Why Businesses Are Using Social Media To Listen To Their Customers

Not so long ago, it is fair to say that for many corporations social media was something that they dabbled in only reluctantly. Perhaps hoping it was a fad that would soon go away, executives added Facebook, Twitter and Instagram “buttons” to their websites and hoped that this would make them appealing to the youth markets that everybody seems to covet. At worst, those buttons sat there little used, like the blogs that had not seen new posts in 18 months or so. At best, savvy marketers used these new channels to attempt to entice customers to spend more on the back of special experiences and the like. Opinion is very much mixed on whether this approach worked any better than more traditional advertising.

Now, however, things are changing. Social media is being used by companies not just to communicate their messages to customers but to learn more about those customers. Thanks to ever-evolving technology, businesses can increasingly “mine” social media for valuable insights into how customers are using products and services and – better still – why other people are not using them. What was once dismissed by many as idle chatter has become a key source of information for not just the marketing department but also those involved in product development and strategy.

As Dr. Jillian Ney, a digital behaviorist and believed to be Britain’s first “doctor of social media”, says, “It’s a lot more than marketing.” She adds that by putting more attention into listening organizations could discover things that have generally been beyond focus groups and brainstorming sessions and achieve the Holy Grail of “meeting unmet needs.”

At Crimson Hexagon, a leading player in the growing field of social data analytics, founding chief technology officer Chris Bingham says that, with a billion people using social media and generating even more pieces of information, the potential is huge. The problem, of course, is sorting the relevant and useful from the unusable. This is where the tools offered by companies like his come in. By posing the right questions in the right way, he and his colleagues can present customers with insights they can understand without them having to think about trawling through millions of pieces of data. The realization that these insights are there marks a sharp shift in the perception of the value of social media over the past four to five years, suggests Bingham. “It’s like the world’s largest focus group,” he says. “You can tap into what people have said in the past rather than just what they are saying now.” This is is significant because it enables companies – and, indeed, opinion pollsters in elections – to track people’s changing attitudes towards such issues as being eco-friendly or, in the case of politics, immigration. Hey agrees, arguing that one of the things executives have been doing wrong with social intelligence is to take findings in isolation. They need to understand the cyclical pattern of behavior, she suggests.

Another emerging trend is for the “democratization” of analytics. In other words, tools operated by businesses like Crimson Hexagon enable insights to be gained directly by different parts of the customer organization, where they can be more quickly acted upon. Hitherto, any such findings have been the preserve of specialist analytics professionals who have necessarily been in short supply in most businesses. Related to this is the development of “opinionated insights.” In the past, companies were presented with raw “business intelligence.” But increasingly they are being offered information selected on the basis that it will be particularly relevant or points to one course of action over another. The increasingly sophisticated tools are also able to analyse the pictures in social media to enhance or even provide a different perspective to what is being said in the words.

It is easy to imagine that this brave new world is the preserve of high-tech businesses. But one of Crimson Hexagon’s clients is the financial services institution Legal & General, which as a regulated business has to tread carefully. Social media manager Sarah Cook says the “listening” tools that monitor services such as Twitter and Facebook are useful in two ways. First, they help customer service teams pick up on what existing customers feel about how they are being treated and what they are happy or unhappy about. Second, they enable product development teams to build a greater understanding of people’s needs at different times of their lives. Listening to conversations about customers’ “pain points” at such important times as moving house or having a baby can help the organization produce more useful and more attractive products and services. At a time when customers everywhere have constantly rising expectations about service, the insights gained in this way help L&G become more responsive to their needs – although Cook stresses that the company uses them to offer broad advice rather than to sell specific products.

All very impressive and virtuous-sounding. Even so, many customers might be surprised that companies are “listening” to their online chatter in a way they would find alarming if it were the security services doing it. Another reminder perhaps that all these services are not as free as they look at first glance. It will be interesting to see if any businesses uneasy at being seen to be behaving in this way decline to adopt what could be a competitive advantage and if consumers begin to shrink from using social media as their first channel of communication when it comes to commenting on companies with which they are doing business.

Article Written by Roger Trapp of Forbes