Get to Know Social Intelligence Researcher and Consultant, Ben K. Ellis

Discover the world of social intelligence through the lens of Ben K. Ellis, a seasoned professional with 17 years of experience in data-driven research and consulting. Ben’s journey began in local government, where he developed a passion for humanising data and uncovering actionable insights. Transitioning through roles at Groupon, BT, and Microsoft, Ben honed his expertise in leveraging social data to understand consumer behaviour. Now, as an independent freelancer, Ben leverages a comprehensive toolkit to illuminate the power of social data across industries, sectors, and teams. Dive into Ben’s insights on social intelligence, its significance in today’s business landscape, and his vision for the future of this evolving field. Plus, gain valuable tips for enhancing social intelligence skills…

How did you become interested in social intelligence research and consulting?

My journey into social intelligence research and consulting has been an interesting 17-year adventure, fuelled by a deep passion for understanding people through data analytics. It all began with my role in local government, where I had the privilege of working under an incredibly supportive manager who nurtured my interest in the power of data analytics. He instilled in me the importance of humanising data and understanding the real-world impact of my research. His influence has shaped my ethical approach to the field, and I’m eternally grateful for his care in motivating and encouraging me.

This experience sparked my passion for uncovering nuanced insights about consumers through analysing online conversations. It led me to pursue my first social media role at Groupon, where I honed my skills in leveraging social data to understand customer needs and behaviours. From there, I joined BT, where I had the opportunity to help establish their social listening practice.

My journey then took me to Microsoft, where I gained valuable insights into the in-house client-side perspective, working across a wide range of teams and products, while also engaging more as a speaker at conferences, to talk about topics ranging from social listening to social physics, and more. This experience, combined with my time working on the agency and vendor sides later on, has given me a holistic understanding of client needs and the diverse applications of social intelligence.

Now, as an independent freelancer, I enjoy the freedom to utilise a broader range of tools, enabling me to gain a more comprehensive understanding of online conversations and behaviours. What drives my freelance journey is a desire to showcase the power of social data across industries, sectors, roles, and teams, with a passion for demonstrating how this data can help answer business and societal questions, providing valuable insights for stakeholders.

Being able to shine a light on data and provide answers that drive meaningful change is what truly motivates me in my social intelligence research and consulting work.

Could you explain the significance of social intelligence in today’s business landscape…

Social intelligence has evolved into an indispensable tool in today’s business landscape, offering organisations a unique lens into consumer behaviour, preferences, and pain points. By analysing online conversations and social media data, businesses can gain invaluable insights that inform strategic decision-making across various functions. One of the most tangible applications of social intelligence lies in consumer insights: by understanding what people say about their products, services, and brands, companies can identify areas for improvement, uncover unmet needs, and develop more targeted marketing campaigns. Taking it one step further, organisations can foster meaningful connections with their customers by humanising the data and recognising the individuals driving the conversation.

What advice would you offer to businesses looking to integrate social intelligence into their decision-making processes effectively?

First and foremost, it’s crucial to develop a clear strategy and define specific objectives for your social intelligence efforts. Ask yourself: what key questions do you need answered? What business challenges are you looking to solve? Having a well-defined set of goals ensures that your social intelligence initiatives are focused and purposeful – not just functional. This clarity will guide your choice of tools, methodologies, and partners, ensuring that you invest in solutions that align with your unique needs.

Another critical piece of advice is to focus on actionable insights rather than getting lost in data for data’s sake. Social intelligence can generate vast amounts of information, but not all of it will be relevant or useful for your specific business goals. Work with your social intelligence team or partners to identify the key takeaways that directly address your objectives. These actionable insights should inform tangible steps you can take to improve your products, services, marketing strategies, or customer experience.

Finally, when selecting social intelligence partners, look for those who deeply understand your industry and can tailor their analysis to your specific needs. Cookie-cutter solutions rarely provide the nuance and depth required to drive meaningful change. Your ideal partner should take the time to understand your business, your target audience, and your unique challenges; they should be able to provide customised insights and recommendations that align with your goals and help you stay ahead of the curve in your industry.

