How many times have you sat around with friends, colleagues or family talking about something you're passionate about? Golf, shoes, cars, food: whatever it may be, these conversations undoubtedly contained valuable information that relevant companies would like... no... love to know. While this information is out there and can present incredible benefits to businesses, companies have never been able to tap it on a massive scale.
Methods for gathering customer insights have evolved and improved as technology and communications have become more advanced and community focused, with conversations between consumers representing the holy grail of customer insights. Consumers talking to each other in uninhibited, truthful and passionate discourse offers a raw and honest view of their needs, wants and sentiments. But how do brands access these conversations and glean the customer information they offer?
Scouring the web for customer interactions is part of the solution. Companies have done a great job to date of finding information across many different sources, but it's an intensive process that is becoming more and more fragmented each day. Furthermore, people and their networks are more secure and consumers are holding information more closely than in the past. For rich customer insights companies need to bring social networks and communication platforms to their own sites for real-time information that centers directly around their products and brand.
The state of the customer
Focus groups, surveys and feedback forms are no longer the best way to gather customer sentiment. These are forced, company administered, and do not give companies an unbiased view of the customer. At the same time, customers are increasingly interacting among themselves about purchases and brands and relying less on marketing outreach from businesses to inform their decisions. While seen by some as a challenge faced by marketers, this situation, when leveraged correctly, is fortuitous for both customers and businesses.
The rise of word-of-mouth marketing strategies has encouraged even more of the conversations around products and brands that are already occurring everyday. Tastemakers are spreading the word about new cool products while other influencers are blogging or tapping other social media to spread their message. Many of these conversations happen in social networks scattered around the web, making information gathering difficult and costly. Consumers are more and more willing to join specialized social networks that speak directly to their passions (and pains), so companies need to look a little closer at their business when they think about how they can leverage customers' social networking interactions.
Not all social networks are created equal
Existing, successful social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and even the blogosphere as a whole, offer great benefits for marketers looking to gather customer insights and sentiment. But gathering this data is difficult and requires dedicated resources to really get a comprehensive view of interactions occurring around your brand and industry. One additional challenge is that these sites are external and give marketers limited access to user data while consumers must approve a direct connection on sites like Facebook to enable you to see their profile, and therefore, what they are saying. They may like your products, but they probably don't want you in their "top 8."
While understanding what is being said in the social network world remains an important strategy, companies need to start bringing these customer interactions closer to home where they can use the information and insight in an actionable and effective way. Recent studies have shown that consumers want personalization in their social networks and that it would greatly improve their networking experience. The desire is there.
Having an interaction network on your business' site has several advantages over other ways to gain insights. First, conversations are focused on your business and your products. Sifting through a huge amount of information and customer interactions for a small amount of relevant information is no longer necessary; brand-focused networks focus discussions on your company, yielding large amount of rich and useful insights. Also, these networks contain both current customers and new potential customers. The existing passionate customers act as evangelists and trusted sources for new potential customers. This voice is far more effective than any marketing efforts or advertising. As discussed before, this is just like those casual conversations we have at work or at a party about a cool new product or TV show. For example, a guy tells his friends on bowling night about his great new DVD player, or a woman asks her friend at work how she likes the new car she just bought.
The network also builds customer loyalty. Joining a network around a brand or a product reinforces the consumers' connection to it and solidifies their loyalty. The blog platform offered by MLB.com to baseball fans in recent years is a great example of this.
Finally, and most importantly, all of these advantages and information are fully accessible to companies and are in real-time. Having information on your site allows for the greatest flexibility and access to it. On a high traffic site, when testing new products or prices, for example, real-time data is invaluable. Reaction time is key for many business decisions and lag time in correcting or changing issues can be detrimental to a business.
What's good for the customer is good for the brand
Brand-specific social networks give both companies and customers much needed capabilities. Consumers have access to their peers for advice, opinions and other useful purchasing information. Companies have access to these interactions, which yield unprecedented customer insights and help inform all aspects of the business. Customers will always have sentiments, but getting them to voice these opinions and then harvesting those rich insights is where the real challenge lies. The methodologies around this have evolved with time and technology, and social networks have presented the best option we have ever seen: customers communicating with customers, naturally and uninhibited. Focus this around your brand, and you have yourself a gold mine.
It's a room full of people all talking to each other about your brand and you get to hear what they're saying. I can't imagine any marketer would pass that up, ever.
Daniel Neely is CEO of Networked Insights. .