This guest post by Brian Solis was originally published on LinkedIn 

Social media represents a new frontier in customer engagement. Not only can companies participate in conversations, a dizzying array of tools now help them listen to conversations as well. This isn’t news though. Everyone understands the importance of social media in business right? We all know that customers are demanding that businesses use social media to listen to ideas, engage them in conversations, and also solve their problems when in need. As I’ve often said, the best listeners often make the most engaging conversationalists.

Not so fast.

According to a joint study published today by NetBase and J.D. Power and Associates, a double standard exists in social media customer service where consumers say that listening is intrusive — except when it’s not.

Cue the screeching brakes…


Social media listening is largely recognized as the new standard in community management. Listening is how companies can learn how to better serve and engage customers. Listening can improve sentiment and foster stronger relationships, build communities, and encourage loyalty.

Yet, your customers may not welcome it, even if your listening is well-intentioned.

This creates an interesting dilemma, considering that improving listening is a goal for businesses this year. My colleagues at Altimeter Group, a research firm, found as part of its upcoming Social Business Strategies Survey that 42 percent of companies indicated that “listening/learning from customers” is a top three priority for 2013.

But, if consumers don’t want companies to listen to them, what are they to do?

Let’s take a look at the interesting story that NetBase and J.D. Power and Associates visualized in this  infographic, “Is Social Listening Too Much Big Brother?” [Disclosure: NetBase is an Altimeter Group client.]

Consumers believe that listening can be intrusive except when they need something. But how can companies help customers if they’re not supposed to listen? It’s a classic catch-22.

Did you know that 32 percent of consumers using social media have no idea that brands are listening? I find this fascinating as social media is inherently social. For consumers to be so unaware makes me wonder if it’s us or them who are living on another planet.

This is where things get very interesting. Over half of consumers (51 percent) want to be able to talk about companies without them listening. Perhaps more alarming however is that 43 percent of consumers actually think listening to conversations intrudes on privacy.

Businesses appear to be caught in a web of “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” At first blush, the double standard comes alive: 48 percent will allow companies to listen if the goal is to improve products and services. And 58 percent believe that businesses should only respond to complaints in social media.

As the infographic suggests, it may be time to sharpen up our telepathy skills. Businesses need to become mind readers — 42 percent of consumers also expect them to respond to positive comments. And you’re going to love this, 64 percent of consumers want companies to only speak to them when spoken to. Huh?

Considering that 58 percent want you to engage in times of need, 42 percent wish to hear from you in good times, 64 percent only want you listening to be at their beck and call, and half of all consumers don’t want you listening at all, what are you to do?

Obviously social media, and specifically social listening, isn’t going away. But it does take tactfulness, genuine intentions and diplomacy to listen, learn, and engage (directly or indirectly) in ways that consumers feel recognized, and important. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who says something negative or positive won’t feel thankful it’s taken seriously by an organization.

To help CMOs and social strategists tread carefully while improving products, services and relationships, here are four steps to follow:

  1. Don’t just listen…understand. There’s a difference between listening and hearing.
  2. Context is king here. Consider the context of each post before your respond, react, or assign engagement. This is where listening converts into intelligence.
  3. Engage with good intentions. In social media, the end game is reciprocity.
  4. Actions speak louder than words. Demonstrate how your participation in social media is dedicated to helping and building relationships. Do so relentlessly.

For additional insights into consumer impressions on social media and how it breaks down by demographics, take a look at this free ebook.

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