The Biggest Digital "Winner" of 2009: Listening to Your Audience

By: Sam Ford, PepperDigital

As the PepperDigital team looks back at the winners and the losers of digital in 2009, so to speak, I want to focus less on the actual case studies and more on what I consider the winning criteria of the year: listening. I started out the year writing about Ford's Scott Monty, who was getting considerable attention at the time for monitoring, and being responsive to, discussions online about the future of the automotive industry amidst the crumbling of Detroit's financial stability. At a pivotal time for the automotive industry, Ford differentiated itself by showing that it was a little bit more in touch with what was happening in culture than the competition. Sure, Monty's efforts were only a tiny sliver of the company's overall public presentation, but I'd argue that this conversational approach probably gave Ford a return on its investment several times over at a time when all the automotive manufacturers were seen as out of touch with reality.

As 2009 continued on, I've been heartened to see companies increasingly evaluated on their responsiveness to their customers and the wider culture. At a recent conference, I heard Coca-Cola explain how various search engines and social sites were what they considered their "home page." In late 2008, Motrin was watched closely as their identification of a cultural trend–the proliferation of mothers carrying their children in slings–led them to launch a campaign that backfired with mommy bloggers who were insulted by the idea a drug would be pitched to them to help them cope with carrying their child. And debate continues about Skittles' decision to turn its home page into its Twitter feed, as some say it's indicative of this ethos of listening to your audience and admitting that the customer defines the brand while others felt it was an indication of surface-level hearing–and in this case reflecting what audiences were saying verbatim online–without necessarily actually listening to what their customer wanted.

One of the biggest success stories of the year has been Comcast, who turned widespread customer dissatisfaction into a social media monitoring program that focuses on Comcast listening to and proactively responding to customer issues on Twitter and in the blogosphere. This doesn't mean that customer still don't have major frustrations with the cable service provider, but the campaign has empowered the company to respond to a great number of public complaints and, in the process, receive a great deal of positive publicity about how the company had taken customer complaints seriously and made genuine efforts to fix some of the problems that plagued them. Meanwhile, companies such as Southwest Airlines remain gold standards for companies to aspire to, an airline (one sector that, along with service providers, has traditionally generated widespread customer dissatisfaction) that generates a unique culture with a great deal of customer passion, thanks in large part to its highly participatory blog and Twitter presence.

So, for me, the success story of 2009 has been the broader idea that social media is for listening. Brands who, in a previous era, were primarily concerned with whether they should launch a blog, a YouTube channel, or a podcast series are increasingly thinking instead about how to proactively listen and respond, whether that be reaching out to customers directly or finding ways to turn the intelligence gathered from audience feedback online into intelligence that impacts the way a brand does business.

Grant McCracken's latest book, Chief Culture Officer, makes the argument that corporations need to have a breathing relationship with culture, taking in meaning and feedback from the culture and then giving meaning back to that culture. (Full disclosure: I'm featured in the book, so I have a vested interest in its argument.) It seems to me that listening to the audience has to be a fundamental cornerstone of that work, situating a brand within the larger concerns of the audiences it's trying to reach and the larger culture in which it operates. In 2010, I hope to see that understanding of listening to the audience become more nuanced as brands no longer have to think about whether or not they will listen but rather how they will listen more effectively and what they will do to take the intelligence gleaned from listening broader and deeper in their organization.

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