What They Say Isn’t Always What They Mean (or What They Do)

The Difference Between Social Media Sentiment and Real Life Behaviour

Big data is a big thing these days. And a lot of noise has been made about using the analysis of big data to track how a business is perceived – particularly in social media. The analysis of social sentiment has become a small industry in itself, as more and more companies attempt to capitalise from the power of social network giants like Facebook and Twitter. And analysis of what people say on social media is increasingly automatized to deal with the sheer volume of information we receive from these platforms.

This is probably a mistake.

It’s important to understand that even on platforms built for short, single sentence messages (like Twitter), what people tend to say on social media is not necessarily the same as what they mean.


For example, if you scour the Twittersphere for comments on a big, well-known brand like Waitrose, you’re likely to encounter this kind of comment:

In Waitrose and I’ve just complained to my wife that they don’t have tempura prawns.


At first glance it seems negative – it implies the kind of people who shop at Waitrose have undesirable qualities. A system that scores tweets as being “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral” is probably going to peg this as negative. This might give us the impression that our subject would want to stay as far away from Waitrose as humanly possible.

But even if you don’t have a well-developed sense of sarcasm, you’ll immediately see what’s going on.

Shopping at Waitrose (and in this case, buying tempura) is actually a very good thing to this person. It allows him to express the fact that he’s a member of a particular social class without having to go around wearing a hat that proclaims it.By making a knowingly ironic comment about his supermarket choice and habits, he can make a subtly say what he wants to say without resorting to gauche tactics.

As a business, Waitrose shouldn’t find this kind of comment negative or disquieting. If anything, they should be encouraging it.

The Facebook Confessional

Similarly, when someone is on Facebook asking for cleaning tips (for example), we can see another facet of this principle in action.

The important thing to remember here is that there is no real need to ask – there are numerous different blogs,apps,forums, and even entire websites with cleaning tips, dealing with practically any problem. But sharing a problem like this is a bonding experience – the confessional, self-expressive element of such interactions is as important (if not more) than a potential solution.

Their oblique confession that their house isn’t as clean as they like it encourages others to help them. At the same time, it allows respondents to discharge their own guilt and affirm to everyone involved that they’re all just as bad as each other.

“Oh don’t worry. I used to find it terribly difficult to declutter my rancid pit of a house, but then I learned to treat one big task like many small ones.”

It’s comforting when we know we’re not alone – which is why when brands have an opportunity to engage with fans posing such problems, they should avoid taking a problem-solution approach. For the potential consumer, skipping the confessional-expressive aspect of the interaction defeats the point. In this example, by opening up a discussion first (before ladling out cleaning tips, or a suitable link, or a hotline to call) the conversation can offer value to both the brand and the consumer.

Back to Basics

Social media is social – it works best when it lets us replicate what we’d do in real world social settings. Even when that includes sarcasm, deflection, projection, truth-bending, and obscure humour.

If you’re running a small or medium sized business, it’s unlikely you’ll get as many mentions on social media as a supermarket. But like them, you shouldn’t need to rely on social media analytics to be able to see what’s going on in your area. Of course, a little bit of psychological knowledge never hurt anyone – but a little common sense goes a long way.

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