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How and Where to Listen to Customers

Laurent Flores
How and Where to Listen to Customers Laurent Flores

In a recent iMedia article, I recommended to marketers that in order to leverage word of mouth, brands should be putting more importance behind listening to consumers rather than talking to them, arguing that most of the time marketers have been trained to talk (plan ad campaigns, test them, broadcast them, and so on), but do not know their own customers well enough because they do not really listen to them.

Why is this so important nowadays?

We have now entered the world of conversation marketing, a world where you listen before talking, where you continuously hear your customers by conversing, and where conversations are the only way to create customer engagement.

Still, as some of you will say, this is easier said than done. And indeed, after my last article, I got quite a few emails from readers asking about the how and the where of listening to the voice of the customer.

Below are some insights and tips from our day-to-day practice of customer-listening. I will mainly provide directions into the how and where to listen, and, for now, just refer to the who to listen to, in general. I will hopefully comment more on the who during one of my next articles. 

Let's start with the how
In essence, listening is rather simple: You don't say anything, and you don't talk-- you simply listen by starting a conversation with an initial subject of discussion, then you stand back and listen. Or, even better sometimes, you simply listen to what consumers have to say about your brand (online for example).

Simple. Except, when you think about it, the function that has historically been in charge of consumer insights in most major companies (namely market research) tends to be more about asking questions and not at all about listening (or not enough). Again, I am not blaming market researchers (I am one myself!), but once you know that the future of marketing is all about conversing and engaging rather than talking, you also need to incorporate listening to your arsenal to generate real consumer insights.

I really mean >real here, as, in my experience, although questions are a great way to learn from consumers, the real insights are those that come from day-to-day observations and conversations that occur naturally, and from people talking about and living your brands. The implications are important, because it suggests that in order to maximize our chances to discover and amplify insights we need to integrate better listening abilities even when we ask questions. I call this active listening.

Active listening
This is a great way to engage consumers and learn from them. With active listening, you may still ask questions, but you also have the ability to better identify ideas and listen to the words that may actually be the real insights. Indeed, instead of relying on deductive type of interviews (where answers are always fixed and do not change as the process goes on) inductive interviews offer consumers the ability to be exposed to other consumer ideas (including some of the original brand ideas). This way you suddenly have the ability to engage and leverage consumer ideas and insights (take a look at www.brandDelphi.com for more ideas and further details on this).

This inductive process leverages evolutionary principles (in pure Darwin terms) to engage and evolve consumers in co-creating messages with brands. In my last article, I was referring to marketing with consumers rather than to consumers, and this is a good example of co-creation of brand message development and refinement. We use this approach extensively for WOM messaging with great success. That's mainly because we listen and are able to simply leverage the words and ideas that best speak to influential consumers to enable them to talk about your brands.

Passive listening
As argued above, active listening is the first way to better learn by listening. The second way to listen is really hot in the industry right now. This approach refers to such activities as measuring and tracking WOM online, listening to blogs, message boards and forums. I refer to this approach as passive listening.

Why passive? Simply, as I mentioned before, you stand back and listen in to conversations, like some type of giant focus group, where the group is the web, and the world is (hopefully) speaking about your brand (positively-- if it does not it is good to know anyway, no?) This is a great way to learn from online conversations and even identify key influential consumers.

By now, you should know a little more about ways to better listen to consumers to leverage what they say for your WOM campaign. The next element is really to know where to listen and learn from consumers, specifically those influential consumers.

Where to listen? (Fish where the fish are)
The web is a little village, or a world made up of many little villages with people who have interests and passions. Somewhere people are currently talking about your brand, so find out, search, scan the web and listen. If people talk about you on the web or to their friends offline, they probably would like to engage and converse with you personally, too. In this case, they will most likely turn to your brand's natural points of contacts, such as your call center, email, stores and brand website(s).

Our research systematically shows that engaged and vocal consumers, typically the influential consumers or opinion leaders, are looking for information from brands they love (or hate) and hope to get them from the brand itself at the brand website.

What a chance, then, for your brand to learn by listening. For once, you don't have to even ask for their attention-- you have it. And yet if you think about it, do you really listen enough to them? Let me know if you do, and how. The brands I work with listen effectively every day, to great benefit. It helps them grow their relationship with influential consumers, drive innovation and leverage these conversations to engage consumers in WOM and, subsequently, sales. It really does work.

