Monday, January 3, 2011

Token 'Future of' Post: Listening in 2011

The problem with the new dark coffee mugs in the office is that we used to have white ones. Thus, what used to be a known-- the stains, has became a known unknown: a dark mug hiding the stains within. Gives me pause every time I use them- I know something's there, I just don't know how bad it is. Humor me for a second and see how I'm like a proverbial client in a non-customer-centric organization: I know my customers are complaining, but I don't know exactly what they're saying, or how much better my product could fit their needs.

Listening (née social media monitoring) used to be a means to uncover known unknowns like this-- predictable sets of things known to be possible.

The future of listening was the promise of evolving to unknown unknowns-- things we didn't even know could be out there. For example, the prospect of happening upon unexpected audiences (i.e. Dads?) talking about your product being used in unintended ways (i.e. eye cream for cellulite!).

Six years of listening has turned up hundreds to thousands of those kinds of anecdotes, yet still there is no precise science to uncover unknown unknowns. We still somewhat systematically rely on a backbone of metrics such as discussion volume, sentiment, and topics. Sometimes we try to identify "influence," although there is no agreed upon algorithm to capture "influencers." There is also no clear winner/best of breed technology with 100% accurate sentiment mining or topics analysis.

I think it's time for us to agree that isn't the future of listening. Technology will not get to the point where we can algorithmically detect weak signals in real (enough) time to prevent crises or perfect product development-- much more than we can today.

The future of listening will transcend technological advancements. The future of listening-- the near future-- is making it work in an organization. Operationalizing listening as a standard business process. The future is a flow chart that integrates people (e.g. customer service, product), process (e.g. escalation, resolution), and technology (e.g. from listening to CRM) and disseminates results to a wider group of stakeholders.

I don't think the fundamental challenges of listening have been solved; and, don't want to encourage stagnation. We should forever challenge ourselves to better understand the complexities of language via semantic analysis and capture and classify new types of data (e.g. check-ins, metadata), but we should go ahead and make listening part of everyone's daily life without waiting for perfect technology and standardized metrics.

That is the future. Serve the coffee in the potentially stained mugs. People need their caffeine to function.

Photo credit: cudmore on Flickr