Listen First – Part 2

By Association Adviser staff • November 5, 2012

We have a tendency to treat every new way of thinking as a revolution that will displace what we’ve done before. But listening isn’t really new, according to Stephen Rappaport, Knowledge Solutions Director of the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) and author of Listen First! Turning Social Media Conversations into Business Advantage (Wiley). Coming out this month, Steve’s new book draws upon his decades of experience in listening research and creating listening-based business strategies for organizations.

“After 25 years of effort, listening has finally become an overnight success,” he said. “The book’s review of research and its many case studies answer the questions most often asked: Just what is listening, how is it done, how is it used, and where is it going?”

READER NOTE: Rappaport suggests substituting the word “member” for “consumer” in this article and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how many insights apply to your organization. Click here for the related weekly Webcast series and blog about Listening.

  • Our data shows that 85 percent of associations are using social media to listen to members regularly, and nearly half are connecting with members via social media on a weekly or more frequent basis.
  • The command-and-control communication strategy is being replaced by “co-creation” in which the customer/member and the brand have an ongoing dialogue with each other and try to understand each other. Fiat and Starbucks have had great success in this area.
  • Effective listening requires organizations to develop new skills and a new set of tools.


What’s new is that we’re using it to achieve many of the marketing objectives we have always sought to achieve, such as discovering new customers, improving products, innovation, increasing sales, creating relevant messages and retaining customers.

Experts say there are now three major types of listening research:

  1. Social Research—studying what our customers are interested in—themes, issues, topics
  2. Social Media Monitoring—studying what customers are saying about us online
  3. Search Based—Trolling the search engines to see what’s been formally written or posted about us

Thanks to the advent of technology and consumer empowerment, organizations of all types need to develop a new set of research skills:

  • Question Formation: How to ask the right questions to get meaningful data.
  • Pattern Recognition and Bottom-up Reasoning: How to connect the dots and recognize emerging stories.
  • Social Communication Theory: How to communicate in informal situations and incorporate that feedback into formal communication strategy
  • Classifying: How to organize and categorize the feedback you’re getting into meaningful groups or families of intelligence.
  • Triangulation: How to bring multiple sources of data together to come to your conclusions.

Listening tools to consider

Organizations interested in listening are often baffled by the array of software tools available. Rappaport organizes listening tools into four groups:

  • Search-based: for quick answers and trends
  • Text Analytics: for social media monitoring and social research
  • Private Branded Communities: for social research
  • Full Service Vendors: turn-key solutions for monitoring and social research that include project design, implementation, analytic and reporting services.

Listening’s frontiers are expanding. Listening is now being used to:

  • Create “social TV” ratings, providing advertisers with a new metric for planning and buying.
  • Target advertising based on conversation topics, not demographics.
  • Supplement—or replace—brand tracking research.
  • Predict business outcomes like monthly sales.
  • Expand outside of market, media and advertising, such as predicting election results or analyzing public issues like healthcare reform.

As data from the 2011 Association Adviser Communications Benchmarking Survey shows:

  • 85 percent of associations are using Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn to listen to members regularly.
  • 64 percent say they’ll be using social media much more frequently over the next 12 to 24 months. That’s nearly twice as many as will be using discussion forums/list servs.
  • 49 percent of associations are communicating with members on a weekly or more frequent basis using social media channels (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter).

It’s an era of co-creation—the customer and the brand have an ongoing dialogue to understand each other. Examples of co-creation include:

  • Fiat’s ProjectMio co-created a new concept car by enabling people around the world to join open forums to suggest product and marketing ideas directly to the company about what they’d want in the perfect car. The company took the best suggestions and showed the car at a world auto show in Brazil. Ideas from Project Mio have been used to market cars in their current lineup and have given the company great insights into customer interests and needs.
  • Starbucks’ My Starbucks Idea website: The company felt it was losing touch with its customers. Now customers can put up ideas, fellow customers vote on them and Starbucks integrates the best ideas into its menu offering and in-store amenities.

Listening is not hype or a flavor of the month. Listening is a new source of business advantage whose potential is only starting to be tapped. Getting started is straightforward—many tools are free or low cost—but doing so requires you to make a decision first. If you and your team haven’t sat down lately to assess how well you’re listening to your members, now might be a good time to get that meeting on the calendar.