Time for a New Model: Listening-Centered Marketing

What business does “consumer-protection” have to do with the real business of advertising? Indeed, I’m the uninvited schizophrenic who loves and hates marketing in the same breath. I’m a guarded and suspicious consumer, and I’m a passionate and sincere marketer.

In this age of consumer control (of which we are participants and contributors), we’re all imposters in so many respects. Consumer instinct and “gut” drives so much of our judgment, but we “rationalize” other directions as marketers. In the past, we might chalk this up to an “irreconcilable difference,” but I actually believe some order of tension is a very good thing. Indeed, our consumer-motivated “imposter complex” might just be our best competitive advantage, especially in the age where consumers are driving the creation or co-creation of content and media.

If I ran an inventory of all the thoughts in this column or in my blog, or all the consulting and advice I’ve given marketers and brands in the CGM measurements business, all of it straddles the fundamental tension between advertiser and consumer interests. As a passionate marketer, I understand the imperatives of “awareness, trial, and repurchase” that drive branding and business success. But as a consumer, I also hear the frustrations of “neglect, intrusion, invasion, and irresponsibility” that drives activist consumer sentiment, or, on a milder level, contributes to consumers tuning us out.

A New Model — Listening-Centered Marketing

Brands will have a very difficult time succeeding in this new environment unless they figure out how to dance in this zone of “tension” between marketer and consumer interest. Importantly, we need to embrace a fundamentally new mindset in how we manage relationships with consumers. The secret-sauce, I believe, is what I’m now dubbing “Listening-Centered Marketing.” The heart and soul of this model involves always wearing our consumer hat.

The prescient authors of the ClueTrain Manifesto, Doc Searls and David Weinberger, go it all right when they suggested that “all markets are conversations.” The advent of social and consumer-generated media have turbocharged both the depth and diversity of what we call “conversation” and put special urgency on tuning in to what’s being said about brand.

Importantly, whether manifested in text, photo, or video, CGM (or UGM, it all works) acts like “media” (hence the term “media” versus “content) insofar as it shapes attitudes and brand “consideration.” CGM fuels word-of-mouth, both intimate and incidental, and leaves a non-erasable “digital trail” that punishes or rewards brands in search-strengthened perpetuity.

There’s a real cost of ignoring such conversation. Listening, accordingly, may well be our major source of strategic and tactical competitive advantage.

But let’s face it; listening is hard. I’m not terribly good at it, nor are many of my industry friends who wave the “listening” banner. It takes work. What we hear can throw us off track. But without new frameworks for putting our ear to the consumer pulse, we’ll never get it right, and we’ll never have the benefit of conversation to inform judgment or “marketing optimization.”

Key Building Blocks of Listening-Centered Marketing

Listening-Centered Marketing thinks about measurements and metrics as continuous, and not mere time-stamps. It’s about managing in a world where real-time conversation is held in equal esteem with a click, or a page view, even an actual “transaction.” It’s where the consumer “voice” gives us a much needed aperture to make better, more informed brand decisions.

It’s about sensing and responding to unmet needs and concerns as they unfold, and co-creating along the way. One beautiful gift of Web is agility. We now have the flexibility to do so many more things based on what we learn and discover, like retooling Web sites, or buying keywords, or tweaking online ad messaging.

Finally, listening-centered marketing also recognizes that all media are interconnected and feed one another, elevating the importance of listening to all dimensions and nuances of the consumer voice.

Some of the other key building blocks:

LCM Area Description
360 Listening A focus on listening to all forms of consumer expression, from internal touchpoints like call center to external sources of CGM (e.g. blogs)
Conversations are fluid, and provide deeper context and meaning than “time-stamped” measurement.
Thinking Beyond
A recognition that loyalty alone is not enough. In the age of CGM, it’s also about propensity to recommend, archive opinions, and act as viral ambassadors or detractors.
Co-Creation Not
Recognizes the fastest growing media is that which consumers create, shape, and share themselves. Marketers can participate and influence, but not co-opt the CGM process.
Consumer Affairs
as Marketing
Recognizes that existing “conversational” touch points such as the call center, consumer affairs, and other feedback loops are central to effective marketing, identifying influencers, and managing CGM flows.

The Imposter’s Last Word

If we truly believe “consumers are in control,” we need to dignify their voice by listening to what they have to say. In the end, we’ll become better marketers because we won’t have to do as much costly guessing, over-marketing, or over-selling, or bad-targeting. We may also find that the process of dignifying their voice drives loyalty and advocacy.

Importantly, our own instinct as consumers – our own genuine passion to participate and embark upon meaningful conversations – will guide us to a better marketing space.

So tension is good. Maybe the “imposter complex” is the starting point of wisdom, marketing insight, and most important, credibility.

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