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F E B R U A R Y 2 014

The strength of
‘weak signals’
Martin Harrysson, Estelle Métayer, and Hugo Sarrazin

Snippets of information, often hidden in social-media streams, offer companies a

valuable new tool for staying ahead.

As information thunders through the rise to weak signals. Executives who

digital economy, it’s easy to miss valuable are curious and attuned to the themes
“weak signals” often hidden amid the emerging from social media are more
noise. Arising primarily from social media, likely to spot such insights.1 For example,
they represent snippets—not streams— a global manufacturer whose high
of information and can help companies quality and low prices were the topic of
to figure out what customers want one customer’s recent social-media
and to spot looming industry and market post almost certainly would not have
disruptions before competitors do. examined it but for a senior executive
Sometimes, companies notice them who was a sensitive social “listener” and
during data-analytics number-crunching found its implications intriguing. Did
exercises. Or employees who apply the company have an opportunity, the
methods more akin to art than to science executive wondered, to increase prices
might spot them and then do some or perhaps to seek market share more
further number crunching to test anom- aggressively at the current prices?
alies they’re seeing or hypotheses the
signals suggest. In any case, companies To find out, the executive commissioned
are just beginning to recognize and research to quantify what had started
capture their value. Here are a few prin- out as a qualitative hunch. Ultimately, the
ciples that companies can follow to grasp low-price perception turned out to be
and harness the power of weak signals. an anomaly, but the outsize perception
of the product’s quality was widely held.
In response, the company has started
Engaging at the top funneling marketing resources to the prod-
uct in hopes of building its market
For starters, given the fluid nature of share by capitalizing on its quality and
the insights that surface, it’s often useful differentiating it further from the
to get senior leaders actively involved offerings of competitors.
with the social-media sources that give

Listening and mapping sites. The exercise produced a wealth

of relevant information about the types of
As the manufacturer’s example implies, services available in individual markets,
spotting weak signals is more likely when the specific levels of service that parents
companies can marshal dispersed net- sought, the prices they were willing
works of people who have a deep under- to pay, the child-care options companies
standing of the business and act as already sponsored, the strength of
listening posts. One global beverage com- local providers (potential competitors), and
pany is considering including social- the people in various communities
media awareness in its hiring criteria for who might become ambassadors for a
some managers, to build its network new service. This wasn’t a number-
and free its management team from “well- crunching exercise; instead, it took an
rehearsed habits.” anthropological view of local child
care—a mosaic formed from shards of
Weak signals are everywhere, of course, information found only on social media.
so deciding when and where to keep In the end, the weak signals helped
the antennae out is critical. One such sit- the company to define the parameters of
uation involves a product, market, or a not-yet-existing service.
service that doesn’t yet exist—but could.
Consider the case of a global adver-
tising company that was investigating Spotting visual clues
(for one of its clients) a US growth
opportunity related to child care. Because It’s also useful to search for weak signals
no one was offering the proposed when customers start engaging with
service, keyword searches on social media products or services in new, tech-enabled
(and on the web more broadly) wouldn’t ways, often simply by sharing per-
work. Instead, the company looked ceptions about a company’s offerings
to social-media platforms where it might and how they are using them. This
find weak signals—finally discovering can be hard for companies to relate to
an online content service that allows at first, as it’s quite removed from the
users to create and share individu- usual practice of finding data patterns,
alized newspapers. clustering, and eliminating statistical
noise. Spotting weak signals in such cir-
In the child-care arena, digital-content cumstances requires managers and
channels are often curated by mothers employees to have the time and space to
and fathers, who invite conversations surf blogs or seek inspiration through
about their experiences and concerns, as services such as Tumblr or Instagram.
well as assemble relevant articles by
experts or government sources. Analysts As intangible as these techniques may
used semantic clues to follow hundreds sound, they can deliver tangible results.
of fine-grained conversations on these US retailer Nordstrom, for example, took

an early interest in the possibilities other operational activities. Interestingly,

of Pinterest, the digital-scrapbooking TomTom, a company that offers products
site where users “pin” images they and services for navigation and traffic,
like on virtual boards and share them found that the mechanism for spotting
with a larger community. Displayed weak signals proved useful in enhancing
on Pinterest, the retailer’s products gener- its product-development process.
ate significant interest: the company
currently has more than four million As part of normal operations, TomTom
followers on the site. monitored social media closely, mining
conversations to feed into performance
Spotting an opportunity to share this metrics for marketing and customer-
online engagement with in-store shoppers, service executives. The normal process
the company recently started dis- changed after an attentive company
playing popular Pinterest items in two analyst noted that users posting on a UK
of its Seattle-area stores. When early forum were focused on connectivity
results were encouraging, Nordstrom problems. Rather than let the tenuous
began rolling out the test more broadly comments get lost in the company’s
to capitalize on the site’s appeal to performance statistics, he channeled
customers as the “world’s largest ‘wish them to product-development teams.
list,’” in the words of one executive.2 To resolve the issue, the teams worked
The retailer continues to look for more directly—and in real time—with
ways to match other customer inter- customers. That helped short-circuit an
actions on Pinterest with its products. otherwise costly process, which would
Local salespeople already use an have required drivers using TomTom’s
in-store app to match items popular on offerings to check out connectivity
Pinterest with items in the retailer’s issues in a number of locales. The broader
inventory. As the “spotting” ability of com- payoff came in the form of new R&D
panies in other industries matures, and product-development processes:
we expect visual tools such as Pinterest TomTom now taps directly into its
to be increasingly useful in detecting driving community for ideas on design
and capitalizing on weak signals. and product features, as well as to
troubleshoot new offerings quickly.

Crossing functions

As the Nordstrom example demonstrates, At most companies, weak signals will be

listening for weak signals isn’t enough— unfamiliar territory for senior manage-
companies must channel what’s ment, so an up-front investment in leader-
been learned to the appropriate part of ship time will be needed to clarify the
the organization so the findings strategic, organizational, and resource
can influence product development and implications of new initiatives. The new

1 See Martin Harrysson, Estelle Métayer, and

roles will require people who are
Hugo Sarrazin, “How ‘social intelligence’ can guide
comfortable navigating diverse, less
decisions,” McKinsey Quarterly, November 2012,
corporate sources of information.
2 See
 Rachel Brown, “Nordstrom touts merchandise
Regardless of where companies observe with Pinterest,” Women’s Wear Daily, July 2, 2013,
weak signals, the authority to act on
them should reside as close to the front Martin Harrysson is an associate
lines as possible. Weak signals principal in McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office,
are strategic enough to demand top- where Hugo Sarrazin is a director;
management attention. They are Estelle Métayer, an alumnus of the Montréal
sufficiently important to the day-to-day office, is an adjunct professor at McGill
work of customer-service, technical- University, in Montréal.

development, and marketing teams to

Copyright © 2014 McKinsey & Company.
make anything other than deep All rights reserved.
organizational engagement unwise.