By: Sam Ford, PepperDigital

Listening and hearing: they aren't the same thing. This is something most of us know when it comes to interpersonal communication. Hearing refers to a physical acknowledgment of noise. Listening refers to some sort of active interaction with that noise…a discerning, a processing. In the marketing world, though, I feel like we're running the danger of conflating the two, particularly when it comes to social media.

I had the pleasure this week of speaking at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's School of WOM on these very issues. I was honored to be a "faculty member" at this year's event, and I appreciated the great discussions I ended up having with folks from Procter & Gamble, AT&T, Georgetown University, Bunn, Medieval Times, and a variety of other places on what their companies are doing to listen to key audiences.

One of the main points of my presentation was that brands have concentrated their efforts of being responsive online on hearing, engaging companies like Cymfony on Nielsen Buzzmetrics to aggregate, quantify, and provide detail around how key audiences are engaging online. These platforms provide us with the tools for hearing. But the biggest difficulty I've found is that brands are much more keen on tackling the hearing issue, because it's easy to fix. If you don't have the resources to do it in-house, you go out and find the firm or the tools to do the hearing for you (a hearing aid, if you'll indulge the metaphor). But, no matter how much data we can gather about what's being said, it doesn't mean much if nothing can be done with the information gathered. All we are recording is that there was a sound made, and perhaps some contextual information about that sound. Important work, to be sure, but it's the listening process that requires companies to do something in response to the noise they've collected…and that's what gives many organizations pause, because it's a much deeper problem to solve.

Listening implies some sort of response to new information received. Sometimes, brands think the only reason to listen is to talk, so–in PR circles–listening often only leads to "outreach," especially so if people are measured by how much outreach they've done, etc. One of the points of discussion at the WOMMA event is the many ways brands actively listen without ever saying anything in response. Instead, those listening activities lead to new business ideas, tweaking messaging, making internal changes to avoid crises or improve usability/customer service, etc. The biggest difficulty of all is developing the right internal communication to bring departments together and address the information the hearing process brings in. Many important insights are lost, even when the marketing division is doing the "hearing," because the information never makes it around the company to the people who need it or because companies are only looking at the quantitative data without spending any time actually listening to what some of those people are saying.

Many of the lessons marketers could learn come from customer service, where people have been hearing these arguments for decades. I had the pleasure of writing a piece for the just-released "Customer Experience Management Guidebook" from CableFAX and The Cable Center. My piece is entitled "Trial and (Much) Error: How Listening to Audiences Is Transforming Cable Television," looking at how cable companies had to shift from hearing to actively listening to customer complaints online before they transformed their business model. Brands like Comcast developed some of their social media strengths because of major missteps along the way, and I think their issues on the customer service front are a strong argument for the importance of the listening process. Hopefully, corporate America will find ways to turn their hearing into true listening without having to experience the sort of "lows" Comcast and others have along the way.

If not (and apologies for the repetition for anyone who's ever heard me pull this comparison out), I feel brands are going to end up like Ozymandias in the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem of the same name. The poem's narrator recounts a story heard from a traveler who came across a statue in the desert with the following words on the pedestal: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" All that's left on the platform is the statue's legs; the head lies half-sunk in the sand, and any sign of whatever empire the leader referred to has been obliterated by the sands. Brands that don't listen are bound to end up with an empire of nothing as they slowly whittle their cultural cache and reputation away.

For more on the importance of researching online audiences, I recommend you read Rob Kozinets' work on netnography…and this piece Rob wrote about how brands listen online based on one of our recent conversations.