Social Brands: Listen and Learn

Simon Kemp

As we saw in a previous post in this Social Brands series, marketing is all about creating mutually beneficial exchanges of value.

The nature of that value exchange will vary between brands and audiences and over time, but in order for marketers to deliver maximum value to their brands, it holds that they need to understand what value looks like for their audiences.

This isn’t just a case of asking people what they want, though; as Steve Jobs astutely pointed out,

It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” (from this great collection of Jobs quotes)

If you want to deliver real value to people, you need to understand them as people: their behaviour, their attitudes and beliefs, their motivations… In short, you need to understand their lives.

Conventional marketing research is great at finding specific answers to specific questions, but the real magic for marketers lies in modern-day anthropology – not the 19th Century ‘home-stay in Borneo’ variety, but a fresh, always-on digital approach to meaningful people-watching.

Enter Social Media Listening
Every day, hundreds of millions of people all over the world share valuable insights and information about themselves via publicly accessible social media.

Not all of these posts mention brands, but that doesn’t mean they’re not of value to marketers.

Indeed, almost all public posts can help inquisitive marketers to build a rich understanding of their audiences that they couldn’t gather elsewhere.

Even the much-bemoaned practice of posting “photos of my lunch” can reveal powerful insights into an audiences’ worldview: do they opt for expensive restaurants? Do they look for healthy alternatives? Do they mention brand names or generic topics?

When we explore people’s social media activities with an open mind, we’re almost certain to find something of value.

However, almost all marketers miss this value, because they’re too busy ‘listening’ for explicit mentions of brand names or campaign hashtags.

As a result, we’re leaving far too many rich insights uncovered in the feed.

Big Data vs Big Insights
One of the reasons we’re missing this value is that marketers are often too egocentric when it comes to their brands.

This isn’t a judgment on marketers as people, mind – more often than not, this selfish focus is driven by a the demands of the quarterly sales cycle, and the quick wins that are invariably the easiest ways to achieve short-term targets often come at the cost of seeing (or seizing) bigger, longer-term opportunities.

This focus on ‘delivering the numbers’ means marketers spend too much time looking for ways to insert themselves into conversation.

Put simply, we spend too much time looking for opportunities to interrupt people.

But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Indeed, this interruptive approach – even though it’s become ‘industry standard’ – contravenes one of the most important rules of effective communication: when you’re talking with someone, actively listen to what they’re saying, and don’t simply wait for your turn to speak.

Sadly, too many brands don’t even wait for their turn to speak though; they’ve become used to interrupting audiences whenever they have sufficient budget.

Even amongst those brands that do listen, most only do so on an ad-hoc basis, usually by using traditional market research techniques to ask a series of brand-oriented questions.

This approach does offer a certain value, of course, but the danger is that marketers only pay attention to a summary of aggregated findings, and miss out on the opportunity to dig deeper into the motivations and contexts behind people’s statements and behaviour.

In order to become more successful, marketers need to move beyond this ‘brand egocentrism’, and start to think of their brand’s activities in the broader context of people’s whole lives.

We need to spend more time actively getting to know our audiences, and being personally involved in the listening process.

Social Listening vs Social Monitoring
Fortunately, rich insights are readily available to marketers with the willingness to listen.

By paying attention to the statements and conversations that people share in public social media, we can gain a far deeper understanding of what people actually want, need and desire.

We don’t need to collect everything in one go, either; by spending just 5 minutes a day actively listening to the conversations of a subset of your audience, you’ll quickly gain an affinity for the things they care about.

More importantly, these insights can add value well beyond your social media activities too; most people (i.e. non-marketers) use social media to talk about a wide variety of their everyday lives, so proactive listening can inform every aspect of your brand’s value proposition: advertising, packaging, CSR opportunities, in-store activities, and even R&D:

We Are Social - Brand Value Via Social Listening

In order to do this effectively, though, we need to move beyond ‘ego monitoring’.

Instead of listening only to what people are saying about your brand, use more generic keyword terms in your searches.

For example, if you’re a shampoo brand, don’t just listen out for mentions of Pantene, Dove and Head & Shoulders; ultimately, people don’t pay for shampoo, they pay for beautiful hair, so listen out for the broader conversations they’re having about hair.

By adopting this broader approach, you’ll quickly gain insights into people’s problems and motivations, their preferences and their needs.

Furthermore, by moving beyond the simplistic measurement of ego metrics like share of voice or campaign engagement, you’ll start to find opportunities to join organic audience conversations where your brand can actually add real value, without needing to interrupt them.

We Are Social - Listen & Measure

The bigger opportunity in social media listening is that it can help us use communications to add value and become welcome participants in bigger conversations.

Getting Started
The first step towards uncovering these rich insights is to identify who you want to listen to.

Don’t restrict this definition to your consumers; listening to broader groups such as influencers, advocates, detractors and even NGOs and regulators can help add rich and unexpected insights.

Once you’ve defined your audience, you’ll need to find where they are in public social media.

You don’t need to find everyone in your audience of course, and you certainly don’t need to analyse every one of their posts.

The way I usually get started is to find a few dozen people talking about something generic (but brand-relevant) on Twitter, and then read through some of their other recent posts. Inevitably this will include some photos of lunch, but I start to get an affinity for who they are as real people.

Once you do this a few times, you’ll probably want to adopt a more systematic approach.

Start by putting together a simple list of keywords, and make a regular ‘appointment’ to listen to the people who’re talking about them.

Select a few people from these conversations at random, and take some time to listen to what they’re saying about other things too; this way, you’ll quickly build up an intuitive understanding of your audience that goes well beyond demographics.

Using social listening tools can help make your anthropological efforts more effective too; harness the power of always-on listening tools like Tweetdeck and HootSuite, as well as powerful aggregators like Sysomos and Radian6.

There’s a host of great, free listening tools out there too, so don’t let budgets stop you – I regularly use socialmention, addictomatic and twazzup, and great new tools launch all the time.

Once you have your tools set up, you’ll only need to listen for a few minutes every day before you start to identify new ways to add value to your audiences’ lives and to your brand’s bottom line.

Go on, try it out now.

This post first appeared on The Wall Blog. To read more in the Social Brands & The Future of Marketing series, click here.