As a Top 50 Global Social Intelligence Insightful Innovator, what do you believe sets apart truly impactful social intelligence initiatives from the rest?

Being recognised as a Top 50 Global Social Intelligence Insightful Innovator was truly an honour, and it’s given me the opportunity to reflect on my journey as a social intelligence researcher.

At the core of successful social intelligence lies a genuine focus on understanding communities. Impactful initiatives dig deeper to uncover the human stories behind the numbers; they seek to understand the needs, motivations, and experiences of the people who make up these communities, whether they are customers, stakeholders, or society at large.

By going beyond surface-level metrics and focusing on qualitative insights, businesses can gain a more nuanced understanding of their communities, allowing them to create products and services that genuinely resonate with their target audiences. That aside, truly impactful social intelligence initiatives use these insights to drive positive change. This can take many forms, from product innovation and inclusive marketing campaigns to addressing broader societal issues.

By leveraging social intelligence to understand and empathise with communities, businesses can position themselves to make a real difference, and by understanding the needs and challenges of underserved communities, we can identify opportunities to create more inclusive products, services, campaigns, and initiatives.

How do you navigate the intersection between data analysis and technical writing in your work?

Navigating the intersection between data analysis and technical writing (i.e., writing technical content to convey information about specialised topics to various audiences) is a crucial aspect of my work as a social intelligence professional. On one hand, it’s essential to present complex data and insights in a clear, understandable manner that resonates with stakeholders across various departments and levels of expertise. On the other hand, it’s equally important to ensure that the nuance and depth of these insights aren’t lost in the pursuit of simplicity.

Firstly, I focus on presenting data in a digestible format, leveraging visualisations and clear language to make complex concepts more accessible. By breaking down the data into manageable pieces and using relatable analogies, I can help stakeholders quickly grasp the key takeaways and implications of the insights.

Secondly, I’m mindful not to oversimplify the data to the point where it loses its nuance and richness: social intelligence often uncovers complex, multi-layered insights that require careful interpretation and contextualisation. To maintain this depth, I provide detailed explanations and examples alongside the simplified overviews. This approach allows stakeholders to dive deeper into the insights, while still providing a clear, high-level understanding for those who may not need that full granularity.

At the end of the day, my goal is to make work that is both easily understood and actionable – whether that’s a report or technical writing.

Can you share a memorable project or case study where social intelligence made a significant impact?

Over the last 17 years, I’ve had the privilege of working on numerous projects where social intelligence has made a significant impact. From research that informed high-stakes business decisions like acquisitions and product launches to initiatives that sparked important societal conversations, I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of social intelligence. One project that stands out in my mind is the This Is Black Gen Z study. Through extensive social media analysis and qualitative research, we uncovered the unique challenges and biases faced by Black Gen Z talent in the workplace. The insights we gathered painted a compelling picture of the obstacles these young professionals encounter, from micro-aggressions and lack of representation to limited opportunities for advancement. By bringing these issues to light, this report drove important conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, prompting companies across various industries to re-evaluate their hiring practices, employee support systems, and organisational culture.

Besides societal impact, I’ve also seen social intelligence drive significant business results. For example, during my time at BT, I conducted research that supported the successful launch of BT Sport in the UK, as well as the seamless merger of EE and BT. By analysing consumer sentiment, market trends, and competitor strategies, we were able to make informed decisions that positioned these initiatives for success. 

What are some emerging trends or developments you’re observing in the field of social intelligence?

Sure, we have the increasing sophistication of AI-powered analytics – I won’t lie, at first, I was worried that tools would only use it as a gimmick, but I’ve seen some impressive uses, with tools uncovering patterns, insights, and anomalies with speed and accuracy (at the top of my list I have YouScan, Nichefire, and ViralMoment, with some fascinating applications of AI for social intelligence researchers).

