5 Reasons a Listening Post Enhances Your Digital Strategy

social media listening

Today, we’ll discuss why you need a listening post to enhance your digital marketing strategy.

  • Do you know what people are saying about you online?
  • Do you have a system in place to capitalize on your online social presence in real-time?
  • Does your social media marketing strategy include a way to handle massive amounts of unstructured (text) data so you detect comments that require an immediate response?

If your answer to these questions is NO, you are missing huge opportunities to increase the performance of your digital marketing strategy and may miss key comments that can sink your brand. For instance, a client came to me after they missed comments about the side effects of their pharmaceutical product until they came under investigation from the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration). If they had an effective listening post, they would know immediately about side effects that didn’t turn up in their drug trial and have a fix in place. Then, when the FDA came knocking, they would have an answer that didn’t involve taking the drug off the market until it was fixed or avoiding the attention of the FDA in the first place, which is always a good thing.

an effective listening post

What is a listening post?

A listening post is a system for crawling the internet in search of mentions of keywords, such as your company name, your competitors’ names, your brand names, etc. In the old days, brands didn’t have access to these valuable sentiments about their brand because these conversations didn’t take place with regularity or weren’t accessible without expensive marketing research studies. Listening posts are a new term for an old technology. Back in the day, many larger companies paid for a service that would read and clip articles from newspapers and magazines. These services still exist but I imagine they now use bots to troll the web for the latest industry news (see more about this topic and specific tools available below).

I wasn’t able to find a definition of social media listening that I liked, so I made up my own (I hope you like it but feel free to add your own definition in the comments below).

A centralized location where conversations are culled from a variety of online sources [such as blogs, chat rooms, social networks, and forums] and distributed to employees for appropriate marketing action.

I think of social media listening as both monitoring and research — that’s the way I presented it yesterday using both examples of reputation management and monitoring brand mentions, etc, as well as netnography to uncover deep social meaning in the data.

Today, your brand has access to these thoughts and conversations across:

  • social media where customers share complaints and offer kudos
  • review sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor
  • in blog posts, such as reviews
  • in videos and podcasts shared on social channels like YouTube or Apple iTunes

These conversations share two things in common: 1) they’re incredibly valuable for your brand and 2) they’re challenging to analyze because they involve massive amounts of unstructured data, including images, sound, video, and even text. We just don’t have the analytical tools to analyze unstructured data like we do structured data, which mostly involves numbers.

Below, you see a visualization of the relationship between phrases uttered by a market. While this graphic provides some insights, it’s nowhere near as easy to interpret as results from quantitative analysis, such as a regression.

big data, big insights
Courtesy of Information Management

Why you need a listening post

Although difficult, listening is likely more important than anything else you do to promote your business, especially in terms of social networking. Consider the following quote from Bill French:

Listening to what customers, competitors and experts are saying can be a much more productive social networking tactic than promoting your [business] through blogs, tweets and the like.

Most companies are using free listening tools that only track certain social media sites, especially smaller ones. This cost-cutting may end up doing a disservice to themselves or their clients as the accuracy of the tools reflects their price. And, it takes up more time to find insights (which is more precious to me together with the cost of my resources) to reach the information (and the data) that is needed to incorporate into their marketing strategies. I believe that pretty soon companies will learn about more advanced tools to monitor the online realm (not just social media as people post comments everywhere) and start switching to these tools.

Therefore, even if you don’t choose to establish a social network presence, a good listening post is a must.

Companies make a big mistake when they fail to establish effective listening posts; a mistake that can cost them dearly. Here are 5 Reasons you need a listening post:

1. Monitor online brand image

Online reputation management is critical in today’s networked economy. According to Nielsen, the world spends 110 Billion minutes on blogs and social networking sites, or 22% of all time spent online. They also find that three of the top global brands are social networking sites and the average user spends 6 hours on social network sites (more than doubling in just a year).

What these people say during that time online may damage your brand.  Even if you’re not crazy about talking to customers online, you’d better hear what they’re saying about you.

2. Complaint handling

When customers complain, they don’t care if they do so in a place designated for complaints — they want their situation handled. That means they might do it on your Facebook fan page or in their tweets. Having a listening post that detects these negative comments gives you a heads-up on fixing the problem quickly. The faster and more completely you handle a complaint, the less damaging it is to your reputation.

