Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Business decisions based on sentiment

Photo credit: Paul Ekman's facial expressions,
Every executive I've spoken to since 2005 has been tantalized by the promise of using social media sentiment as a KPI. Sentiment was hyped to be the most actionable of all social media data, a tidy shortcut to business decisions, not too unrelated from perception-based metrics of old with massive scale.

This continues to be a promise, with examples cropping up of campaigns being tweaked, products reintroduced or discontinued, all based on sentiment. Real business decisions.

At the same time, more scrutiny is being placed on sentiment-- how it's calculated, whose sentiment it reflects, what data it needs to be validated by, and why it fluctuates, in the context of vertical norms and benchmarks.

The market appears to be maturing rapidly about the different ways it's calculated, as witnessed in part by listening platform differentiation based on sentiment technique. Often it's a make-or-break decision to have the possibility of customized sentiment rules in a platform. Academia mirrors this trajectory with papers in psychology, computer science, and communications optimizing algorithms and language processing techniques.

We've fixated on how closely we can mirror sophisticated human judgment. And incremental improvements arise frequently. So much so, it's made me wonder whether accuracy is the most important part of this equation. What about the relationship between sentiment (emotion, incl.) and behavior? Or more precisely, how much of (the variance in) purchase behavior can be predicted by sentiment? In order for executive decisions to be based on sentiment, we need to know which behaviors are reliably tied to sentiment. The academic literature runs sparse (and/or wild) here-- as do publicized business cases. 

Structure (amidst big data) does not necessarily beget (revenue yielding) behavior.  Our hopes are only partially fulfilled; our work, only partially done-- in order to enable business decisions based on sentiment, we need more research on the behavioral relationship.

If you can make it to San Francisco next week, I'll be discussing this topic at the Sentiment Symposium. Until then, I look forward to hearing from challengers here. Executives, tell me your greatest examples of business decisions based on sentiment. Academics, share your research on the relationship between sentiment and behavior. Together we'll derive hypotheses as to when we can and cannot act on sentiment.  

Friday, August 31, 2012

The fear, laziness, ignorance, and plain old difficulty of getting out of our own shoes

"I think that we’re so caught up in our worlds that if we want to make these quantum leaps we have to step out of the world a bit. It opens your eyes to the possibilities."

"The more you look outside the more you realize that some of the ways that we have defined what we study within the field aren’t necessarily getting at the right thing."

I'll leave these quotes anonymously sourced for now. They're from two psychologists-- the first, a personality psychologist, the second, a cognitive one. They're reflective of a growing appreciation of working in a cross-disciplinary fashion-- specifically going outside of psychology into business, computer science, and politics. 

The problem is the classic Rumsfeldian "unknown unknown"-- a now tired way of saying we don't really know that there is an outside of our field, or how to get there. 

It's hard to stray from a given path
  • Often you don't look for comparisons, because it doesn't occur to you that things could be another way. "Normal" is typically hard to define without comprehensive data. 
  • Other times different cultures (used broadly) speak different languages-- progress is challenging when we call the same things different names.  
  • Sometimes we're stubborn and resistant to different or dissenting views. 

How do you consciously take on a new perspective? Bob Metcalfe often gives the advice of taking a new route home-  consciously getting out of your routine and trying to notice something new.  My approach has always been proactively questioning definitions-- recognizing that concepts can be operationalized differently to prevent assumptions. 

Often in psychology experiments (and contextual inquiry), participants will be asked to wear cameras affixed on (not IN) their foreheads. This helps the researcher understand life from another perspective, very literally. 

Maria Montessori, whose birthday it is today, asks parents to think about life from the child's perspective by getting down on your hands and knees and exploring your home. 

Try it. I love how such a literal example can have such a huge impact. It's more surprising than it seems. Imagine if you did the equivalent of this with your work. What does your work look like to a psychologist? To a doctor? To a marketer? To something/ someone you're not? 


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On Inchworms and Nightingales, or measuring social media

My son has a tendency of having me read him the same five books every night for a a few weeks. So on, about, our 40th reading of Leo Lionni's Inch by Inch, my mind wandered as I read about the clever inchworm who inched away from the nightingale, when challenged to measure her song. You see, the inchworm had already won over the likes of the crow, flamingo, toucan, pheasant, etc. - simply by measuring their tails, beaks, or legs. I was frustrated with the inchworm-- why would he inch away like a coward, when he could be creative and attempt to measure the nightingale's song in an unconventional way, even if a song is difficult to measure.

I immediately thought of marketers in social media-- running from challenges like measuring customer satisfaction or advocacy, engagement, simply because they're kludgey in social: people express them in different ways, they're ambiguous concepts with specific methodologies, the sample isn't representative...  These constructs are indeed complex, but not impossible to measure.

In psychology, they measure love, well-being, hope, personality-- really ambiguous constructs. But they do it systematically and so it's repeatable and testable, or adheres to basic measurement criteria. 

