Listening to online brand conversations

Larry Irons · January 30, 2009 · Short URL:

More on the engagement gap

We need a new boxA recent report from the Chief Marketing Officer Council provides an interesting set of insights into the engagement gap. The engagement gap refers to the difference between the influence of the Internet in consumer decision making and the amount of spending, and effort, by corporations and government agencies in trying to interact with and shape the thinking behind those decisions.

The CMO Council report summarizes the overall results of the survey as follows:

What we are seeing is much stronger sensitivity to engage directly with customers and learn more about what shapes, influences and impacts purchasing decisions and intentions to do business. The move to quantify "customer affinity" and increase "customer advocacy" has become a new measure of marketing effectiveness...

As Jack Neff noted over at Advertising Age, only 16% of CMO Council survey respondents indicated their companies use any system to monitor online conversations about them or their brands -- another data point confirming the engagement gap. In other words, few of the respondents indicate that their companies are even listening to online conversations. On the other hand, as we noted here, the Eighth Annual Burson-Marsteller/PRWeek CEO Survey asked 200 CEOs of U.S. companies about their assessment of social media's value to their business. Of the CEOs surveyed, 55% reported using online social media on a relatively frequent basis for personal purposes and noted the following about the importance of social media to their company.

Percent of CEOs Who Believe Social Media Can Have an Impact on...

A company's overall reputation: 62%
A company's reputation around public issues (such as environmental/labor issues): 61%
Sales of a company's products and services: 48%


Anyone seriously interested in social media knows that listening alone is not enough. Depending on the background of the expert discussing experience design issues, it may require any of a variety of adjectives to describe the process for bridging the engagement gap. However, almost everyone involved in any form of experience design for social media agrees that listening is merely the first step. So, what is behind the reluctance of companies to expend resources listening to online conversations about their brands? Forrester recently released a report in its Forrester Wave series on Listening Platforms that hints at an answer.

Balancing the Human/Machine Tradeoff in Social Media

Nathan Gilliatt posed the essential question on the topic back in 2007.

How do you like your social media analysis? Do you want the speed and scalability of an automated process, or do you prefer the subtlety and insight of a human analyst?
Almost two years later, the Forrester Listening Platforms report, though packed with more detailed analysis of the options, fails to move significantly beyond Gilliatt's questions. Let's take a look at how the Listening Platforms report defines platforms for listening to online conversations about brands.
A technology and analytics infrastructure that mines a wide variety of traditional, online, and social sources to extract and deliver insights that shape a firm's marketing strategy.
Looking closely at the definition, a key point of differentiation lies in the emphasis on delivering insights into marketing strategy rather than simply providing a listening capability to online conversations and their sentiments in relation to brands. As a result, the Forrester report contends vendors need to focus on the following three areas in their offerings:
  • Incorporate sentiment and influence analysis to understand customer engagement. The report notes that marketers must trust plaforms to "correctly identify sentiment and influence" if vendors expect them to use insights derived from such listening techniques. On top of that minimal criteria, it adds that "the platforms must correctly identify influencers and assign higher value to their feedback."

Note: Aside from the complexity of deciding just who an influential is using data from interactions rather than mere connections. Nathan Gilliatt gets it right in a separate post on the topic by noting that no one really knows how well the tools measure sentiment and adds, "There's not much demand for a competitive test, and not much incentive for vendors to participate in one." The Listening Platforms report is one of the first to attempt such a test, though I'm sure the methodology is vulnerable to critique.

  • Vendor roadmaps for products need to emphasize integration. In other words, the Forrester report contends that insights gleaned from listening require distribution across relevant channels of customer interaction (such as call centers, POS, etc.).
  • Vendors require consulting and analytical services to add value to their listening platforms.

It is not surprising that the Listening Platforms report does not find vendors measuring up to the three standards outlined. As Peter Kim noted in his discussion of the report, product and services companies operate within very different organizational structures. However, the real question for the 84% of respondents to the CMO survey who indicated that they do not attempt to listen to online brand conversations is whether their inaction allows the perfect to be the enemy of the good. 

Larry writes the blog Skilful Minds.


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