For brands, see politics: The answers are out there, if you stop asking the questions

For the sake of the brands you represent, avoid questions and the associated confirmation bias, and start using raw data to find out what people really think.

Stop asking questions and start listening to the public, argues Jimmy Leach (┬ęThinkstockPhotos)
I've had it with confirmation bias. It's proved itself to be a real pain recently.
In politics, the need for media and polling companies to ‘own’ the questions meant they asked the wrong ones. 

The answers they received indicated victories for the Tory/Liberal coalition in the General Election, for the Remainers in the EU referendum and for Hillary Clinton in the US.

That went well.

For brands and the reputational work around them, confirmation bias works in another way - an agency or in-house team deciding ahead of time what their challenges are and looking for answers and data that work to that agenda. 

Asking questions where you know the answers so that you can keep the invoices flowing. Post-rationalisation in a post-truth world. 

It’s a living.

This started to hit home as I watched an agency trawl social media for the recognised reputational challenges for a well-know brand. 

As each mention cropped up, the same question: "What should we do?". "Sit tight" was always the answer. The requirement wasn’t to actually respond, just to watch (and bill them).

It was confirmed as I wrote up social media analysis for the surprisingly estimable IB Times. Like every wet liberal, I was looking for confirmation that Hillary would win. 

The data and analysis, provided by Impact Social, kept challenging that. Until I was predicting that we’d have President Trump on our hands.

That happened because the process changed - I stopped asking questions and recognised that the answers are already out there. 

Social media is full of them - the secret is in listening, in separating public opinion from punditry and in listening to what the crowd says and analysing that, not coming up with the questions and finding answers to match.

So, instead of soliciting responses, listen to that which users freely put out there about your brand (getting the filtering right is not swayed by professional ‘influencers’) and open your mind to what people are actually saying, rather than hoping for answers to a pre-set list of questions.

It’s not as simple as listening to everything and writing it all down, of course, but it certainly means avoiding algorithms. 

Human opinions are not machine-readable.

It also means understanding the demographic data, making sure that volume isn’t mistaken for influence.

It also means understanding how the news cycle works and that blips around topics are not trends.

In short, it needs work, experience, expertise and understanding. Not every agency has those.

But only by physically reading the raw data, independently through the eyes of the client, can an agency provide real understanding as to what consumers are thinking about a brand.

This is where the real analysis begins - by delving into the topics discussed and finding out why consumers feel as they do.

Only then can the brand people truly discover real insights, whether their marketing is successful and why. 

Only then can they see if their messages are landing how long they will last. It’s all about the data but it’s more all about the understanding. But it’s really about the listening. 

The information is easily found, but the open minds to analyse it are harder to come by. Those who listen can learn, those who question will only find the answers they seek.

Jimmy Leach is a freelance digital consultant

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