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Filtering out the noise

December 8, 2010

In common with around 9 million people in the UK and presumably similar proportions elsewhere in the world, I have hearing problems. Some of my posts on this blog have expressed experiences with this and the most recent one described the lipreading course I am currently doing.

Every week now, I spend a morning associating with a group of 20 people who all share the same or similar issues. The one thing we are undoubtedly all agreed on is that it is a very noisy world out there. If you don’t hear well, noise is the biggest problem. Unless you are profoundly deaf, the chances are you’ll hear the noise all too well but what you won’t get is any clarity.

The majority of us in the group have hearing aids that help filter out the background noise and this is undoubtedly the best innovation to have happened with the arrival of digital hearing aids during the last decade. This works, to a point, but we are all agreed we would prefer it to be better. If things get unbearably noisy, one of the options for the hearing impaired is to remove, or switch off, their hearing aids completely and rely on their lip reading skills.  There have been times over the last few years where it has been an utter relief just to ‘switch off’.

So, if the real world is getting noisier and noisier, the online world has got even worse.

I share the opinion of those who say that Web 2.0 is just Web 1.0 that works. What are often described as latest innovations and ideas existed in some form online 5, 10, 15, or even more years ago. What we’ve seen more than anything else in the last few years is mass adoption and a more ubiquitous web presence. In other words, it has got a lot more noisier out there. As in the real world, I don’t regard more noise as a good thing but it is the by product of growth, it’s difficult if not impossible to switch it off and we just have to learn to live with it.

Right now, I think the vast majority of organisations are in the same position with the web as a hearing impaired person is in the real world. They are bombarded with so much noise, it’s difficult to get any clarity.

So, what are their choices? Well they can choose to ‘switch off’ completely. However, although it may give temporary relief, in the same way that a hearing impaired person will become increasingly insular and insolated if they don’t join in the conversation, the same will apply to the organisation.

My advice, based on web development experiences going back to the mid 90s, is to focus on using the tools they’ve been using for years and not to get overly distracted by the growing noise.

Continuing the analogy of the hearing impaired person for a minute, the tool that acts like the button on my hearing aid that filters out the background noise is one that the majority of organisations know best – email!

One of the biggest lessons I learnt in web development back in the 90s is the value of getting web email traffic (sales, technical, service, general etc) copied into your inbox. Everything, and I mean, everything I’ve ever needed to know about the expectations of users, the type and depth of content required, the information flows for customer service, the hot buttons for prospects and, indeed, the best tips for furture product development has come via those emails.

In the last few years, when people have been talking about abandoning the tried and tested communication channels and methods in favour of Facebook and Twitter, I have done some direct analysis of what can be gained from Social Media Monitoring versus listening to the feedback gained via email. Firstly, analysing social media properly, even with automated tools, takes a lot of time and effort. What you end up doing is manually filtering out the noise through cross-referencing the context and determining whether sentiment is genuinely positive, negative or neutral or just laden with sarcasm. What you end up with is something that is still fuzzier than the direct and unambiguous feedback you’ve already got in the emails.

Ironically, I’ve also discovered on a number of occasions that negative feedback in social media often stems from poor email handling within the organisation. If questions are not responded to quickly and efficiently, that’s the point at which someone will take to a forum or start Twittering. So, if you focus on getting the basics right, more than often, that noisy old social media environment will take care of itself.

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