Note: This post is by Ahmad al-As’ad, Director Technical Services at MutualMind.

Listen first.

Our parents told us this. It’s a common courtesy. It’s the professional thing to do. It’s caring, attentive and one of the largest factors in a successful communication exchange. More than anything else, however, it’s a prerequisite and a key to influence.

In today’s online & digital World, listening to what is being said about a product you’re interested in purchasing will likely influence your decision in a very direct manner: It could deter you from buying that product; for example, because of a bad review you came across. Of course, the opposite could be true as well; and instead, it could solidify your purchasing intent. Alternatively, listening could suggest an alternative product, which you were not considering, but would consider now as a result of a higher-rated review in lieu of the product you were seeking. Taking this a step farther: Because of the power of these user generated content, you now could consider buying accessories, add-ons, etc. that you would not have considered otherwise.

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These conversations are happening over one or more mediums such as text & instant messages, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Foursquare, Blogs, Pinterest, Tumblr and video sites like Youtube and Vimeo. As of the writing of this, according to the Washington Post, Twitter has exceeded 400 million tweets per day. Facebook, being the largest social network in the World, has 500 million users, 50% of whom login daily resulting in 50 million status updates. Google+, despite its infancy, is experiencing similar statistics, according to Mashable.

Now imagine for a minute, trying to listen for your brand across all these channels. Imagine listening to several brands. Now imagine listening to each brand’s competition, in conjunction with your own brand. “Listening” starts to take on a whole new meaning. To what exactly should you be listening? And what do you do now that you’ve listened?

In order to be effective, your listening should target three different areas:

  • Keywords / Topics
  • Sources / Channels
  • People

Lets go through each of these areas.

Keywords / Topics
This is where you can listen to mentions of all the words that matter to your listening strategy. This includes hashtags, misspellings, variations of the words and punctuation (deciding whether a keyword/phrase/topic will contain an apostrophe, a space or dash; for example). Depending on your business, this may also include events and/or mentions of people.

Perhaps equally important is all the keywords that pertain to the competition. If you are Pepsi, you probably want to see how Coke and Dr. Pepper are doing. When people are expressing their “voice” out there via the different mediums in the socialsphere, are they putting one product down in favor of the other? What’s your share of voice in these conversations? More importantly, when mentioned is it positive or negative?

Listening to specific keywords, whether it be for your brands, the competition’s or hopefully both, is pretty much a given in today’s listening strategy. Whether I criticize your product and/or service at your Brick & Mortar (B&M) location or via Twitter, the result is the same: I am not completely satisfied with that product or service. Positive sentiments are equally true. If you spend time & money to market your widget by hosting an event, and I choose to react to all of it at the event by rubbing shoulders or by posting something on my social channels, the result is the same: I’m excited about your widget to want to talk about it.

Sources / Channels
This addresses the problem of “where are you listening?” Keywords are just not enough to capture all the conversations about your brand. Sometimes you have to listen to a range of  blogs, Facebook pages to get a better picture of discussions about your brand.

People
I may find a need to listen only to certain individuals. Perhaps these are advocates and/or influencers of one or more of my brands. Perhaps they are industry-renowned individuals that cover my brands in different media outlets (newspapers, TV, etc.), bloggers, etc.

As a business that is trying to effectively listen, I want to setup a campaign (using “campaign” here loosely). Have my keywords ready, honed-in and setup. Be able to slice that information by source or channel. And then see who are my top advocates for that campaign.

Combining your keywords, channels and people is the most engaging, active, targeted and effective form of social listening. Consequently, this yields a more accurate ROI and paves a road map for future engagements, events, contests, refinements and overall contribute to the bottom line of your relationship with your customers. That level of engagement, and active listening, is bound to result in higher satisfaction, and in turn better revenues.  Instead of selling, you are just enhancing that line of communication, fostering engagement and empowering your customer/user-base to actively be involved in the evolution of your product and/or service. It is the quintessential power of the social Web.

But all that implies that you are doing something about what you’re “hearing.” And you most definitely should. Listening without any action taken, especially in business, is synonymous with the adage “falling on deaf ears.” Many platforms allow you to listen to different sources. A few of them allow you to listen in on going manner using keywords. Even less of them have the listening powers to go beyond the standard sources (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and include blogs, forums and visual media sources. Naturally, including “people” as a separate type of listening separated from keywords, and allowing you the flexibility and robustness to dissect that data as you see fit with a strong analytics and sentiments engine makes such a platform invaluable. Of course, there are other factors involved, especially for a business. To name a few, whether or not such a platform has API’s that enable me to integrate this with my existing business, and with my existing data. But in order to make it all actionable, I may want to respond to a tweet right there and then –from within that very platform. To be able to respond to a Facebook status update, or a comment on a blog. That’s where the engagement gem lies.

Business data integration is key

As I had alluded to it earlier, for bigger businesses, having that “platform” integrate with data I already have is key. Whether I’m Pepsi, Coke or P&G, I may want to marry my social listening campaign results with the data I get back from the Walmarts & Krogers of the world. This will help me fine-tune my customer-intelligence, drive targeted campaigns with segmentation augmented by my social-listening powers. On my product site, if I’m able to identify a visitor via cookies, registration, etc. then I’m now able to cater the content of the site based on that intelligence. If I’m a major Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brand, I may recognize you when you visit my product site and serve you a homepage specific to chicken recipes because I know from my social listening that you have recently tweeted about making a chicken dish similar to a dish you had a restaurant you visited a week earlier. Again, the very content of the homepage changed to serve your likely needs. Of course, the applications of social listening can go much farther than that.

Listen. Listen carefully. Listen in the right places. Listen to the right things. Listen to the right people. Learn from what you listen. Acknowledge it. Encourage the sharing. Foster that dialogue, the communication and that feedback by offering rewards and discounts where it makes sense. Act on it by using the analytics and the customer & business intelligence at your fingertips as a result of listening. Ultimately, highlight, celebrate and promote that engagement and empower all to contribute to the evolution of your product and/or service.

Are you listening yet?

Picture Credit: Hilo Web Design

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