50 Shades of Narratives

Thursday, July 6 2017 Doug Randall Categories:

The story a company sees could change dramatically, depending on where it looks


Most organizations understand the value of Narratives, even if they don’t use that terminology. Companies often look to traditional or social media in order to try to understand where they fit into the public belief system. Unfortunately often they’re only getting one piece of the puzzle, and that’s a very dangerous situation for businesses that need to make decisions about where to focus resources and what messages to send.


All organizations come to the table with inherent biases which will color the places they choose to look for information. If they miss something critical, those groups could be blindsided by a Narrative they didn’t anticipate. For example, they might find themselves in an unexpected PR crisis or miss a critical opportunity to establish a voice or win new business.


The only way to avoid falling prey to bad decision-making is to look at the landscape holistically, with a technology that incorporates all the moving parts. That’s what we do with Narrative Analytics.


Missing the Forest for the Trees in Traditional Media

In the era of distrust around “fake news”, understanding traditional media has never been more confusing. The difficulty in ciphering beliefs through media goes far beyond “fact” or “not fact”, however. It’s more about siloes. Articles are often a reflection of one particular angle, or way of thinking, which then influences others. These channels of belief can operate completely independently of other Narratives about the same topic.


As an example, consider one of the most historically convoluted issues in media: healthy eating. The newly trendy Ketosis diet makes a great example. Unlike other fad diets, maintaining the low-carb Ketosis diet is supposed to achieve more than weight loss. The most shared article about Ketosis last year claims the diet can have health benefits for “diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, MS, autism, migraines, traumatic brain injuries, polycystic ovary syndrome and much more.” The article quotes medical specialists and cites real clinical trials throughout.


By contrast, the top Google result for “Ketosis healthy” warns that following the diet might put people’s bodies into starvation mode, damage muscle development–including heart muscle–and cause liver and kidney damage. This article, too, cites clinical trials and multiple expert specialists.


Which perspective provides a more accurate depiction of consumer attitudes? How do these conflicting Narratives fit together? All too often, businesses can’t answer these types of questions about the issues facing their own industry and end up zeroing in on just one perspective, rather than the conversation as a whole.


An even more common mistake is focusing on a specific set of publications, and missing a whole subset of equally impactful, but perhaps less obvious, viewpoints. We recently worked with a major tech company that was going through a renaissance of public favor. We called that Narrative “the Comeback.” The company in question was aware of the positivity, and tracking the feedback in mainstream sources like Forbes, Fortune and the New York Times.


What it missed was the subsets of the Narrative emerging in more niche tech-oriented sources like Hacker News and ZDnet. Here, the company was being lauded more specifically for innovation in AI and advancing efficiency in tech. With this information, the company was able to focus more attention on activating those communities and really advancing those Narratives, an opportunity it would have otherwise missed.


The Risky Business of a One-Sided Perspective

Alternatively, many companies rely on social media analysis to determine their position in the public perception, but those processes are fraught with logistical issues and inherent biases. Metrics like numbers of mentions or shares don’t give any real information about the feelings driving them and people who are outspoken on social media aren’t necessarily representative of the audience as a whole. The limited information exposed through social media might provide a general inkling of positive or negative feelings, but it doesn’t provide a depth of understanding, and the wrong sample set could give a completely inaccurate impression.


Using tools like social media monitoring or customer surveys as a foundation for decision-making without understanding these limitations can go incredibly wrong. Pushing a message or product launch without a confident idea of how the message will be received could result in a big loss of company resources. One common argument for the failure of Google Glass is that the company didn’t understand the priorities of its main audience, being too closely shadowed by the Silicon Valley echo chamber of early adopters and celebrities who endorsed the technology early on.


The places an organization chooses to look for information about its landscape and its audience is, more often than not, an element of subconscious bias. Chasing information inherently leads to missing points that aren’t immediately obvious. Instead, businesses need an overview of all the information to identify the Narratives that might impact them directly. Gathering information at a macro scale, free of human bias, opens the door to discovering the full range of Narratives. And that might end up making a major difference.