Business Journal

Is Anybody Listening?

by William J. McEwen

In this era of tweets, Facebook, and buzz tracking, many marketers are missing a golden opportunity to have a dialogue with their customers

A new book from the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) bemoans, at least in part, marketers' continued reliance on traditional consumer surveys (termed "asking") in spite of the ready abundance of relatively inexpensive consumer buzz tracking (called "listening"). The book is an outgrowth of an ARF workshop that focused on various methods of monitoring customer comments, chats, and tweets.

Consumers aren't answering the phones, or at least some of them aren't. They're tweeting, blogging, and buzzing. But why?

The author points out that the explosive growth of online product and service reviews, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of consumer-produced media has been taking place at the very same time that obstacles to conventional survey research have been increasing. As consumers rely more and more on cell phones and screening devices such as answering machines and voice mail, they become more difficult to reach by phone. It's getting harder and harder to "ask." In stark contrast, consumers willingly extend themselves, going out of their way to seek online vehicles that will let them give voice to their experiences and feelings.

So why not listen to what they have to say?

There are understandable concerns about whether online chat or tweet monitoring is adequately representative and statistically rigorous. Yet it's equally clear that traditional surveys have often proven to be insensitive indicators of subtle emergent consumer trends. Surveys seem more appropriate as reflections of what is versus what might be. In short, there are obvious strengths and weaknesses to both asking and listening as mechanisms for gathering and sorting relevant consumer information.

But perhaps the question companies should be asking isn't about what consumers are doing, but rather why they're doing it. And, more to the point, what it means.

Tweeting, blogging, buzzing

Consumers aren't answering the phones, or at least some of them aren't. They're tweeting, blogging, and buzzing, or at least some of them are. But why? What as-yet-unfilled consumer need is being met by all this tweeting? After all, responding to a survey seems relatively simple, requiring little effort beyond answering a few questions. If consumers are simply enamored of digital media, many surveys employ the Internet for asking.

In a survey, the marketer does most of the work, preparing and framing a set of relevant questions, and the consumer merely responds as prompted. Tweeting and blogging, however, are far less passive; they inspire consumers to take the initiative to create and frame their messages and find a suitable avenue for expressing their opinions.

There must be a reason why consumers would invest the time and energy required -- and sometimes, it's considerable -- to share their personal feelings about brands, companies, and the products and services that are presented for their consideration. Perhaps it's because they get a return on this investment. Perhaps it's because they feel that somebody will be listening and reacting to what they have to say. (Perhaps it's because tweeting and blogging are more fun.)

Maybe the reason consumers don't answer the phone isn't because they dislike giving feedback to companies or expressing how they feel. Maybe it's because nobody is asking them the right questions in the right way. And maybe they don't believe anyone is truly hearing what they have to say.

Opportunities to engage

Too many surveys are brief and rather atypical moments when companies ask a question and their customers are expected to respond. Sometimes the questions seem of dubious relevance; these rationally focused inquiries fail to tap into what customers really yearn to say. And so, the interchange falls short of being mutually valuable.

Surveys can create something very special that listening to tweets cannot.

In other cases, there's little or no indication of how or if the company will react to the feedback the customer provides. The company's response -- assuming there is one -- typically remains invisible to the customer. Customer feedback has been provided but -- much like the proverbial tree falling in the forest -- the question is whether it made a sound.

It doesn't have to be that way. Contact between a company and its customers doesn't have to be a one-shot event, and it doesn't have to be limited to rare occasions such as when a service visit has taken place or when a customer has registered a complaint. If the goal is building enduring company-to-customer relationships -- and it should be -- customer surveys represent communication opportunities that can reinforce that goal or negate it.

Too frequently, however, these potentially powerful relationship-building opportunities are wasted. But that's not because companies and customers don't care, and it's not because neither party wants to be bothered with the other. Certainly the rise of tweets and blogs proves that customers do want to share their feelings with companies as well as with each other. And the sheer size of companies' research budgets, whether they're spent on traditional consumer surveys or buzz monitoring services, shows that marketers do want to hear what their customers are saying. The evidence is clear: Customers and companies want to hear from each other.

So what's the problem?

Rethinking the opportunity

First, changing from traditional asking (surveying) or even listening (buzz tracking) to a program of active, ongoing company-to-customer dialogue requires a good deal of commitment from the company. Meaningfully responding to customer feedback involves much more than gathering it. Companies have to take action on what they hear, and they must make their customers aware of exactly how they're responding. Monitoring isn't the same as responding.

Second, companies need to rethink what a customer survey is all about -- or at least what it can be all about. They need to view surveys in light of what they could be -- an opportunity to establish and nourish an ongoing relationship through enhanced two-way interaction, not just as a means to pick the customers' brains to sell them more stuff. That requires companies to rethink surveys and redesign them as ongoing customer communication vehicles, not merely as research explorations that are of far more value to the company than to the customer.

Surveys aren't just tools for probing deeply into the mind of the customer in search of insights that the company can leverage. Surveys can also represent the beginning of a program of continuing dialogue between two key partners, each of whom is vitally concerned about the other. Surveys should be clear, focused, and relevant -- not only to address the company's needs but also those of the customer. They must be fun rather than tedious. They should involve and engage the company's customers. And they should generate some sort of response from the company, one that provides a clear demonstration that the customer is being heard.

If companies seek fully engaged customer relationships, they must view every touchpoint -- and remember, a survey is a touchpoint -- as an opportunity to enhance engagement. Buzz monitoring is a valuable tool for staying abreast of hot topics, issues, and trends. But surveys can create something very special that listening to tweets cannot. Surveys can be vehicles for partner-to-partner dialogue, and as in every good relationship, that's a basic requirement.

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