AI aside, a significant trend is the rise of alternative search and social search platforms – while this isn’t that new, it’s becoming more widespread, with people turning to social media platforms like TikTok, X, and Instagram as their primary sources of information, rather than relying solely on traditional search engines like Google. This shift is particularly pronounced among younger generations, who view social media as a more authentic, engaging, and less clumsy way to discover content and connect with others.

As a result, social intelligence researchers must adapt their approaches to encompass these emerging platforms and understand how they shape public discourse and consumer behaviour. A trend I’m quite glad to see is the growing adoption of social intelligence within industries that were once highly restrictive – think finance, healthcare, and government. These sectors now recognise the immense value that social intelligence can provide, from identifying market trends and consumer preferences to monitoring public sentiment and mitigating potential crises. I could talk about trends all day, but all in all, I’m excited to be part of a field that’s constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

Could you share some tips for individuals looking to enhance their own social intelligence skills in their professional or personal lives?

I love this question because questions about analyst skill sets often tend to over-focus on technical qualities, ignoring the power of soft skills in research. For anyone looking to enhance their social intelligence skills, I recommend focusing on three key areas: 

active listening, paying close attention to what people say online and how they say it, looking beyond the literal words and trying to discern the emotions, intentions, and underlying meanings behind people’s interactions.

empathy, remembering to understand the perspectives, motivations, and challenges of the people we observe.

understanding the context behind people’s online behaviour, because social posts and interactions are influenced by a wide range of factors – from cultural norms and current events to personal experiences and individual personalities.

As a social intelligence practitioner, it’s essential to familiarise yourself with the broader context surrounding the data you’re analysing. This may involve staying up-to-date with the latest news and trends (macro, micro, and meta-trends), researching relevant communities and subcultures, or delving into the historical and social factors that shape online discourse. In addition to these core skills, I also recommend familiarising yourself with the basics of research methodologies.

Dare I say – you don’t need to be a seasoned researcher to practice social intelligence, but you do need to understand concepts like sampling, bias, and data reliability to help you assess the credibility and relevance of the information you find online.

By approaching social intelligence with a critical and analytical mindset, you’ll be better equipped to separate signals from noise and derive meaningful insights from the data.

What are the key skills someone needs to excel in social intelligence research and consulting?

Data analysis: a strong foundation in quantitative and qualitative analysis methods is crucial to understanding the nuances and context behind the data.

Critical thinking: the ability to interpret data, identify patterns, and draw meaningful conclusions is at the heart of social intelligence. This requires a curious mindset, a great eye for detail, and the ability to see the big picture.

Research methodologies: understanding the strengths and limitations of different research approaches is essential for designing social intelligence studies while ensuring that your insights are reliable, representative, and bias-free.

Communication: learn how to speak the language of your stakeholders, visually and verbally, tailoring your insights and recommendations to their needs and priorities.

Adaptability: learn about advancements in social platforms and analytics tools, experiment with new techniques, and be open to new ways of thinking about social data. At the same time, recognise that you may not always be able to keep up with the rapid pace of change in the social media landscape – and that’s okay. The key is to do your best, stay curious, and be willing to learn and grow.

How do you stay updated with the latest tools and methodologies in social intelligence?

Follow industry experts: follow experts in the social intelligence space – not just people who’ve done this work for a long time, but also people who do things differently, perhaps a bit unconventionally.

Attend conferences and events: conferences and workshops are great opportunities to learn about cutting-edge tools and methodologies directly from the experts. The Social Intelligence Lab, in particular, offers a fantastic range of in-person and online events. As the go-to global community for social listening and social intelligence professionals, The SI Lab covers topics catering to professionals at all levels.

Experiment with new platforms: to truly understand the capabilities and limitations of different social intelligence tools, it’s essential to get hands-on experience. I experiment with new platforms and features as they emerge, testing out different functionalities and exploring how they can be applied to real-world research scenarios. This helps me develop a deep, practical understanding of how these tools can be leveraged to uncover meaningful insights, while also helping me understand which tools to recommend to my clients. 

Leverage training resources: most social intelligence vendors offer valuable training resources for staying up-to-date with methodologies and best practices. 