Never simply delete a complaint as you never truly get rid of anything once it appears online (something to remember in managing your personal brand online). Instead, own the problem, sympathize with the complainant, and demonstrate how you plan to fix the problem that resulted in a complaint. This transparency gives consumers trust in your brand and may even result in an improved brand image rather than damage.

For instance, at the SPSS workshop, they recounted a story about an airline passenger who slept through the meal service. When he woke up, he tweeted his unhappiness over the missed meal. An adroit employee monitoring social networks “heard” the post, sent word to the airplane staff who used the manifest to determine where the passenger was sitting, and brought him a meal. Imagine his delight and, of course, he shared his happiness in having his complaint handles quickly on his social network, too.

3. Discover what customers want

Market research is EXPENSIVE and often, despite their best efforts, it’s difficult for market researchers to determine what customers want. More than poor planning, this is a function of the inability of consumers to articulate what they want. It’s also difficult for them to conceive of something that doesn’t yet exist, so how can they ask for it?

By listening to customer conversations, especially lead or influential customers, companies can detect problems they encounter with existing products or problems not currently solved by existing products. These represent prime opportunities for companies to develop innovative products with a high chance of success.

For instance, I work sometimes with someone from Microsoft who they call their chief listener. When Microsoft introduced the Surface computer years ago, he spent the first days listening to feedback from early adopters online. By the end of the first weeks, he identified bugs encountered from a customer perspective, mostly things that didn’t work as they expected or features they found missing rather than true coding bugs. He had the next version of the computer planned out and ready for the development team, which allowed Microsoft to introduce version 2 very fast.

4. Track trends

Again, marketing research costs time and money. Listening to customers to see how they construct their lives, how they live them, and the things that give meaning to their lives offers critical information for making decisions regarding your brand — product or market extensions, eliminating products, etc.  Importantly, this information comes in continuously, making it easier to track trends. This information is also rich, providing insights into constructing marketing communications that hit a consumer’s sweat spots (or hot buttons).

For instance, by using your listening post over time, you can see changes in the language used by your target market (for instance, I understand less and less of what my students talk about with each other every year). You can see changes in preferences among members of your market. A listening post also helps you anticipate moves by your competitor or the entry of new competitors into the marketplace.

5. Determine what other firms are doing

Listening to the conversations your competitors are having among themselves and with their customers can offer insights into what they’re planning – giving you a heads-up and time to develop your own alternatives.

Knowing how customers view your suppliers and downstream channel partners is also important since S**t flows both ways.  If they are unhappy with your distributor or your supplier has developed a reputation as a bad corporate citizen, you need to know this well ahead of time so you can develop new channel partners before the discontent spreads to your brand.

Setting up a listening post

With the modern tools you have at your disposal, setting up a listening post isn’t hard. Tools like Hubspot, Tweetmention, and Octopost help you bring brand mentions to a single spot. Hootsuite, for example, brings mentions into a stream, making it much easier to respond to comments made on social media or engage with users who promote your brand online. Tools like SproutSocial monitor conversations to help you identify topics, assess competitors, and monitor social media performance.

listening post
Image courtesy of SproutSocial

Other listening tools attempt to measure sentiment so you can track improvement over time as you see the percentage of positive, negative, and neutral sentiment change. For instance, see this image from Hubspot below for an example.

listening post

Of course, the main drawback to these tools is that assessing unstructured data has serious limitations. For instance, NLP (natural language processing) is hard because only a portion of the meaning is contained in the words used. Much of the meaning is non-verbal and no tool can accomplish this effectively. At least not at this point in time. The challenge involved in interpreting visual data, especially video and podcast sources, is even greater. Visual analysis tools just don’t perform very well, even on static images. Trying to provide insights from a video or podcast is still well beyond the ability of current systems.

Small businesses might pull out phrases manually or use a tool like SproutSocial to help identify common themes and topics. These data are then analyzed manually using ethnographic techniques or those borrowed from other social sciences for the interpretation of unstructured data.

Next steps

Having a lot of textual information can be almost as bad as having none. Once you gathered information from your listening post, you need to analyze the conversations using visualizations like the one shown earlier (available using tools such as Tableau). For instance, if there is a negative comment or a misunderstanding about your brand you need to address the issue quickly to avoid damage to your reputation. So, once your listening post detects an issue, you must send it to individuals who have the authority to fix whatever problem was detected. I made a presentation about this yesterday to the AMA in DC and am turning it into a paper. You can see the Slideshare at:http://www.slideshare.net/angelahausman/american-marketing-association-dc-presentation

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