Listening Must Evolve Into Social Intelligence

Why do companies "listen" to social media? In short, they listen to learn and improve the business. Marketers use social listening to improve their campaigns and build customer relationships. Customer support teams listen so they can fix problems. PR teams listen to put out fires before they spread. Researchers listen to drive innovation. In this sense, listening isn't a social media strategy; listening is a data collection component of a business strategy. We "listen" as a means to drive action.

But that's not really the case, is it? Most companies I speak with know that listening is important - it seems that nearly all companies know the classic social mantra, "start by listening" - but years into their social strategies, they're still counting the number of Facebook fans or tracking for brand mentions. They're listening, not acting. It's 2012, and we're still passively - without purpose - collecting social media.

This rant comes as the result of two milestones: 1) the two year anniversary of our first research introducing social intelligence and 2) the week in which Google and Adobe double down on the social pieces of their analytics offerings. Although I'd love to spend an entire post talking about the past two years of social intelligence, it took Google and Adobe to inspire me to talk about today's market instead.

In both announcements, linked above, you'll notice a salient theme: action. You'll read about how social data informs marketing strategy. How tying social data to web analytics or marketing measurement helps informs campaign actions. Each link addresses the value of intelligence from social data. And the word "listen" doesn't appear in either.

Watching two industry giants increase their collective focus on social data - and the actions it informs - supports the idea that social intelligence is just on the horizon. And although these won't be the only players making social data actionable, I'm sure these announcements have a lot of listening platform vendors paying close attention. Especially given our recent stance that listening platforms must grow up. But it's not the vendors' fault that their customers haven't fully built social intelligence strategies. Having the right tools and having the time, resources, and knowledge to use those tools are two sets of issues.

It's been two years since our first public use of "social intelligence," yet I still see many companies monitoring social media, some listening to customer conversations, and few beginning to find intelligence in the data they collect. As a result, I'm currently working on a report addressing a social data maturity model. My goal with this research will be to help companies measure the maturity of their current practices and learn what steps they must take to evolve. It's coming together well so far and will hopefully publish in the next month.

If you have some ideas of what separates listening from intelligence, I'd love to hear it below in the comments or on Twitter. And hopefully, with the help of the right resources, 2012 will see many more companies guide themselves past listening - and into action.


Why are we stuck?


Unsurprisingly, more awesome stuff from you. Good, clear reminder of what matters: Action. I agree that many brands are still caught up in tallying the size of their community. I know a Fortune 50 company, admired for their social media prowess, that, if you shot them up with sodium pentothal, would concede that they are in the business of growing audience.

My question is: Why is that? Is it because limitations of the tools (they were built at a time in which "counting stats" were the only stats) have spawned limitations of behavior? Or is it because that's what the C-suite is demanding (show me how I'm measured and I'll show you how I behave)?

If it's the latter, how do practitioners un/re-educate the officers?

Your fan,
Joe Chernov


Joe - thanks for commenting and - as usual - the excellent idea.

I wonder this too: do we count audience size because the C-suite cares? Or does the C-suite care because that's what we're counting. Regardless of how it started, I hope we can all put an end to it.

Counting audience members is easy and it's comparable to our other outdated measurement practices. We're comfortable counting clicks or viewers, why not likes and mentions? But the promise of social data is relevance and connection - it's time we start utilizing the valuable aspects to social data, not just the easy bits.


Zach - I'd like to say great

Zach - I'd like to say great minds think alike but I might be rather tooting my own trumpet when compared to your article! I am in the middle of writing a blog post something similar to this myself. I was with a client yesterday and I was talking to them about their competitors social media engagement. (I do marketing communications).

That competitor was undertaking research that my client could well use. Did they think of it? Not a chance. Yet this type of 'listening' is really useful for businesses.

I met with another client last month and all they could tell me is that they had x amount of fans. It's a good number but with 2 likes here, very little shares; there isn't much engagement.

It's definitely time for businesses to watch, listen, learn and take action. I loved the article and will very much look forward to reading about your social data maturity model.

Take care,

Evolution to Social Intelligence

Great piece Zach! I would start by saying that most of your examples on listening aren't listening - they are monitoring. Marketers start with the right intentions of listening to drive toward that promised land of Social Intelligence but don't make the leap. They start to listen but then they need a purpose or a goal - they "why am I listening". Thus they move to monitoring because monitoring has a purpose. Human beings (and marketers are human) like action and purpose. So having a purpose for an action helps them move the ball forward, with monitoring there is a clear purpose - to take some action on a measured signal.

Marketers need to find a purpose for why they should really and deeply listen to social. And let's face it, listening by itself is something of a research project - Intellectually stimulating but nonetheless doesn't help you hit your bonus or sell more product (though it should). So marketers love the research but unless they can get their hands on something that scales easily for them and has some level of measurability to track and report - they will lose interest. Hence the focus on likes and now engagements - because they can easily measure and scale them.

But I am a big believe in the Social Intelligence. And a bigger believer that brands can be truly built in social but only if you actively listen and build your own Social Intelligence. We have found the key to getting the client to lean forward with listening is in demonstrating value in the listening. I find my clients lean forward when I show them what they can learn from listening. When I tell them the interests and desires of their most engaging audience - their customers and influencers. Giving the marketer a deeper understanding of their customers and their target segments, how they perform helps them as a marketer. The marketers then lean forward into listening, but this has flaws as I am listening and deriving for them.