Cultivate a curious mindset: by maintaining a sense of curiosity and a willingness to learn, I’m able to stay ahead of the curve and adapt my approach as needed. This may involve testing new research methods (or sometimes creating my own, like when I used social data to try and predict NPS scores), exploring emerging data sources, or checking out professionals from other disciplines to bring new perspectives to my work.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in social intelligence research?

There’s so much to try – from developing your data analysis skills (platforms like Coursera, edX, and DataCamp have a great range of courses that can you help develop and strengthen this foundation), to developing one or multiple specialisations (even the most left-field of specialisations can be incredibly helpful – I had a phase where I got into UX/UI research over the pandemic, and that definitely sharpened my research skills)… However, the biggest advice I can give is this: network. Building relationships with others in the social intelligence community is invaluable for learning, career growth, and finding job opportunities.

Attend conferences and events where you can meet and learn from experienced practitioners, and meet others who are new to this field too. Join online communities and forums where social intelligence professionals gather to share ideas and resources. As an introvert myself, I understand that the thought of networking can be daunting. However, I’ve found that many social intelligence practitioners are just as introverted, and working in this field has actually helped me come out of my shell.

Remember, we’re all data geeks passionate about finding meaning in the data – and as a community, we’re actually a pretty friendly bunch!

How do you effectively communicate insights derived from social intelligence to clients or stakeholders?

Focus on three key elements: clarity, relevance, and actionability:

Prioritise clear visualisations: prioritise clear, visually compelling charts, graphs, and infographics that convey key points at a glance. By visually presenting data, stakeholders can better grasp complex concepts and see patterns that might be difficult to discern from raw data and numbers alone.

Use relevant language: use language that is accessible and easy to understand for stakeholders from diverse backgrounds. Avoid technical jargon or complex statistical terms and focus on plain, straightforward language that gets to the heart of the matter. I make a point to explain concepts in simple terms and provide clear definitions for any specialised vocabulary that may be necessary (especially those pesky acronyms!).

Emphasise the “so what”: highlight the “so what” – the practical implications and actionable takeaways. Connect the dots and explain how these insights can be applied to drive tangible business outcomes or social impact. By emphasising the “so what”, you help stakeholders understand the real-world value of social intelligence and how it can be leveraged to make a meaningful difference.

In your opinion, what role does storytelling play in presenting social intelligence findings?

While data and insights are the foundation of our work, it’s the stories we tell that truly bring these findings to life and make them meaningful for our audiences. At its core, storytelling is about creating a connection between the data and the people it represents. When we present data in a purely statistical or analytical fashion, it can be easy for stakeholders to feel disconnected from the real-world implications of the findings. However, when we incorporate storytelling techniques – such as highlighting specific user quotes, creating persona-based narratives, or sharing case studies – we give a human face to the insights we’ve uncovered, making even the most complex social intelligence insights relatable and memorable. I believe that as we continue to navigate an increasingly complex and data-driven landscape, the ability to tell compelling, authentic stories will only become more important – and I’m excited to be part of a field that recognises and values this crucial skill.

As a researcher and consultant, how do you balance the need for innovation with the importance of delivering practical, actionable insights?

While my primary goal is always to solve my client’s problems and help them achieve their business objectives, my approach to innovation is guided by a simple question: will this help me deliver more practical, actionable insights that empower my clients to make informed decisions and move forward? If the answer is yes, I’m all in. To strike a balance between innovating and delivering practical and actionable insights, stay methodology-driven, results-focused, and client-centric.

How do you see the future of social intelligence evolving in the next few years?

As I look to the future of social intelligence, I see a rapidly evolving field and expanding in exciting new directions. While there are certainly challenges on the horizon – from the increasing complexity of social media platforms to the shifting landscape of data access and privacy – I believe that the most impactful social intelligence initiatives will be those that embrace a multidisciplinary, human-centred approach. I impatiently anticipate the growing integration of social intelligence with adjacent fields like sociolinguistics, semiotics, and UX/UI research.

