There is not one article on adaptive digital marketing that doesn’t start by saying that we need to listen to the consumer. Social media has generated an important technological opportunity for marketers – as billions of people worldwide constantly interact via social networks we have the great opportunity to learn what they find relevant and what not. With tools like Radian 6, Viralheat, Lithium or Alterian we exactly know what people share on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus. But there’s still a great amount of brands that don’t like to listen.

In Spring 2011 60% of all CMO’s in a global KPMG-survey responded they would expand social listening efforts in the near future. Only 43% had already had positive experiences in this field. This is a bit astonishing considering the fact that Social Listening is the most insightful and least ’dangerous’ (read: least visible) brand activity in the social web. What’s more, social listening can support brands holistically. No matter whether it’s about measuring buzz, optimizing customer service, or co-create a new product with fans, listening tools should be the weapon of choice.

Listening tools should be the weapon of choice

Imagine how many creative concepts could benefit from integrating sophisticated listening reports early on in the process. How much better and relevant would creative ideas become if they’d be conceived based on the end-consumer’s interests. Take for example the genius approach by EA Games 4 years ago which resulted in one of the greatest viral hits of that time: Tiger Woods, Walk on Water. The story is simple and beautiful. And the result of social listening.

The video is essentially a TV commercial – save the fact that it was exclusively shown on YouTube. A high-budget concept for a major brand. But the insight that led to it was based on simply listening to consumers. It was the glitch in an EA game, discovered by a consumer, that was used as the creative springboard.

It was the glitch in an EA game, discovered by a consumer, that was used as the creative springboard

Listening platforms these days are – if at all – most often run by PR departments or PR agencies. The objective is usually either to report back the general buzz level around a product launch or campaign. Or – alternatively – the goal is to identify possible PR backlashes early enough to prepare the company for their full impact. But supporting actual creative processes via real time user insights still isn’t the way most agencies and their clients work. Is it because of a lack of experience in modeling social listening tools? Is it because the creative process is still considered as the sacred shrine of what agency work is all about? (No need to involve the user here!)

A couple of years ago I set up a listening platform for a major car brand that generated an awful lot of interesting insights just by clustering consumer feedback. One thing we realized was how simple and effective creative springboards can be developed out of analyzing user conversations from the social web. Not just by looking at the conversations around a specific brand, but by trying to fully understand what people like, dislike, are missing or hope for when they are in the process of buying a car. In my example we found out that young car drivers preferred to buy the same first car that they had trained with in driving school. The insight: “Promote your cars more effectively to driving schools to attract more young buyers.”

Adding real-time aspects into a strategy still is a challenge, but I’m sure about one thing: while not all the output of an agency will be digital in the future, most often it will be digitally driven – if only through an insight generated by listening to what the consumers talk about on the social web.