When having a face-to-face conversation with someone, we’ve been conditioned to maintain eye contact or to ask relevant questions to demonstrate that we’re really engaged—this is called “active listening.” While having a conversation online may add a layer of complexity, active listening online is still possible.

Social media monitoring tools: powerful but passive

It’s no wonder that clients are interested in social media monitoring tools—they provide clients with a continual pulse on what consumers are saying about their brand online while simultaneously providing them with a wealth of metrics. Having worked on the agency side, I used social media monitoring tools quite a bit and although I found them to be valuable, they often left me wanting to learn more. Typical social listening is voyeuristic in nature, like a virtual two-way mirror; you can see what consumers are saying, but they can’t see you (short of the occasional reply on Twitter or Facebook).

Since the tool collects conversations from individuals who tweet with indiscretion or who forgot to adjust their privacy settings, there’s no way of knowing who these people are which opens the door for personal bias and misinterpretation. Let’s pretend, for example, that someone tweets

“I would love to take my children to Disney this year.”

That particular sentence can mean something very different coming from an individual who has recently lost their job or someone who just won the lottery. Social listening tools may be able to quantify how often the word “love” or “children” is attributed with Disney, but these metrics do not provide any context or meaning behind what has been said or the person who said it. It’s not possible to really understand a consumer based on their 140-character tweet or Facebook status alone, which is why social listening tools provide a one-way window into your consumer’s life.

Active listening: take a page from the online community playbook

Online communities share many aspects of social listening, but they also give brands the opportunity to develop a much deeper understanding of who their consumers are. In online communities, connections are long-term and ongoing, and with the option to start or continue a conversation, ask questions or dig deeper for clarification, facilitators—who essentially act as brand ambassadors—foster a relationship with community members. With the ability to know your audience and have a meaningful conversation, game-changing insights and “competitive white spaces,” as Julie Wittes Schlack says, are revealed. In Finding the Right Social Media Mix for Market Research, Wittes Schlack goes on to say that “while [social listening tools] provide great analytics for monitoring what is being said online, their ability to enable a nuanced understanding of the why’s underlying the what’s is limited by […] the fact that there is no opportunity for relationship or follow-up on the part of the researcher.” By getting to know your audience and the ability to have a conversation with them, online communities provide a slice-of-life perspective that’s not attainable with standard social listening tools.

Three tactics for more active social listening

A friend of mine, an extremely talented brand strategist, once told me an analogy that has stuck with me to this day. Comparing how consumers interact with brands via social media platforms and when brands do not respond (by an inability or oversight), she said, “It’s as if you were to knock on your neighbor’s door to ask for a cup of sugar. You can hear them inside, but for some reason, they won’t come to the door.” While some brands may not have the bandwidth or capabilities put in place to reply to every tweet or Facebook post, it’s important to remember that if your customer comes knocking, they usually have something important to say. Until an online community has made its way onto your brand’s marketing budget, here are three simple tips to become a better social listener:

  1. Ask questions and probe
    Whether a consumer tweets about a problem or an outstanding brand experience, try to really understand the context behind what they’re saying. Ask questions when possible and try to uncover the ‘Why?’ behind their motivation to engage with the brand. By enabling yourself to better understand their specific experience you’ll be surprised by what you can learn and how easily your consumer’s collective voice can be translated to your marketing or communications strategy.
  2. Open the floor for co-creation
    No one knows your brand better than your consumers, end of story. Utilize your brand’s social media channels as an open forum for consumers to voice their opinions and encourage them to collaborate as partners. When brands act like their consumer’s ideas are just as valuable (if not more valuable) than their own, brands demonstrate that they’re actively listening, and more importantly, cultivate brand loyalty. KRAFT Foods did this when they co-created 48 South Beach diet products with their customers and racked up $100 million in sales within six months.
  3. Close the loop
    Consumers have feedback, and when asked, they’re more than willing to offer their suggestions. There’s no excuse for brands to leave their consumers in the dark about how their feedback helped. Closing the loop and letting your customers know that their voice resulted in change—like Gilt Groupe did when they rolled out sweeping changes to shipping and refund policies—can increase engagement, build stronger brand connections, and create super evangelists.

Active listening requires both talking and listening

“Online conversation follows the same patterns as ‘offline’ conversations” says Heather Whaling, Mashable contributor, “it requires both talking and listening. If brands are always talking, they’re not listening, and if they’re not listening, they won’t understand the audience’s needs.” I happen to agree with Whaling; the two-way, back-and-forth formula for active listening is the only way to really understand your consumer’s needs within an online format. When consumers ask questions or engage a brand in conversation, they generally want a response, but at the very least, they expect to be listened to.

So make the most of your social media monitoring tools by being active listeners. Your customers will reward you for it.

3 Responses to “Listen to Me: A primer on active listening with social media monitoring tools”

  1. Nice post especially the point about Co-creation.

  2. Hi Nick,

    You have nailed it in your statement about social media monitoring tools “they provide clients with a continual pulse on what consumers are saying about their brand online while simultaneously providing them with a wealth of metrics.” Businesses are slowly waking upto the intelligence provided by such tools. Since you are interested in social media monitoring tools, I suggest you check out webfluenz (http://www.webfluenz.com/) which provides a system to listen and monitor conversations online, along with a powerful engagement system to ‘close the loop’ .

  3. Great overview of Social Media Monitoring. I have found these 3 sites to have an pretty exhaustive list of the Social Media Monitoring (and data tools and listening platform) tools available:
    http://socialmedia-listening.wikispaces.com/Tools
    and
    http://socialmediamonitoring.ca/monitoring_tools_directory.html
    and
    http://www.quora.com/datatools

    And this report is pretty descriptive from the 2010 perspective (which is still pretty accurate):
    http://www.nmincite.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/The-Forrester-Wave-Listening-Platforms-Q3-2010-FINAL.pdf

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