Beyond the universe of social listening is in orbit providing bias free views on behaviour

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Dr. John Ricketts is the CEO and Joint Founder of the Significance Systems which is a machine learning platform that helps one understand all the narratives taking place out there around a particular issue or topic. He shares how his platform enables people to look over the walls from the content that one is normally fed, analyse the trends, plan, and make a better decision about the content to be shared and the platforms it will go out to. 

Significance Systems gives people the ability to identify emotions around a narrative and how the narrative changes and evolves over time. They’re able to find the strongest stories or brands in a particular sector or category, and then apply that in lots of different fields. John says everybody is living in media bubbles these days, and these are pretty much by design. Google, Facebook, the newspaper, or TV channels, they’re all media bubbles, so it’s hard to distinguish what reality looks like. Anybody who’s a business owner, a CEO, or in a managerial position knows how difficult it is to know what’s actually going on, because of the reporting mechanism. People tell you what they want you to hear, and this is happening around everything, because what you hear is what you’re going to click on. That’s the business model, and because people are disconnected from reality, they start to make poorer quality decisions, whether it’s around elections, investment strategy for growth, dealing with a crisis, etc. It’s a problem everywhere. And so, analyses all that by looking past the media bubbles, finding out what emotions look like around that narrative and discovering the emotions that describe future behaviour.

On their website, one can easily input a company brand, and then they will see the conversations, the language, and the terminology used around that brand and it will be displayed graphically. It could be a brand, a positioning opportunity, an issue, an asset, or a need, whether met or unmet.

The importance of narratives

Narratives describe the world. Anybody who’s been involved in communications knows full well that narratives are a very important part of what makes the world go round. They generate tremendous value. They steer the directions and the decisions that people make as societies. This is intuitively understood but poorly measured. If you think about a world where things are really well measured, say capital markets, there’s a huge amount of detail in terms of assets, balance sheets, and technical measures, but the idea that narratives could impact value is one that is novel and isn’t fully believed. It would be nonsense to say that narratives don’t impact markets, as people are seeing with the likes of Trump and Elon Musk. Nobel Prize-winner and economist Robert Shilller’s book called Narrative Economics is pretty much the longhand version of what John and his team are doing at the machine level. They both look at the stories around things like subprime or particular assets, etc.

At Significance Systems, their work revolves primarily around the narrative. Marketers want to grab hold or become a valued part of a narrative that already exists, because nobody’s got the time or the money to go and create a whole new narrative anymore. There is nothing new under the sun, and so it’s best to find a narrative that is close to the positioning you want and become a valued part of that. Looking at the brands that have become successful, they’re the brands that have understand that they have to be a relevant part of culture. Failing to do so in today’s world means a failure to be relevant, other than at a purely transactional level.

Together with the University of Tokyo, Significance Systems has established a virtual living lab. They look at aspects of culture in Japan and in the UK and at the way values have changed in these two cultures. One value they’re looking at is the notion of resiliency. Prior to COVID, in Japan, resiliency was all about one’s work and career. That was the absolute centre of gravity. If one wanted to become better at being resilient, that would mean investing more time and energy around one’s career by taking additional courses, spending more time working, and doing other activities that would build resiliency. As soon as COVID hit, there was a shift from focusing on work to being family-oriented. Now, people believe they become more resilient by investing time and effort on their family. There’s been a return to family values, so for businesses trying to connect their brand to an attribute like resiliency, then the executions have completely changed.

Their platform enables them to look across all the major languages and provides clients with multiple country-multiple market studies the following day, making it a really useful and time-efficient tool. Historically, global positioning has been a very complex, time-consuming, and expensive exercise, but working with different companies, they’ve shown that to be far more straightforward thanks to machine learning or AI. They find as much topical content around a particular query as they possibly can, then they study the data, and then they will boil it down to what really matters. That involves seeing through that media bubble, and then they’ll look at the core pieces of content, the core locations on the web, the core emotions that are driving that narrative forward, and this all happens without human intervention. It’s all up to the machines, so it’s very scalable, it’s very fast, and it’s very cost-effective.

One example John gave was about vaccines and how there are anti-vaxxers or those who do not believe in the effectiveness of vaccines. The topic then came to the idea of what if it was a Chinese-developed vaccine and how the world would react to that. They were able to look at that in real time, and they found that there’s been a significant hardening of Western attitudes towards China, that vaccine hesitancy is a very real thing in the world, and it’s characterised by the depth of feeling, so don’t expect to have a rational conversation with somebody who’s anti-vaxx. This will be fight or flight for them. However, people haven’t put China and the vaccine together yet. The China vaccine already has equity in the world, but there is no polarisation around it, and it hasn’t gone tribal. John says that’s a pretty simple exercise where people can engage with their business partners, they can get engaged directly with the site and sign up, and for a few hundred dollars, they’ll have a view on it.

Global information made accessible

Significance Systems services many industries. Not only can they handle large amounts of data, but they can dig deep into a particular country or market sector as well. They can go that granular and study small brands or niche issues. While those who’ve tried social listening might find nothing or very little engagement there, with Significance Systems, they will go very deep on B2B issues. Even if people aren’t talking about it on Facebook, there’s still real engagement around it, but it’ll be a very technical conversation that will require more technical forums. In terms of compliance, they only look at open data. That’s part of their policy stance even from the very early days, and they make that very clear.

Aside from the amazing services that they offer, as part of their journalism without borders initiative, they also provide an opportunity for journalists to use the platform for free. This is not simply just for data journalism, but it’s about media. It’s about thinking in terms of ‘we’ instead of just ‘me,’ and this goes back to the media bubbles. It’s about understanding a culture’s feelings around certain issues, because having a view that isn’t tainted by particular media bubbles is increasingly important to have. The goal is to create a common framework where the emotion is removed to be able to look at issues more clearly.

The platform, which is called, represents this vision of global information made accessible, one where people can look across the the walls from their own walled gardens, which is kind of what everyone is experiencing now. To learn more about them, you can have a look at their website or find them on LinkedIn. Their tool sets are great for helping clients define the positioning of their brand and looking at key topics taking place that clients want to participate in. It’s very powerful for aligning the messaging and the future messaging with the global and prevailing trends not just on social media but in deeper channels as well.


This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Photos from Significance Systems

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