The Power of Social Intelligence

Letitia Oglesby
June, 2023

Adele Omar interviews Ben Ellis, Social Intelligence Researcher and Consultant, to get to know more about his specialism of 15+ years and how this has evolved.


Before flying solo, Ben had worked for the likes of Brandwatch and Microsoft and has worked on some incredibly interesting projects, with extensive expertise in data analysis and insights generation, specialising in digital marketing and social analytics. You can watch the full interview here, or keep scrolling to read!


Can you tell us a little bit about your experience to date?

I’ve worked in Analytics in general for over 15 years. I started brand-side and worked my way up from a Social Media Analyst to Insights Director at an agency for a year. I’d worked with the likes of BT, Groupon, Microsoft, and at We Are Social, delivering research and providing insights for brands like Disney, Lego and Adidas.


From there, I joined a social intelligence suite platform, Brandwatch working across several industries and brands, covering multiple types of research. This ranged from traditional research to more intelligent research, where you needed to integrate different kinds of data and do more in-depth social platform analysis.

As of December, last year, I took all that experience and went freelance.


How did you get into Social Intelligence?


It was as part of my first job as an apprentice working for Newham council. My manager at the time was very tech oriented and him and I were the only ones not afraid to work in Excel. I thought you know what, you like analysis, you can look at data, numbers and charts and build a story out of it. Find something like that but that is current to future proof yourself! What made sense at the time was social media, so whilst social media was still in its infancy, I’m talking 2007, I decided to look into it.


I know you can get a lot more real-time data from social media, but how insightful do you think that is vs traditional research methods?


Instead of waiting for that qualitative and qualitative data to be collected, with social media the reactions real-time, you can make the analysis much faster, and more efficient.


In addition to that, it’s the largest focus group that we have. If people can access a social media account, they can share an opinion. That means you can fine tune the panel you want to analyse, based on generation, regions, cities and so on.


How did you end up working for such a huge name in social listening like Brandwatch, and how did your role develop over your time there?


While I was starting up, I attended a lot of social media events as a way of up-skilling myself, so I knew they were one of the biggest social listening platforms. They were either being mentioned at these events, or they were speaking. Seeing them often meant we became quite friendly. We would have chats here and there, I’d write for their blog, and then when I moved to Brighton – that’s where they’re based, we decided to make it official!


I started as a strategist looking at social media data about a specific topic and having conversations with the client to say, hey this is where you are right now, this is where you could be.

Being completely honest, I don’t like selling! I love using data and telling a story from that, so I found I care more about the story and less about the financial side of it. I pursued that passion and got deeper in the research team moving from researcher to consultant.


Having done that for a couple of years, I thought maybe this is the perfect time for me to give back, mentor/coach others, train them on the tool, and having honest conversations – leading to training and mentoring.


I noticed you often represent yourself at events and talks in social intelligence. What topics and expertise do you enjoy sharing most?


I like to talk about things that are possible with social intelligence. What really interests me is taking things up a notch so for instance, one of my talks = at a Social Bakers event was about the science of social influence. ( )


I took to the stage and said, “what if you can predict the influence of people. What if something happened and X influencer caught up on that? It could be a disaster, or it could be your biggest brand opportunity“. Those topics get people thinking about social data as more than just a competitor report, and more about if we use it, look at all the great things that we could do and how innovative we can be.


There was a piece of research you planned to take to parliament about measuring how transphobia and hate crimes are spoken about online, I’d love to know a little more about that!


Back at Brandwatch we were approached by an anti-bullying charity called Ditch The Label, they do a lot of work about bullying awareness as well as making sure that there are safer spaces for people online. That year in particular, the project was about the trans experience, specifically transphobia and trans support online.


We wanted to raise awareness and drive change, but the ultimate win would be for us to have change happen. That meant taking it to parliament to kick starting something, with the result being safer spaces online, for trans people globally.


We looked at over 10 million posts across social media. It was a heavy project so one of the things I made sure of was that we safeguarded the mental health of anyone that worked on it, because social media can be a violent place.


There’s so much that goes on to get to the result, which was a report on where transphobia is right now, and if it were to escalate, what it could lead to! We then compared the state of support and discrimination towards trans people over time and correlated that with world events. For example, after Donald Trump’s election the state of transphobia in the US got much worse. In the UK Brexit drove spikes of abuse towards trans people.


