Friday, January 29, 2010

Listening for Customer Understanding

I’ve expended a lot of energy trying to get marketers to really grasp the difference between marketing research and the analysis of behavioral data as avenues to customer insight. Sometimes I despair. We academics are partly at fault. Most marketing courses, especially the introductory ones, teach marketing research as the way (read that the only way) to learn about customers. We forget that there is behavioral data of many types, from many sources, that should be mined before enterprises spend time and money on marketing research.

Senior marketers have the same hang-up. Marketing research is what they were taught. They may feel comfortable with how it is done and the results it produces (or they don’t use it at all). But I thought an Ad Age headline (subscription required) earlier in the month captured the essence of the problem. When I used this slide in class last night, I got a lot of puzzled (disbelieving?) frowns. Let me see if I can restate the issue in terms of why companies need to listen as their first step in understanding customers in a way that leads to viable marketing and business strategies.

The ARF held another conference on listening yesterday and I looked this morning to see if any material had yet been posted. Not yet; I’ll keep looking but I did find a great quote in a blog post from ARF president Joel Rubinson. He says:

Listening is about hearing what people [say] rather than the marketer wants to talk about, (emphasis mine) and hearing it in people’s own words. It’s a window in the mind, heart and emotions of people, one you need to have your nose pressed up against continuously. Because things change…really fast…giving agile marketers great opportunities leaving traditional marketers wearing the WTF happened look on their faces.

As I looked, I found something else really good. I don’t know whether the ARF is happy having this report, clearly marked ‘confidential’ posted on the web, but for now at least, it’s there, so I’ll link to it. As all good researchers do, they start with an operational definition of listening:

“The study of naturally occurring conversations, behaviors, and signals, that may or may not be guided, that brings the voice of people’s lives in to the brand” (p 11)

They parse the definition in a useful fashion and go on to say a lot of important things about developing a listening strategy. You should read it for yourself. It’s long, but the main concepts take up only about 20 pages, followed by an incredible number of good short case studies, and ended with a discussion of technology and platforms. Let me leave it with the brand-related objectives that can be realized, in full or in part, by a well-crafted listening strategy. Their list is:

• Discover New Customers
• New Product Development and Innovation

• Improve Existing Products

• Maintain Sales Momentum

• Drive Brand Growth

• Re-brand or Re-position

• Tackle Public Policy Issues

• Manage Reputation
• Manage Brand Health

• Customer Care

• Increase Loyalty and Customer Value (pp 13-14)

I don’t think any of us can disagree with the desirability of any one of these objectives. That still begs the question of how to produce the best data to meet the selected objective(s). Try this conceptualization.

We have to listen to conversations that relate to our brand. That’s one kind of qualitative data. Behavioral data from everything to site visits to transactions is one type of quantitative data. Each of those types of data quickly becomes gigantic. Together they are mega-gigantic. For a brand of any size or reach, they have to be thoughtfully mined to come up with actionable insights.

Then the question is whether there is anything missing. In researchers’ terms, not just something interesting that we’d like to know, but data from which we can draw actionable insights. If the answer is ‘yes,’ we may need to do marketing research. It could be anything from a poll (or a series of them) on our website to a custom marketing research project. If it’s really important to a full picture of the customer, then do the marketing research. All the while behavioral and conversational data floods in. Also, the world moves on, which is another problem with pausing to do conventional marketing research.

That’s the nature of the challenge and it’s formidable. In the process of this investigation I’ve learned more about useful platforms that can help meet the challenge. More about that next week!


Jamie Rauscher said...

The concept of listening to your customers would be most helpful to Toyota management! In wake of the expanding safety recall Toyota does not have the luxury of doing formal research to see what its customers think--but they can and should be studying their Facebook Page to get a sense of what information they can provide to address the concerns of Toyota vehicle owners!

MaryLou Roberts said...

Good point, Jamie! A good application of 'don't have time to do marketing research' and 'information is all over the media anyway.' I wonder if there are some longer-run strategic issues-- components of their brand image/where the damage is for example--that they should be studying. At some point, they'll have to turn from disaster control to rebuilding their brand, and that's where some research has potential to be valuable.