This is what I'd like to discuss at SXSW, with Sam Gosling, personality psychologist extraordinaire and author of the book Snoop, What Your Stuff Says About You.
Sam studies how personality is revealed in everyday life. He systematically measures:
  • The environments we select and create - physical (bedrooms and offices), virtual (webpages, FB), aural (music), and social (places);
  • Personality - our own perceptions, others' perceptions; and,
  • Accuracy of the relationship - things that really do reveal personality, things that people judge our personality based on, etc.  
Of course I have a bias that almost all answers to business questions have roots in psychology. This time, it's an obvious fit. Some of the measurement challenges that marketers are grappling with today could really benefit from understanding the way psychologists have developed common coins to help draw general conclusions (read: measurement standards) and creative means of going beyond standard assessments with more innovative methodologies (read: proxies) to capture different levels of behavior.

I hope this post will start a conversation to surface some of the measurement challenges you're working through-- particularly those where you're interested in how a psychologist would approach them. Please share your questions and vote for our session if you're curious to hear and discuss more. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

on knowing people

People are interesting.

Interesting, as defined in many ways and identified in even more. But this 'interestingness' is:
  • Casually applied - assuming people do/want things and, for example, designing programs or products to fulfill needs we don't really have, 
  • Sometimes misapplied - misunderstanding findings; overly simplifying complex concepts; and,
  • Often spectacularized - media coverage of psych studies, for example, showing how irrational people are.

Usually, it's ignored.

Last week my Knowable intern, Nicole, and I completed our first round of interviews with psychologists - mainly social psychologists, but also including cognitive, personality, developmental, and evolutionary psychologists. The main goal of the interviews is to begin to catalog some of the ways in which we people are interesting, how we know it, and why it's interesting, or where - outside of academia-  it can be applied. An important and unique component of these interviews is that they're meant to be accessible to a non-academic audience. We want to have these conversations in a way so that anyone and everyone can better understand what's known and start to think about better harnessing it.

The project, which you can begin to read about below, is meant to be a first step in the longer-term goal of connecting academic psychology with business. I'll start to use this space to talk more about what we're finding and how we're planning to make this connection in the short- and long- term. In the meantime, if you're a psychologist and would like to be involved in the project, or are a product designer, developer, or storyteller in business with a particular interest in psychology, let us know.

The gist:

I've been out of academia for nearly ten years.

Working at a start-up, a market research firm, and a consultancy, with many of the largest global brands, I've identified a big opportunity to generate more awareness of psychological findings. From marketing to product development, businesses are hungry to understand why people do what they do; yet they act in absence of the wealth of research that psychologists have amassed.

I'm trying to identify the right way to bridge these worlds of academic psychology and business. Involvement in business for academics can lead to expanded funding opportunities, a new perspective on current research questions, and identification of additional, unanticipated applications. As businesses become aware of the relevance of this research and the minds behind it, they can, in turn, better design their services to meet the needs of users and consumers.

As an effort to begin connecting these worlds, we're creating a quarterly newsletter with an accompanying analog experience, or "box of research" that highlights select psychologists‚ research interests, tastes and perspectives to pique the interest of this different audience. Rather than using published research as our  starting point, we've been conducting interviews for two main reasons:
  1. So that I rely on my own experience in "both worlds‚" to ask mutually relevant and interesting questions
  2. To make the content more approachable (i.e. create a casual, personable context).

In the future, we'd like to help establish more direct links between academics and business people to ask and answer more focused questions. The tagged database of interviews we maintain will help us act as brokers of these relationships.

We're open and eager for feedback. Please contact us with your design, development, or storytelling quandaries. Psychologists, if there are particular applications outside of academia that resonate with you, let us know!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Publicly living in the implied presence of others

I will reserve POVs on the $104B valuation for other platforms, but want to praise the conceptual winner today: the validation of the social psychological being.
Today, we celebrate the IPO of the company, entity, and social force that has made explicit the previously invisible ways we communicate our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. I realize this isn't the case for everyone, but saying "thoughts, feelings, and behaviors" is a scripted schema in my book, as memorized from the classic definition of social psychology,
The scientific study of how people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are affected by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others. (Allport, 1954)
In other words, when I think about Facebook and this script rolls off my tongue, I realize a less scandalous and/or money-making version of The Social Network might have depicted (a less entrepreneurial) Zuckerberg interviewing all social and personality psychologists, understanding the plight of observing people in labs, and deciding to revolutionize the way experiments are done.

The little code-- brains, and momentum that motivated 900M people to hop on and interact for us all to observe and engage with is social psychology's moment in the sun.

Facebook is a petri dish of social psychological experimentation. It's us proclaiming our identity to others as we are and as we want to be seen-- the seeds of social desirability, self-verification, social comparison. It's us leaving and perceiving behavioral residues as cues to our personalities. It's us demonstrating our psychological orientation to the world through language. It's a constant reminder of our need for belonging.  