It was quite interesting not only to look at that data on its own, but looking at the context; why is there a spike in violence here? What caused this spike in positive sentiment here?


What’s great is that 99% if not more of the people who worked on this were part of a minority (in terms of race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, neurodivergence, etc.), so it was interesting to see the people that this project attracted, and who’s more likely to do research about this.


How do you think social insights and social intelligence has evolved/is evolving right now?


Firstly, more people are seeing more evidence of when you take an action based on social data, it works! 10 years ago, it felt more like an experiment for a lot of brands. They were in a position where they had all the tools, could measure everything, but couldn’t do anything about it.


10 years later there are case studies, reports, conferences, events, blog posts, podcasts, etc. in this space, it means there is a lot of evidence to support the need.

It all highlights the fact that you can become far more profitable as a business if you take social intelligence seriously.


The reporting I’d done in the past on social insights was quite basic in terms of content. A decade later, it’s more about what’s in the ‘white space’. What products should brands be adding to their portfolio? what are consumers expecting of us as a brand? Etc.


Secondly, I’d say the kind of data you can collect has changed massively. When I first started in Social Intelligence you could only measure text. Now you can do bigger and better things like analysing or detecting the logo of your company from a picture. The fact it can do much more, with more data with social insights makes it not only more evolved, but even more exciting.


How would you advise someone if they wanted to get into Social Intelligence?


Social Intelligence can be a lonely space. We don’t have a tight knit community online. Yes, we are present but for instance, there are networks of community managers, and we don’t quite have the same when it comes to social intelligence practitioners. Not only because our roles can be quite fragmented, but we are very sparse. Often, we are either the only one in the team doing what we do, or the first one to do that.


If, however, you’re into social intelligence you are absolutely going to love it! One tip I would give would be to get information from wherever you can, and make sure that you’re not just seeing the curve, make sure you’re on top of it and seeing where it’s going.

For example, with AI, make sure you know what that means for you as a social intelligence practitioner and for your stakeholders. If you report to social community managers what does this mean for them and how does that impact the reporting that you do for them. Social media moves so fast if you’re not on top of things, you’re putting yourself at risk.


Out of curiosity, what is your favourite social media platform to use social listening tools on?

I would say, Reddit. When it comes to the data, as a platform they really understand the importance of the data and how to use it to improve the platform.


You can tell a lot more about the psychology of people too. If you’re on Twitter you most likely talk about what you do, passions, network with others, etc. whereas Reddit allows you to be one person in multiple communities. You can have completely different discussions there, and the conversations are much deeper and richer.


What inspired you to start BKE Research?


At the end of last year, I had to ask myself okay, I’ve done this for 15 years, I’ve proven I can do this for myself, and so I took a dive!


It’s given me freedom to pick projects that normally wouldn’t have come my way, and to be more in-depth and more honest with the research I give back. I have more freedom to suggest reports and projects based more on the end goal and recommend different tools that would help, focusing less on the company that I work for and more on helping the client answer questions, getting to where they want to be.


Who inspires you in Social Intelligence?


The first person is Scott Brinker. What he does every year is he creates a huge graph, a landscape of all the MarTech (Marketing Technology) tools that exist – the most recent being around 11,000.

He then categorises them so it’s easier to navigate.


I had a personal project that was similar to that called Social MarTech Landscape, which took those tools and focused on the social intelligence tools and added more information relevant to social researchers. He’s a great person to learn from.


The second person is Matt Navarra. If there’s any question about social media, he has the answer for it. I had the chance to work with him during an event and I saw him at work, and I thought, this is admirable. He is quite open about what it’s like to be a consultant and keep up to date with social media.


The third person would be Dr Jillian Ney. She is the first Dr of social media in the UK! She owns a company called Social Intelligence Lab (SI Lab). They are an independent social intelligence go-to resource. They recently started academies to train the future social intelligence practitioners, they do blog posts, events, etc. She knows a lot about the science of social media and the practical side of things. So, Scott Brinker for the technical side, Matt Navarra for the innovation side, and Dr Jillian for the science and practical side.


For more information about roles across Social Intelligence, or if you’re looking to hire a specialist in this area get in touch with us! 

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