Are you ready to listen and engage with consumers that come to meet you on your brand website?

Start thinking about an active listening feedback mechanism-- an active listening type of feedback mechanism like brandDelphi for example, a blog, a brand community or probably a combination of the three, on your brand website. Brands like Stonyfield, for example, took the time to start listening and conversing on their brand sites and it seems to pay off. Why? Listening always does.

When you apologize, apologize with sincerity
It takes a lot of courage to take the high road, but it pays to be authentic. When you make a mistake, own it and own up to it. Remember when you were a kid and your mom made you apologize for hitting Johnny in the head with a baseball bat, but you weren't really sorry? Johnny knew you weren't being sincere and that you were just apologizing because your mom made you do it. Just like Johnny, consumers can sniff out a fake. Apologizing because your PR team told you to do it is no longer good enough for consumers. Social media is just too powerful for brands to be anything less than authentic with their words. To be a brand of integrity, it's imperative to actually stand for those values you say you have and that mission statement that's hanging in a pretty frame in your office.

Brands will often take the route of giving an underhanded apology to their customers, such as "We're sorry if we offended you." Be sorry for the mistake you made. Apologize for the real issue, not for hurting a consumer's feelings. If there's truly nothing to be apologetic about, then a brand should not be apologizing in the first place. However, if there is something to apologize for, then it is best not to belittle the millions of people who have a strong opinion about the company's actions.

One brand that did a good job of apologizing with sincerity is Backcountry. A day after tornadoes hit Alabama, Backcountry sent an email out with an email header that read, "Mother Nature hates you. Deal with it." The email creative was planned as witty copy weeks before the natural disaster occurred, and Backcountry was merely a victim of bad timing. As soon as Backcountry realized that this gross mistake occurred, an email was sent out that started with, "We messed up." The email went on to explain how it "messed up" in plain, clear language. It followed up with multiple apologies, as well as a statement that said its behavior was "unacceptable." (A copy of the complete email can be read here.) The apology email was simple, clean, and looked like a letter you would receive in the mail. Backcountry did exactly what it should have done. It simply apologized. There was no 10 percent off coupon or offer of free shipping to "help ease the pain." It was meant to be an apology, and that is exactly what it was.

Take into account that brands spend millions of dollars over multiple years in an effort to increase brand awareness and value through the eyes of their consumers. Brands pick their colors and logos based off of their target audience's emotions. Brands invalidate those same consumers' emotions when they ignore what is important to the consumer. When consumers are unhappy, three things happen: They tell everyone they know, they stop buying your product, and that expensive brand engagement study that you recently gave to the CMO just went into the trash. When a brand actually takes responsibility for its actions, consumers notice that as well and will associate your brand with a positive emotion. Positive emotions influence brand value, which, in turn, drives strong purchase intent.

Time is of the essence, so apologize swiftly
Once a brand decides to step up to the plate and apologize, there should be no delay in the apology. As Backcountry did with its email blunder, send an email out to your database immediately. Use vehicles like social media to get the message out to all of your brand evangelists. If a brand is forthright and sincere in its apology, fans and subscribers will actually help the brand by self-policing Facebook, YouTube, etc.  For a brand to accept its shortcomings and own its mistake, a sense of humility must be found.

When the Epsilon breach occurred and multiple brands' consumer databases were hacked earlier this year, some brands responded immediately to the situation and others took their time in addressing the issue. To be fair, the mistake was not the fault of the brand; it was a security issue that occurred through an email service provider it used. Regardless, a brand cannot take a wait-and-see approach in alerting customers, especially if the customer's PII is at stake.

If an issue has been identified, taking the ostrich apology approach is not a good strategy. A brand cannot stick its head in the sand in hopes that the problem will go away. When a brand addresses an issue swiftly, it alerts consumers that the brand cares about them and that it values them as customers.

Make it right in the eyes of the consumer
It seems like common sense to tell a brand that when an issue occurs to make it right, but brands often tend to fall short in this arena. When there is an issue, simply fix it. Sometimes all it takes is a simple apology to make it right. However, customers may need to be compensated, and if that happens, refund the money. One of the brand propositions that Nordstrom offers is that it will accept any return. If you bought something six months ago at Nordstrom and it's now broken, the company will accept that return. Nordstrom does an excellent job of turning a company return policy into one of its strongest brand propositions. It may cause unexpected expenses to occur, but brands should take that into account as they plan their budgets. Just like we build "opportunistic funds" into our media plans, brands also need to have a slush fund for when the unexpected occurs.

