Although listening is widely regarded as one of the most important business skills, businesses are rarely good at actually listening to their customers. It’s not for the lack of trying: companies worldwide spend over $30bn on market research every year, and many successful decisions on market entry, brand positioning and product innovations have been based on the insight provided by traditional consumer research. However, traditional forms of market research, such as focus groups, customer surveys and ethnographic studies have one important limitation: they are disruptive of the natural environment in which consumers normally live and use products. They are more about questioning than listening, and therefore the results of such studies have only limited credibility.

Social media makes listening to consumers more straightforward. Over the past two years, the number of online conversations about brands has grown substantially, presenting a valuable amount of data from which insights can be drawn. Consuming products and services, and discussing brands with others, has always been an organic part of everyday life. The difference is that now these conversations are loud enough for companies to hear, with the benefit of taking place within their natural environment.

Bringing the traditional forms of market research into the social media space can also deliver benefits. For example, by using an online community it is possible to make customer surveys and focus groups a more natural part of the consumers’ everyday life. Such forms of research can also be much more cost effective – as the company would practically own the source of market research (“Groundswell: Winning in a world transformed by social technologies”, Charlene Li, Josh Bernoff).

Another advantage of social media over traditional market research is the possibility to receive customer feedback in real-time. It is no longer necessary to spend weeks on analysis, by which time the reaction could become overdue.

So, have businesses embraced the limitless opportunities of listening provided by social technologies? It is fair to say that in the beginning businesses were not ready for this – suddenly hearing millions of loud consumer voices, each of which could damage the brand – many found it outright scary. Examples of panicky reactions range from activating the entire PR department to react to a single episode of negative customer feedback, to deleting negative comments from companies’ facebook pages (e.g. Tiger Airways) and reacting to complaints in a rude and defensive way (e.g. Nestle, Cooks Source magazine).

However, after a short period of panic, the business community is getting to grips with listening. It helps that they are supported by specialised technologies (such as Attensity, Pegasystems, Radian 6, Buzzlogic and others) and the growing social media expertise of the market research agencies (e.g. Digital MR, Millward Brown’ s Dynamic Logic, Nielsen and others). Naturally, the B2B services market is also maturing in this area, with leading consulting & IT services companies developing Social CRM propositions.  In fact, here at Capgemini we have recently developed a proposition, aptly entitled ‘Grapevine’, together with Pegasystems and Attensity to achieve effective social listening.

Companies create online communities to involve customers in product innovation, like Walt Disney, Dell, and Unilever (e.g. Lynx Twist). Businesses also increasingly perform their market research online, e.g. Aviva or British Gas. Many companies, like Comet and British American Tobacco, use social media monitoring to track conversations about their brands.

In order to master the art of listening, businesses need to become good at dealing with large amounts of data, combining traditional and new market research methods and generating actionable insights.

As Capgemini’s Laurence Buchanan mentioned in his post “When two words collide”, the amount of customer-created content online is rapidly increasing. Simply generating dashboards or responding to comments 1:1 will soon become unscalable. A suitable technology tool is required to gather and process relevant data.

It is important to remember that consumers of some brands may not be very active online, or may not discuss some brand related topics in the social space. Therefore, the ability to combine and cross-fertilise results from a range of research methods, including traditional and online research, is crucial.

Finally, we should not forget that ‘data’ is not the same as ‘insight’. Even though social media monitoring technologies may provide you with a picture of number, topics and direction of online conversations, no tool will generate actionable insight. The ability of the market research departments to interpret this new wealth of data and suggest actions will define the success of online listening.

So, not surprisingly, there are three sides to the art of listening: pay attention, understand and respond.