What is a Weak Signal?
It is particularly fascinating to use the expression Weak Signal in the context of Digital Communications which, at the end of the day, it’s all about Strong Signals – 0s and 1s, unequivocal expressions that are supposed to reduce reality to a measurable quantity. Either the bit is ON or is OFF.
A WS instead captures evidence that reality is more complex than this and does not necessarily fall into any of the two pigeonholes: the bit may be ON at some times and then OFF at some others, and can flip back and forth frequently. If we were talking physics we would be arguing whether electromagnetic radiation is a wave or a particle to find that it is both. Or neither.
Weak Signals are therefore needed to capture the nuances of reality and models have a lot to gain when they can accommodate them.
Weak Signals at work
So much for the intellectual reason for my love. But there is also a professional one.
Whenever we work on the Insight phase of a client project, we essentially hunt for Weak Signals. (The strong ones they know already, no need for high-pay consultants to tell them what they know already).
For a client I visited today, the key insight was that the majority of topical content around their area of interest is negatively influencing purchasing decisions and therefore damaging their business: they need to rebalance the mix so that people can form their opinions unbiased. This insight comes as the archetypal Weak Signal, which you can only distinguish when you remove all the background noise; perhaps unconsciously, our social brains are evolving the ability to filter out thousands of irrelevant mentions and conversations to focus on the few items that will help shape opinions.
How do you recognize a Weak Signal?
Tautologically, a WS carries information. So the easiest way to deal with WS is to focus on their informative content, regardless of the carrier. Once information is recognized, we can abstract the waveform of the carrier and use it to look for other bits of information elsewhere.
This sounds very complicated, but it’s not.
Let’s assume I am seeking insight on the level of satisfaction associated with the “X” brand of Widgets. Doing my research, I discover that some users have started using Twitter to complain about the life of the X Widgets, using the hashtag #XWidgetSuck. The information is represented by the fact that X Widgets break down, the waveform is the Twitter hashtag.
First conclusion (because there may be others I don’t see right now)
While in old Marketing & Communications strong signals (reach and frequency) were the name of the game, in the new, social world opinions are formed by Weak Signals.