Handling larger scale issues -- like when human life is affected -- is most likely out of the hands of a brand manager or brand director. It then becomes the responsibility of the corporate officers to handle the issue appropriately. Even when how to handle the issue is not their decision, brand marketers can control the tone used in getting the message out to the consumer and what media vehicles are used.

Consumers want to know the issue has been acknowledged and that action steps have been taken. An apology with no action is only half an apology. Actions speak louder than words, so taking the proper steps to make it right will make the brand a hero in the eyes of a consumer. Something as small as great customer service, particularly in times of trouble, make a little effort go a long way.

Jennifer Samples joined LazBro Inc. in 2008, bringing extensive marketing experience with her.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.  

Facebook: "What's On Your Mind?"

  • 2015 True Reach views: 278,403,557

  • Social interactions: 2,558,941

  • Release date: June 20, 2015

The No. 1 spot goes to Facebook this year, with its "What's on your mind" series of slow-motion video ads racking up nearly 280 million True Reach views. Debuting in June 2015, videos like the one above use humor, drama, and detail to celebrate and rethink the Facebook status. "It's the story behind the post, whether it's people thinking about what they're going to write or who they'll tag -- all those elements before what we ultimately see in our feed. We wanted to pay homage to that," Rebecca Van Dyck, VP of consumer and brand marketing, told Adweek. 2014's top campaign, "First Kiss," had a True Reach of 156,670,932 views, while this series of 13 short ads nearly doubled that, so it seems that branded video is only getting bigger with each year.

Here's another great one from Facebook's series to check out.

Ad Council: "Love Has No Labels"

  • 2015 True Reach views: 158,987,348

  • Social interactions: 4,585,322

  • Release date: March 3, 2015

  • Agency: R/GA

While it came in at second by True Reach views, this much-talked-about PSA from the Ad Council brought in the most social interactions (4.5 million) of any video on this list. With Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's gay rights anthem "Same Love" as the backdrop, this poignant video shows viewers what we all share, rather than what makes us different. People of all genders, sexualities, ages, races, and abilities look the same as skeletons who kiss, dance, and play to demonstrate universal love and acceptance. According to the Ad Council, its "Diversity & Inclusion" campaign asks everyone to "reconsider the biases that we don't even know we have."

Adidas: "Create Your Own Game"

  • 2015 True Reach views: 148,072,114

  • Social interactions: 1,618,055

  • Release date: August 6, 2015

  • Agency: 72andSunny

This August, 72andSunny debuted its first work for new client Adidas, and the campaign was a rousing success, bringing in nearly 150 million True Reach views. Featuring soccer sensations like Lionel Messi, the video campaign suggests soccer fans and other viewers should be individuals rather than mere followers. As the star athletes show off their best moves, the narrator says, "You may want to follow me. Don't. Create your own game." The ad above gives fans some impressive feats of athleticism to strive for, but the main takeaway from the video is that true success comes from carving your own path.

Wrigley's Extra: "The Story of Sarah & Juan"

  • 2015 True Reach views: 116,192,238

  • Social interactions: 3,454,573

  • Release date: October 7, 2015

  • Agency: Energy BBDO

Thanks to Wrigley's and BBDO, a sweet love story made it on this year's most-watched list. Viewers see the young romantics through ups and downs starting with their first meeting. Sharing sticks of gum becomes a common theme throughout their relationship, yet the video doesn't come off as contrived, in large part thanks to its actors. "[It] is not about a specific relationship," BBDO executive creative director Andrés Ordoñéz told Adweek, "but about all moments of connection. This time we chose to focus on a love story. The chemistry between our lead actors was so good, people were tearing up on set during the first scene on day one. We knew we had a beautiful story to share."

With its engrossing and genuine on-screen performances not typically found in short, branded segments, "Sarah & Juan" is the kind of ad that stays with you.

