The Art And Innovation Of Listening

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It’s never been easier to hear what your consumers are saying about you behind your back.

The concept of listening to what consumers are saying about your brands, products, services and the industry you serve is nothing new. For almost a decade, many digital marketing professionals (myself included) have been banging the drum of monitoring online spaces to better understand how your products are positioned. In the past couple of years, things have changed as digital channels have evolved. The ability to track every tweet, blog post and customer review has not only become easier, but an entire industry of software-based services has emerged to help brands better understand the conversations that are taking place – and what they should be doing about it. It’s big business and these services are pulling in the big bucks.

As the interest surrounding social media monitoring tools continues to grow, it begs the question: Why are brands spending so much money on social media monitoring platforms when plenty of free and easy-to-access tools already exist?

In short, many of the more advanced social media monitoring platforms offer a more in-depth perspective into not only what is being said, but by whom and how "connected" (or "influential") that individual’s reach may be. Beyond that, the ability to customize the content behind a dashboard that offers more optics into how your organization responds and tracks these pieces of content can be critical. Many of these social media monitoring tools also act as a workflow, so an organization can better understand the speed with which something was acknowledged, who – within the organization – acted on it, and what the outcome was. The sheer volume of regular people reviewing and critiquing brands is the other reason why a cohesive software package may be needed. As more and more people leverage platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs to publicly share their love or hate for a brand, the more complicated responding becomes for organizations of every size that are not accustomed to handling customer service issues out in the open.

Social 2011.

One of the leaders in social media monitoring solutions is a company called Radian6. On April 7th and 8th, the company will be hosting an event in Boston titled Social 2011 – their first-ever user conference that features marketing professionals from companies like Dell, PepsiCo, the American Red Cross and hundreds more. (I’ll be delivering a keynote presentation on social media and the new consumer). What could easily turn into a conference about how to quell the angry masses by understanding and responding to every individual that tweets about a brand, the set-up around this event and the maturation of brands and their need to be active in the social media spaces points to a new dawn…

Innovation through data and conversation.

When someone complains on Twitter that their mobile carrier gouged them on roaming fees, that complaint becomes public record. Everything that is being said (the good, the bad, the ugly and the neutral) is not only being retweeted and posted on people’s Facebook walls, but that content is also being indexed by the major search engines and easily findable. It’s now a world where every brand’s reputation is truly public and very much at stake. The counter to that crippling fear is that those who love and care about you are also saying magnificent things about you in the same channels. The content that is now available (the stuff about your brand, your competitor’s brands and the industry you serve) may well be the best information you could ever have access to. Where else can you get that kind of candor from a consumer?

The opportunity to listen and leverage that information to your benefit has never been more available and more abundant.

The good news is that you can get a fairly good sentiment about what’s happening around your brand by using two free tools: One is Google Alerts, which gives you a quick (albeit imperfect) snapshot of what’s being said online based on the keywords you feed into it. You can also choose if you would like to see everything being said about your keywords or only the content Google deems worthy. You can also decide how frequently you would like to be notified (including "as-it-happens") and how (via email or RSS feed). Twitter Search also acts as a way to see what people are saying about your chosen keywords now (and in real-time). Twitter Search is fascinating because it’s public – meaning you do not have to have a Twitter profile or be active on Twitter to see what everybody is saying (you do have to join – which is free – if you would like to respond). Couple those two free online services together and you’re suddenly able to wrap your head around both the sentiment and volume of chatter.

There is opportunity in listening.

To make matters even more complex (or interesting – depending on the way you look at it), if your brand doesn’t ever get mentioned, what does that say about your ability to make a difference in the industry that you serve? What kind of opportunity may exist for you to take a first-mover advantage? What are consumers saying about how you, your competitors or your industry can innovate?

How powerful can a business become when it realizes that in 2011, real friends stab you in the front?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. While the free social media monitoring tools are useful, it completely depends on the size of your company, and what exactly your business goals are. If you are a large company the size of Sony for example, it would be difficult to organize, track, respond and engage consumers who are pinging you via Social Media Channels. Tools that allow for text and sentiment analysis such as Radian 6 become more realistic options with such scale that would overwhelm a Google Alerts.
    For startups or small business there is no reason to invest in a premium platform right away…however, as I mentioned before it depends on your business goals. If Twitter for example, is to be one of your primary CRM tools it might make sense to go beyond the limits offered by Twitter’s native platform or TweetDeck.
    Before you do anything, ask these questions, why do we want to listen via Social Media? What are we hoping to achieve? What are we hoping to learn? How will this data help our business strategy and give us a competitive advantage?

  2. So true about the new and flashy tools that replaces the grunt work that competitive intelligence pros used to do with Usenet posts.

  3. Enjoyed the post. There is something about social media listening that requires a sea-change in from where a company takes its bearings. No longer just trans-Atlantic cruise ships geo-positioned on a chart. It’s back to also reading the wind and waves and listening to first hand reports.

  4. Mitch, I have seen large companies using paid monitoring tools (as well as free, of course), while the SMBs generally use the free tools like Google Alerts and Twitter Search. Two questions:
    1. Do you see more and more SMBs using the paid tools in 2011?
    2. Do you see a huge value (and difference) when using the paid tools?
    Tks Mitch

  5. Free tools are everywhere around us, but it’s naive to think they are in par with paid ones, especially since in most situations the free software is just a cut-down version of the paid solution from the same maker.
    For many uses, especially small companies with a relatively low social media presence, free tools are perfectly fine, but of course you can’t have a Ferrari for the price of a bike.

  6. Interesting post I must say. I talk to people all the time that own certain types of business and tell them they need to be on Twitter to follow their industry or their name and see what people are saying.
    Locally we had a company last year that could have crashed and burned because of an employee overstepping her bounds if they hadn’t luckily had a Twitter account, and though it took them 3 hours to learn what was happening (which really hurt them a lot), once they did catch up their response was nothing short of spectacular, including setting up a meeting with a class at Syracuse University and having it broadcast as a Twitter Chat.
    Listening definitely is in the interest of every company and every person in business, whether they participate a lot in it or not.

  7. All successful enterprises gave their ear, responded and laughed all the way to the bank.

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