Monday, June 21, 2010

Finding the Right Noise-to-Signal Ratio for Effective Business Social Media

So, you've joined a Social Network because you've read articles about how great it is for businesses. And you have a lot of questions. One of them is, "what the heck are all these people blathering about?"

Today we're going to discuss the concept of the Signal-to-Noise ratio.

Signal is the name online veterans give to meaningful, substantive and/or on-topic conversation.

Noise is everything else.

It seems totally obvious that the key to effective business use of Social Media is to only talk about relevant stuff, right? Not so.

Social Media is talking to people. People are basically herd creatures. We respond better to people with whom we feel some sort of commonality. Liking the same team (or even just the same sport) is a simple way to establish commonality. So is liking the same band, food, TV show, book, graduating from the same school, etc. Failing this, we seek out people with similar experiences or interests, similar issues or heck, someone who likes the rain as much as we do. Anything to establish a common value between us.

Imagine for a moment coming into the office one Monday and for some reason no one is saying, "Hello," or "How was your weekend?" All day it's just "Bob, how the report coming along?" and "Bob, meeting at 2!"

It would feel strange. At least a "Good morning" would seem sensible, right?

The same is true on Social Networks. Even on a business-related network, there's a certain amount of give and take one has to expect. Normal greeting patterns, chitchat about the weather and teams and other banal conversation is not only normal when people talk, it's bonding behavior. We ask about the vacation, chat about that local sports team, revel in the new technology with which we are connecting to the network. This "noise," brings people together. 

The problem is, of course, when that "noise" creates as many 'them' as 'us.' Person A, B and C might love chatting about politics on their intranet's social network, but it might put off Person D. Person D might see the conversation as distracting noise, where A,B and C see it as signal and totally relevant to their functioning as a team.

(As an aside, when you're in a face-to-face meeting, check out the expressions of everyone while the "chit-chat" portion of the conversation is going on. You'll be able to see that every topic is going to create at least one outsider. The person who doesn't care about sports, the person without children, the person who doesn't celebrate that holiday. Good interpersonal Social Media means not letting that kind of thing go on to the point of exclusion.)

Truly effective use of Social Media has to balance signal and noise. Detractors tend to see the whole as noise. As a person recently told me, Social Networking exists because people like to share pointless information with the world. I replied that it's only pointless if you don't care about it. To someone who does, it's not pointless at all. Most people automatically categorize other people's signal as noise. :-)

To create signal, engage in a conversation. 

It's a good bet that most of what you say randomly to the universe at large is noise. But when you talk with another person, any topic automatically gains relevance. The more inclusive the conversation, the more relevant. This is what "trending topics" are on any number of networks - topics being discussed by a lot of people at once.

To nurture signal, create a conversation

You have your opinion, and other people may or may not feel comfortable responding to it. It's a better idea to ask a question, or offer an option for response to encourage people to take up the mantle of the conversation.  Step in from time to time to nurture the conversation and feed it; nudge it when it gets too off-topic. Take it for a walk when the conversation gets bogged down in a fruitless path of discussion.

To expand signal, reach outside the group
It might be as easy as linking to a related conversation somewhere else on the Internet, or retweeting something tangential that someone said. It might need more work, you reaching outside your network to bring in someone outside this particular conversation, but on point to the topic. Getting a fresh voice to join or a subject expert to weigh in can rejuvenate a failing signal.

Don't be afraid of noise

There's nothing wrong with starting your day asking Bob how his kids are, or saying you had a great time on vacation. Don't fear being a little "noise"y. 

It's what makes us human and you never know, you might find a new person who has something in common with you.
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