If you have ever listened to recordings from radio telescopes, it sounds like a wash of white noise, and you might ask yourself, what am I listening for here, this all sounds the same? Astronomers will the tell you that they are listening for signals… signals of cosmic activity; new insights into a corner of our galaxy; a different perspective that might enhance understandings we may have from optical telescopes that can’t ‘see’ what’s really there.

Social media can, at a glance, look like the same kind of white noise, where thousands of conversations and interactions blend together. It’s easy to dismiss it as all being the same….

If, like tuning a radio telescope on specific parts of the sky, you listen carefully, you can hear individual conversations where people share on their blogs, their twitter timelines, their forum discussions… really interesting and novel ideas, questions, observations. If you pay attention and listen carefully, you can hear signals in the noise… an unmet need or a new opportunity that no one else has spotted.

Martin Harrysson, Estelle Métayer, and Hugo Sarrazin posted a great article in the McKinsey Quarterly about the importance of weak signals and discovering snippets of information in social media streams that may offer new opportunities for a business. It was a great article, and I wanted to expand on this topic here in the Academy.

Social business is, in part, about internal employee dialog through enterprise collaboration systems, and about external market dialog through social media networks. These internal and external conversations are a tremendous source for blue ocean opportunity. The key, is that you have to listen. The key, is that today’s executive needs to listen.

Why is it important for executives to listen?

Business leaders have deep industry expertise and knowledge that affords great understanding and context, enabling one to connect dots the uninitiated might miss. The practice of intentional listening, of taking the time to sift through comments and posts, creates the awareness and openness needed for leadership to engage with their teams about what everyone’s hearing ‘out there’.

The key here is to be curious. It’s important to pay attention to what’s happening in the marketplace; to see what your competitors are doing; to see how your customers are responding; to get a deeper sense of where the market is trending. Andrew Grill, an IBM executive focused around Social Business practices, often says that “listening in social media is the best market research you never commissioned.” He’s right. Social listening provides the kind of insight you just can’t get anywhere else.

The key is to pay attention. It’s important to listen for opportunities for disruption – new business models – the blue oceans of unmet market need that no one has yet spotted. 

Quote clouds
Build an array
Radio astronomers say that an array of dishes can collectively listen with larger signal collection, and can also be also directed to listen to larger portions of the sky than a single dish. The same applies to business. The more listening posts you have in a company, the more likely you are to spot unmet needs and potential opportunities.

The executive that listens to social signals and also empowers employees to listen for signals, increases a company’s ability to spot new opportunities. If employees see their leadership listening and discussing what they hear, they will do the same.

Speed and range – listening for all parts of the business

Listening for signals can provide executives tremendous insights across all aspects of the business – sales, marketing, customer service, product development, the overall brand impression and perception. Executives should know what people are saying about the brand, about the company, about leadership.

Today, markets across all industries are evolving and progressing with increased speed. New competitors with disruptive business models are emerging weekly. Customers are more connected and more educated that ever before… and they are sharing their observations and experiences openly.

Listening for signals is really the only way to “see” today’s constantly changing landscape and really the best way to spot unmet and emerging opportunities.

You never know when something is going to jump right out at you from all that seeming ‘noise’.

How to Get Started Listening for Signals?
(1) Listen through your Twitter followers and follow appropriate hashtag discussions
(2) Read through blogs of customers/influencers/users/partners/competitors (this is a key source for signals because blogs provide space for people to really get into a)unmet needs or b) share observations in depth
(3) Beta program tester feedback – setup forums that allow your beta testers to share and discuss your product, what’s it doesn’t do, what they wish it would do
(4) Pay attention to customer feedback and complaints… review your customer service records, company social networks
(5) Look for online places where people in our target market go to exchange, interact and share stories…. Forums, LinkedIn Groups, Blogs, Communities, Facebook Fan pages, etc.