Whether we have an illusion of transparency or control, suffer from the imposter effect, have egocentric biases, need social validation... some of my favorite psychological concepts, Facebook lets us express our social psychological selves and celebrate in others' expression.
Congratulations, Facebook!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Listening for stories, a uniquely human, unautomated response

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar

Sometimes I find myself wandering in conversation. I get distracted by peripheral cues on speakers (tattoos, verbal mannerisms) and hypotheses of my own I'm continually testing (building a case).

In light of my past post on storylistening in business, I've started thinking more specifically about what it means to be a good listener, without technology. The other night a friend (who happens to be a preeminent communications researcher) suggested "patience" and "imagination." Patience for a story to develop, imagination to string it together.

Imagination has stuck with me-- and might be the perfect concept to help turn storytelling on its head (to story listening). We naturally think about the ability to capture people's imagination with stories we tell, but what about using your own imagination to capture other people's stories, as listeners?

This reminds me of what Robert Sapolsky highlights in his book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, about the role of stress making us vulnerable to disease. Sapolsky explains that an unfortunately unique human ability to worry is what predisposes us to stress (thus illness) over Zebras, for example, who focus on acute physical stressors (e.g. running from predators, asap!).

Worrying, in some ways, is about being imaginative-- thinking about the future, letting our minds wander as we play with potential scenarios. It's the downside of imagination. In listening for stories, we have to learn to harness the ability to be imaginative without wandering aimlessly, or ruminating. We have to imagine characters for whom who we may not have faces to place, we must infer emotions, deduce feelings, 'form images not perceived through our senses'. But we have to do this in a focused way.

To listen for a story strikes me as a uniquely human thing to do; yet, something we don't naturally slip into as automatically as our stress response kicks in with 'worry.' If we hone our imagination as we listen, I think stories will more easily emerge.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Listening for stories, storytelling's analytic stepsister

Loud speaker, credit:
It's hard to tell a good story.

But storytelling is very hot-- big organizations commission storytellers to story their brand or events.

Storytelling is not just hip to do. It's become a marketing mandate: Don't message, story! Facebook, naturally, has played a role in its mainstream adoption. There are also TED videos on storytelling. And blog posts abound with tips to create suspense and tension, or use storytelling vocabulary like "themes," "formulas," or plain old "plot." 

Like most 'big things' in business, there isn't an algorithm for creating stories. But even from a very removed stance, we know a good story requires a good listener; a listener who gets to know the characters, buys in to the premise, and becomes totally absorbed. With the race to capture the 'signals from the noise,' I often worry this skill of listening to and *for* stories is dying.

Tandem to the trend in telling stories must be a trend in listening for stories; think of it as the analytic stepsister.  

If you-- or an organization-- is too focused on creating and telling your stories, it's only an incremental improvement from creating messages and telling them on a 'one-way-street'. To really embrace storytelling, you need to incorporate elements of the audience-- listen to their cues, their digital body language.

Here's where some of what we know from psychology can be helpful (e.g. cues taken from person perception, relationships, 'the self', narrative psychology) :

  • Listen for context - Context is already a big word in listening-- typically it refers to the category within which a brand/ product sits. Instead, think of the context of your customers' and users' lives. Listening for the roles they play, their goals, the skills they have, their values. Many contextual cues can be aided by technology. Think about new queries you might run with sample roles, for example (i.e. aunt, teacher, photographer, geocacher). 

  •  Listen for facts and feelings. Our industry is obsessively focused on sentiment. While sometimes emotion-laden content signals an impassioned customer on her way to checkout, a lot of the good stuff happens in neutral (content and moods) and is conveyed through other types of words (pronouns, anyone?). Stories are rarely all drama, or exclusive positive or negative sentiment. Don't ignore content that doesn't contain strong opinions.
  • Listen for plot - Abandon preconceived notions so you're open to twists and unexpected story development. Self-defining moments are rarely borne out of habits and routine. It's easy to miss out on seminal, story-building momentum (i.e. unintended product use) by trying to confirm your expectations. This leads to the most labor-intensive advice: you must be inductive and deductive. Use specific queries, but more importantly explore freely. Become intimate with the data, qualitatively. Read. Read. Read. 

  • Listen for rhythm. You can't listen for stories in snapshots (i.e. one-time audits). You need to understand the order of events and how incidents are layered over time. People go through stages-- not just from awareness to intent, desire, and action; nor do they reliably visit, engage, share. They follow winding paths with firsts and lasts and several moments in between. David Armano often refers to the "rhythm" of a story akin to the soundtrack in a movie. Rhythm is another area where a taxonomy of stages and incidents can support your thorough qualitative scrutiny of the data. 

Listening for brand mentions-- and even doing customer service in a limited and transactional manner, will only buy you the "psychology of a stranger." That is, it won't take you very far in getting to know your customers. Advocacy, by any name, has reciprocity at its heart. You must listen to their stories if you want yours to be remembered and retold.

*Apologies to any readers unfamiliar with the industry term "listening"-- a technical term referring to the monitoring and analysis of social media.