By combining these perspectives, we can truly gain a richer, more nuanced understanding of the communities we study – not just what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it, and what deeper cultural and behavioural factors are driving their engagement.

Besides your work, what are some hobbies or interests that you’re truly passionate about?

When I’m not deep in social intelligence research, you can usually find me indulging in my other great passion: exploring the fascinating world of language and culture. As someone who has always been curious about the ways people communicate and express themselves (and as a “third culture kid”), I love discovering the unique linguistic quirks and cultural customs that make us all so diverse. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a career that allows me to blend my professional expertise with my personal passions – and to connect with so many fascinating people and communities along the way. While my work in social intelligence is certainly a big part of who I am, I like to think that it’s these diverse interests and experiences that help me bring a unique and well-rounded perspective to everything I do.

What’s one travel destination on your bucket list that’s not typically found in travel guides, and what intrigues you about it?

One travel destination that’s been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember is New Zealand. While it’s not the most obscure destination, there’s something about the country that has always captivated me. I’m drawn to New Zealand’s rich linguistic and cultural heritage; the country’s indigenous Māori culture is one of the most vibrant and resilient in the world. I would love nothing more than to immerse myself in the Māori language and learn about the unique customs, arts, and stories that have shaped New Zealand’s identity. Beyond the cultural fascination, I’m also simply in awe of New Zealand’s natural beauty, and I’m intrigued by the opportunity to connect with New Zealand’s diverse communities and people.

New Zealand represents so many of the things that I love and value in life: cultural diversity, natural beauty, adventure, and human connection – and as someone who is always seeking to broaden my horizons and learn from others, I can’t think of a better place to do just that.

Outside of your professional roles, what’s something you’ve always wanted to learn or try but haven’t had the opportunity to explore yet?

One thing I’ve always wanted to explore further is the fascinating world of online sociolinguistics – understanding not just what people are saying online, but why they’re saying it, and how the unique dynamics of digital platforms are shaping the very fabric of human language. Two women who have been huge inspirations to me in this regard are Dr Jillian Ney, founder of The Social Intelligence Lab, and linguist extraordinaire Gretchen McCulloch, author of the brilliant book “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language”. Dr Ney’s groundbreaking work as the first Doctor of Social Media in the UK has shown me the incredible potential of bringing academic rigour to social intelligence. McCulloch’s insightful exploration of the linguistics of online communication has opened my eyes to the ways in which the internet is transforming language in real time. Inspired by these two remarkable women, my ultimate dream is to one day achieve a Doctorate in Digital Sociolinguistics – to be at the forefront of introducing social intelligence to academia.

If you were to create a playlist that represents your life journey so far, what are the top three songs that would be on it?

“Freedom” by Jordan Rakei. This is my go-to morning motivational song! There’s something about the uplifting melody and empowering lyrics that sets the right tone for the day, and it reminds me to approach each challenge with a sense of liberation and possibility.

“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by Donny Hathaway. This is a classic cover that holds a very special place in my heart. It represents the importance of being there for myself mentally, while also extending support and guidance to others. It captures the values of empathy, compassion, and community that I strive to embody.

“I Want it that Way” by Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox featuring Shoshana Bean. Nothing screams “I’m a millennial with a deep love for jazzy covers” louder than this, and this ’70s soul remake of a ’00s classic featuring theatre icon Shoshana Bean is practically my anthem. There’s something about the way this version reimagines the original, infusing it with a timeless, soulful vibe, that just speaks to my musical tastes and my appreciation for creative reinvention.

Finally, if you had to sum up your life philosophy in just one sentence, what would it be?

Peace as I choose to find it” is my personal philosophy and serves as a guiding principle in my daily life, especially as I navigate the challenges and joys of being an independent freelancer, while making sure I tend to and prioritise my mental health. It serves as a daily reminder to be intentional in my pursuit of inner calm and to take responsibility for my own well-being. It’s a principle that has guided me through both challenges and triumphs, and one that I believe will continue to shape my personal and professional journey for years to come.

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