A social media myth: Do we really need to “listen to our customers?”

listen to our customers

Sure, we need to listen to our customers. But how?

Here’s a familiar piece of advice posted by an ad agency executive last week:

“There are conversations taking place about your company or brand 24 hours a day, seven days a week in social media. Are you a part of these conversations? Or are you hoping that if you don’t hear them, they don’t exist?”

How many times have you read something like that? At least once a week?

It struck me that in many cases — perhaps in most cases — this advice is wrong, or at least misleading.

Although this has been one of the most pervasive “best practices” on the web and standard issue for every cookie-cutter plan developed by an advertising or PR agency, for most small businesses, there are few, if any, meaningful online conversations occurring that are truly going to drive some major change in direction.

Listen to our customers … but think

First, let me state the obvious — social media monitoring is absolutely essential for many companies and brands, especially large ones.  It is ESSENTIAL. Social media “listening” can be a critical tool to detect consumer trends, unearth business intelligence and solve customer problems.

But the fact is, most businesses are NOT large brands. In fact, they may occupy a niche market in a small town where listening for customer conversations will be met with weeks of silence. This “listen to our customers” advice might make no sense at all.

Today, let’s unpack this — what is the limitation of social listening for many businesses?

Lack of volume

For “listening” to make a difference, there has to be a critical mass of conversation going on out there to create discernible value. For many small businesses, especially in small towns, the listening step may be fruitless. There just isn’t anything relevant to listen to.

Perhaps the conversations are hiding behind the veil of Facebook or LinkedIn groups. Perhaps the relevant conversations are ephemeral, like a Snapchat or Instagram story. Most likely, they are not occurring at all.

One owner of a small business devoted to small motor repair asked me “I know I’m supposed to be listening to our customers and learning before I jump on to the social web … but to what, exactly?”

The experience factor

I met with a marketing manager of a fairly large brand who was exasperated by the standard advice of their ad agency.

“I have been in this job for nine years,” she explained. “I know my customers better than anybody else in the world. I study this market, our competitors, and the issues and trends every day. Why is my agency telling me that I need to delay our social media strategy for six months during a ‘listening phase?'”

The answer of course is that she should not have too. The ad agency is following a playbook but may not be in tune with the real needs of the business. Delaying the social media launch may be a bigger risk to the business than shrinking the time needed for this phase, running this step in parallel, or eliminating it.

Lack of relevance

I’ve written several articles pointing out the extremely limited role of most social listening platforms.

Is the information you’re gathering meaningful?

Quite often, there is too much emphasis placed on the Twitter feed, which does is not representative of the population.

I’m not saying don’t pay attention to it. I’m encouraging you to use it in context.

Listen to our customers, but use common sense

If you’re running a small business and seeking help from your local social media expert, you’ll probably be handed a line for the importance of “listening” … maybe MONTHS of listening before doing anything.

Here are questions you should ask first:

  • Before I commit to this program, can I see a sample of what you’re talking about? What are examples of meaningful conversations in my marketplace?
  • Can we be running a social media development effort in parallel? What is the risk of delaying this?
  • Is the data we’re getting representative of the market or is it Twitter-centric?
  • Should we be paying attention to private groups that would not show up on a listening platform?
  • Is a social listening platform going to paint a true picture of our customers or should we be engaging in other activities like surveying and live meetings?

I’ve often said that the answer to every question in marketing is “it depends.” Do you need to engage in a social listening activity for your business? It depends! But use commons sense before simply taking advice from a social media consultant and running up your bills.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Unsplash.com

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