Adidas: "Take It"

  • 2015 True Reach views: 116,068,779

  • Social interactions: 1,410,794

  • Release date: February 13, 2015

  • Agency: 180LA

Though the second ad from Adidas on this list, "Take It" was actually launched first, back in February when Adidas was still with 180LA. Showcasing a variety of sports and athletes taking chances and making moves, the campaign drives home a similar call to follow your own path, with a narrator declaring, "Do something and be remembered, or do nothing and be forgotten. No one owns today. Take it." Both campaigns from Adidas draw on universal themes encouraging viewers to seize the day and value their individuality. With these strong hopes and feelings harnessed on screen, any athlete or viewer can find meaning in the message.

Purina and BuzzFeed: "Man and Puppy"

  • 2015 True Reach views: 95,168,633

  • Social interactions: 3,447,590

  • Release date: May 29, 2015

Another winning video campaign this year came from a humorous collaboration between BuzzFeed and Purina. A new puppy owner goes through both the rewards and challenges of pet ownership in this adorable campaign. As man takes his new best friend around the house, struggling through the tough moments of puppy-care, the friendship is cemented by Purina Puppy Chow. Undeniably shareable -- as is most content involving puppies -- the campaign garnered nearly 3.5 million social interactions. Next, check out "Some Ground Rules," another charming video from the "Puppyhood" series.

Air France: "France Is In The Air"

  • 2015 True Reach views: 88,367,446

  • Social interactions: 79,452

  • Release date: March 5, 2015

  • Agency: BETC (Paris)

One of the more mysterious and ethereal videos of the year comes from Air France. This campaign feature airline passengers taking flight in a way you wouldn't expect -- on swings. The video has a unique dreamy quality that allows it to stand out. It's not an ad that tells you all the specific features and advantages of a flight with Air France. Instead, it clues you in to the feeling you can achieve next time you are "in the air" with this airline. And that feeling is all at once dreamy, romantic, creative, playful, and carefree.

Samsung: "Galaxy Note5 Official Introduction"

  • 2015 True Reach views: 85,366,327

  • Social interactions: 748,766

  • Release date: August 13, 2015

Next comes a video less about the story and more the product itself. Samsung's Galaxy Note5 introduction highlights its sleek features and capabilities, giving tech junkies all the juicy details and specifications they're looking for. The Note's S Pen is given plenty of attention in the spots as well. This campaign just debuted in August, and it has already racked up more than 85 million True Reach views. There's not much of a narrative here, but the campaign is far from dry, engaging viewers with feelings of inspiration and innovation rather than anything close to sentimental.

Amazon: "Amazon App"

  • 2015 True Reach views: 76,259,371

  • Social interactions: 364

  • Release date: February 2, 2015

Launched in February, Amazon's video campaign calling on shoppers to try its mobile app hooks audiences with the familiar predicament of needing to buy a gift for someone. These no-frills spots get to the point quickly, explaining the best reasons to download the Amazon app: scanning barcodes with your phone, adding items to your wish list with ease, and receiving quick mobile updates on the status of your package. This campaign sparked just 364 social shares, likely indicating a large portion of paid traffic. (Another contributing factor in this case is that comments are disabled on the campaign's original YouTube videos.) Since the content isn't as shareable as some other campaigns on our list, it's not too surprising that these spots didn't go viral organically.

Samsung: "Assemble"

  • 2015 True Reach views: 74,353,189

  • Social interactions: 377,249

  • Release date: April 28, 2015

  • Agency: 72andSunny

Lastly, in the No. 10 most-watched spot, we have another campaign from branded video giant Samsung. (Samsung had two additional campaigns in the top 15, not featured on this list.) In this one, released in late April, Samsung drew on its partnership with "Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron" to captivate viewers while showcasing Samsung devices and teasing the upcoming film. Leo Messi makes an appearance on the most-watched list yet again, this time as one of the recruits for a secret mission in Samsung's "Assemble." The biggest strength of this campaign was how it sparked viewer involvement.

Bryan Rowles, 72andSunny partner and executive creative director, explained to Ad Age, "We ended up with the idea that, whether you're an athlete or a normal person, wouldn't it be cool to be a superhero -- wouldn't it be cool to be an Avenger?" At the end of Part 2, the mission is extended to Avengers fans everywhere, who can engage in their own virtual reality with the help of an Android device or Gear VR headset.

Chloe Della Costa is a contributing writer for iMedia Connection.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Group of young adults browsing a tablet outside" image via iStock.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Arjun Anand

2010, July 29


Thank you for the posting this article, its been a very engaging read.

Thank You.

Arjun Anand