Anyway it is an evolution. Take the baby steps and move the marketer forward.

Monitoring vs Listening

You make some great points here. Although I've focused on the difference between listening and intelligence, there's just as big a gap between monitoring and listening. Ultimately, all companies must go through each stage in their own evolution.

Thanks for reading - and sharing.

Social = Data

Love this! I'm actively working at plugging all manner of social listening data into EMC's BI processes. We plan to have a social-integrated model in 2012... some insight here:

You Are Right! The Key is Actionable Results


Thanks so much for taking this step. It is easy to "listen". It's getting actionable results so you can do something about it that counts, especially in a regulated industry such as life sciences. And, whether or not the life sciences company uses social media, there still is the need to listen. The reputation of a brand or the company is at stake. Opinion leaders need to be found for market access. Wikipedia entries can be modified and [because it is used by over half of physicians (according to a Pew Research study) to turn to first for product information] pharma companies need to ensure the information about their product is correct. Social media "actionable" listening needs to be part of the life sciences company's business strategy for marketing research and compliance [e.g., adverse events, off-label use]. I'd really appreciate the opportunity to discuss your post further. Again, thanks for your insight.


Listening For Life Sciences

John - thanks for the comment. Another great addition.

I'll be very interested to see how the FDA handles social media in the long run. For now it seems you're absolutely right: life sciences companies must listen - regardless of the actions their listening may eventually drive. The result is that many regulated companies feel perpetually trapped into listen-only mode.

You're missing an important

You're missing an important point. All the technology in the world will not solve this problem. Google and Forrester can introduce new analytics every day and little will change.

This is an issue of corporate CULTURE. Companies are not making the transition from hierarchical companies who broadcast to empowered organization who react. I work with several very large companies and I see this extremely painful and slow process close-up every day. There is no such thing as a grassroots cultural change. It must come from deep understanding and buy-in at the very top of these companies and an active commitment to change ... not more widgets.

Technology Is The Smallest Part Of The Story

Thanks for commenting - based on my rant above, that having the right tools and having the right strategy are two very different challenges - I mostly agree. And I while certainly agree that new technology doesn't usually change corporate culture, it can help power the movement.

Tools that make data actionable make action simpler. The simpler things are for employees, the more likely they are to adopt. It's like the debate Joe and I had in the earlier comments: do we actually care about the metrics we collect, or do we collect them because they're easy. If action was easy, would we care more about that?

You say that companies must transition to empowered organizations, but then you also say that there is no such thing as grassroots cultural change. In the heart of an empowered organization, can't a few employees get the attention - and buy in - of the top?

It is truly heartening to see

It is truly heartening to see companies like Google and Adobe knitting together the upper and mid sales funnel. What about the Google Analytics / CRM systems integration? Can Salesforce bridge the gap?

Zach, Thanks for another


Thanks for another great post and for continuing to hold our industry to higher standards.

I agree that this is more than just a technology problem. You know as well as anyone that grand promises about the impact of social conversation analysis on critical business decisions were made early on when 1.0 platforms were being deployed and companies were barely paying attention to what was being said about them online.

The marketing bravado from vendors anxious to leapfrog each other went from "monitoring" to "listening" to "intelligence" before brands barely had started tracking such data. I believe the gap is finally starting to close as software improves, brands move beyond the hype and social practices and teams are gaining knowledge to create better processes to integrate social data and insights. Obviously, each segment of the industry as a lot of hard work ahead but I'm personally encouraged by what the future holds.

I look forward to your upcoming report.

Mike Spataro
VP, Client Services
NM Incite

Many businesses aren't

Many businesses aren't listening actively or attentively, because it takes time and can't be automated which unfortunately seems to be the opposite of running businesses today. Culture, procedures, silos are components of it, I like to think social media as fast food industry, everyone is trying to come up with processes to get things moving, formula to calculate ROI, but forgot nutrition (resources) and culinary (intelligence) are needed for the taste (success), or do we even care?

Great analogy

Thanks for commenting and for the great analogy. What strikes me most about this is the "do we even care?" question.

It's fascinating to watch companies reinvent the wheel for social media. It's almost a mentality of "Yes, we already have standards. Yes, we already have goals. Yes, we already have business processes. But social media is new and shiny? Let's throw these things out and start over."

In the end, it seems we've been tasked with new technologies and have been happy to just take the easy, fast-food-like way out.

Beyond listening is Engagement

Listening & Monitoring must be complemented by Engagement which is more action-oriented. Intelligence is a subjective thing. The results from engagement are varied & typically of higher value than just Listening.

I would say Start by engaging first.

Social Listening vs. Social Intelligence

Very good points Zach. I'm in Social Media and am still in awe of the number of companies who are just "listening". I very much agree that it's time brands started using the process of social listening to capture social data and analyse it to provide actionable insights. I'd very much your feedback on a recent blog post I did on social data. If you or your readers have the time I'd love to hear your comments

Same Problem ~ New Age Solution

Hi! Zach - Liked the article very much. I think once the hype over the new age solution (aka social) settles down a bit, the charm of the listening toy will wear out and enterprises will soon realize that to really leverage the platform is to drives Intelligence. I had blogged ( along similar lines a couple of weeks back. While the tool is new, the problem is an old, one of being able to communicate the right message to the right audience through the right channels. Social just confounds the problem due to it's bi-direction and co-created nature and non-segregation of channels. Listening is the first steps but insights must be gleaned through right set of Intelligence to get the execution right.