6 Ways Of Listening To Culture That Will Change Your Business

Over the past year, I've seen the tenets of true listening taking deeper root in the ways companies think. Despite the information overload that comes from an era of "big data," it seems some visionary leaders are more fully grasping that data can't tell us everything--that there's a very human process of listening to audiences that drive businesses to continue to innovate and better align themselves with the audiences they serve.

But what about listening to culture? Often, companies' desire to listen extends only in relation to what people think about the company and its products and services. And that blind spot puts companies at significant risk for crisis, for missed opportunities, and for losing share--of voice, of revenue, and of recognition.

One way I try to stay connected to what's happening in culture is by following the innovations happening in media and entertainment. Every year, I help organize a 200-person+ hybrid conference/think tank event at MIT called the Futures of Entertainment, with discussions led by 50 leading minds on innovation in storytelling from the media and marketing industries.

This year, our conversations will be led by thought leaders like Henry Jenkins, Grant McCracken, and Brain Pickings' Maria Popova, T Bone Burnett, Jason Falls, and Xbox co-founder Ed Fries; directors from the Google Culture Lab, the AT&T AdWorks Lab, the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, and the Harvard Berkman Center. (Full disclosure: in addition to my organizing the conference, my employer, Peppercomm, is this year's primary sponsor.)

Over the course of this year's event, we're putting our focus on six ways of listening to culture which will lead to better storytelling and audience engagement:

  • Listen to see the world from your audience's perspective. Too often, even when we move beyond data to really listen to audiences, we don't take the extra step to do something with what we've learned--to try and truly understand the world of the audiences we seek to reach. Taking what we learn from our audiences and using it to see the world (and not just our company) from their eyes can uncover new opportunities and help us better serve all our stakeholders.
  • Listen to understand patterns in what audiences are curating and sharing. Too often, we think about an era of spreadability solely in terms of how we might get audiences to share our stuff. But what about the insights we might glean from paying attention to what those audiences are sharing in general? Following what audiences are recommending helps companies stay better abreast of the issues their stakeholders really care about.
  • Listen to see where and how audiences are becoming increasingly active as advocates and citizens. The ways people have long engaged online about their favorite movie or soap opera is increasingly playing a role in how those audiences are participating in politics, advocating for social causes, and engaging in various means of communicating with companies. And how people are actively participating in their leisure time today may well drive how they participate as professionals, as customers, and as citizens in the future.
  • Listen to let audience practice guide your use of new technologies/platforms, rather than hype. Too often, companies have focused on trends rather than patterns of audience engagement, moving from virtual worlds, to fan pages, to apps, to "gamification" because it's hot rather than because it makes sense for the story they want to tell or how their target audiences want to engage. Listening is the best antidote to getting caught up in a wave of technical enthusiasm for the latest trend if it doesn't actually make much sense for the audiences you seek to reach.
  • Listen to rethink how you approach "ownership" of your intellectual property. Media properties and brands say they want people to share, recommend, and find relevance in their content but they too often are governed by logics built on a desire to retain tight control over their content. How do companies create policies for an age of spreadability that protects their rights without restricting their audiences from circulating and engaging with it? One way is to use the circulation of your content as a learning opportunity, following where and how it spreads to improve how the company makes its content available to audiences.
  • Listen to consider what you might learn from worlds outside your own. Every year, our conference seeks to bring innovations made, and challenges faced from a diverse range of industries into the conversation. I don't work in sports, public media, or the video game industry, but I'm amazed with how much I can learn by what's being done by creators and communicators in a wide range of fields. Too often, we focus so narrowly on our own world that we miss out on all sorts of lessons learned and inventive new methods from elsewhere that would revolutionize our own area of business.

I hope you'll come join us at MIT for the event. But, more than that, I hope that the ways in which the event encourages using listening to drive innovation is something that others adopt in their everyday work. I believe this focus can help change the ways companies communicate with their audiences...and that better serves us all.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercomm, and a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. He is also coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Sam was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. He is also co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

[Image: Flickr user Mikko Saari]

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