Does Your Company Listen To Social Media–Or Simply Hear It?

Listening implies an active process of paying attention to what someone else is saying. Most companies don’t do nearly as much of that, primarily because it’s more complicated to do.

Does Your Company Listen To Social Media–Or Simply Hear It?

One of the first questions I invariably ask when meeting with a communications team for the first time is, “How do you use digital communications and social media to listen to your customers?”


From startups to corporations, the response all too often jumps to online monitoring. Companies believe they can prove they are listening because they know their “share of voice” vis-à-vis competitors and have a sometimes-extensive set of charts and graphs from their sentiment monitoring. They know if the conversation has shifted more positive, more negative, or more neutral about their brand.

This can be useful information. But you can gather it all and still not really understand much of anything about your actual customers.

In our book Spreadable Media, my coauthors and I call such monitoring processes “acts of hearing.” In its primary definition, hearing is the act of physically receiving and recording that a sound has been uttered.

So, if monitoring is hearing, how do companies listen?

Listening implies an active process of paying attention to what someone else is saying. Most companies don’t do nearly as much of that, primarily because it’s more complicated to do. It requires looking at the context of what people are saying. It requires developing an understanding of the actual people you’re communicating with and not immediately turning them into statistics. It requires making listening to your customers in social media like real, human communication.


For startups with limited resources to dedicate toward social media, budget often goes toward launching platforms for the company and online monitoring processes. Companies err toward those things because they seem deceptively precise, whereas the processes of listening will always be incomplete and messy. Marketing teams can set our KPIs and measure their ROI and have numbers to report up and across the chain.

And companies that do “listen” well when they start out will often lose that ability as the company–and its customer base–grows larger and processes become more systematic.

But, just because you can’t perfect something or because it’s hard to quantify doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Companies that hear and don’t listen often:

  • know that a shift in perception has happened but have no strong idea as to why
  • realize that there’s been a rise of interest in the company but little about what larger trends are driving that new interest
  • can track what happened with a crisis after the fact but have little chance of seeing a crisis coming
  • miss out on new business opportunities because they are tracking only what people are saying about the company and not understanding patterns in the lives of their customers beyond mentions of their brand

This division between hearing and listening is growing vast in an era of Big Data, where quantitative information about customers is plentiful. Companies are investing more money in quantitative research experts and platforms. But, if you have to make choices with lean budgets, I’d urge you to put more funds behind actual human listening. For those customers interested in your brand:

  • What are they actually saying about it?
  • What else are they interested in?
  • What are the larger discussions happening online, among communities who care about the larger issues your products and services are looking to address?

Other companies may come along and mimic your products and services over time, but no one can replace the human beings behind your brand. If you truly know and understand your customers, that bond will drive loyalty (in both directions).


Social media gives you unprecedented ability to truly listen to and develop deep relationships with your customers. Don’t squander it by only running surveillance on them. And build your listening processes so that they can scale up with you as your company grows.

–Sam Ford is director of digital strategy for Peppercomm and coauthor of the new book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. He is also 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. 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 Sciencesque]

About the author

Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Western Kentucky University, and co-author of Spreadable Media (2013, NYU Press). He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and a board liaison to WOMMA's Ethics Committee