly’s Culture & Trends team is responsible for.

Building upon this knowledge, Kelly re-explored her approach to social listening.

Four Ways Join the Dots Overlays Thick Data onto Social Media Data

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world or what industry you are in, when you start to analyze social data you realize that there’s a lot of context missing.

And, it can be a worry that you’re going to miss something important in your interpretation.

The trick to getting deep insights from social data is in how you integrate the contextual references back into the analysis.

Kelly use the concept of Thick Data to overcome the limited contextual and cultural understanding of social data. She shared four hacks on using Thick Data to analyze the signals found in social data.

#1 Solving the Lack of Cultural Context

If you’ve run social listening research before you’ll know that the success of the project is all in the keyword set up. But, it can be tricky to know that you’ve got all the right words and phrases.

To overcome this problem, Kelly and her team work with a network of real people in local markets who help set up searches and layer on context to interpret the findings. This helps Join the Dots to easily identify cultural truths from the data.

#2 Solving Dark Social

A topic on everyone’s lips is ‘dark social’ – the sharing of content on ‘dark’ channels where we are unable to scrape the data.

To overcome the issue of dark social and understand ‘influence at scale’, Kelly and her team hung around with a group of influencers.   They built up a relationship with these people so they felt comfortable sharing the images and conversations they were having. They then used this information to compare it against what they were seeing in public channels and used a survey to piece together a full picture of influence and where it is heading.

#3 Solving Visual Analysis

Over the last year or so, visual social listening has been a widely discussed topic but it’s not as simple as scraping relevant brand images. Social listening doesn’t decode images to the degree that is needed to design consumption experiences.

To overcome this, the Join the Dots approach uses semiotic analysis to culturally decode the meaning behind the images shared on social media. This is achieved by analyzing the literal, metaphorical and emotional content in images.

Semiotic coding has given Kelly and her team a deeper understanding of the images shared in social media, their meanings and who is sharing them. Something she believes gives her deeper understanding than searching social media for images without direction because the codes identified have come from the consumer world, not from the researcher ‘gut feel’.

#4 Solving the Inability to Ask Questions

The big thing about social listening is that it assumes we already know the answers. Shock horror – this is why you tend to find insights people already know.

To overcome this challenge, Kelly and her team have created a way of ‘social asking’. Join the Dots have ‘always on’ insight communities where they can gather data quickly in a social way. They do this by using social listening to ask better questions that are more spontaneous, from the consumer world and adopt the appropriate language.

Kelly’s key takeouts for running Social Listening Research

Towards the end of our conversation, Kelly told us that it took her about six months to find the love for social listening – once she started seeing social listening for what it can do the opportunities became clear to her. She’s now really excited about the potential for new projects.

Kelly gave us three key takeout’s for you to use in your own social listening programs:

#1 Accept the Limitations

Kelly’s approach didn’t brush the limitations of social listening under the covers – she tackled these challenges head-on to reduce the risk of error or misinterpretation.

There’s lots of limitations but one of the biggest is the way you need to frame the questions – you need to ask the right question to remove all ambiguity.

For your projects, you need to identify where the limitations are and make a plan to fill the holes with other forms of research.

#2 Get Thick with Data

Kelly says that social listening is great at measuring, but what social lacks is human stories.

Thick Data layers on context in abundance. Kelly advises to layer on cultural context, dark social and semiotics to have the right tools in your toolkit.

#3 Join the Dots

Kelly argues that as researchers, we need to think about social listening as part of a wider solution – a set of tools for understanding people rather than a solution itself.

She tells us that she is excited by the combination of insight streams – her team are now working on projects that combine more traditional asking with listening, trends, contextualization, and semiotics.

Kelly feels that this approach offers better answers to the very increasingly complex challenges present to Join the Dots by their clients.

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