Why brands must evolve from social listening to content listening

26th Jul 2015

Social media has come of age. As previously noted, global spending on social media tools for listening, management and monitoring is due to rise from $2.2bn to $17.92 billion over the next four years.

Fuelling this boom has been the promise of unparalleled access and insight into our customers’ and prospects’ lives. Social media evangelists have been particularly effusive about how Web 2.0 hasn't just made us 'accessible' and 'collaborative' but also 'authentic' and 'transparent' too.

It’s not an entirely empty promise either: undoubtedly social media has enabled marketers to help companies protect their reputation, respond to PR threats, identify brand advocates and influencers, and create, seed and promote great quality content. However, social media monitoring is not without its problems.

Deception in social media

A survey in The Telegraph revealed that one in four women lie about their lives on social media to ensure they don't appear "boring", with one in three admitting to “dishonesty” whilst using Facebook and Twitter. It’s not just the ladies - men are at it, too. The same study found that men are more likely to lie on Twitter than Facebook, and are also twice as likely as women to want to impress their workplace colleagues (22% compared to 8%).

The 2010 documentary Catfish charted the exploits of a young American who strikes up a Facebook relationship with a young student named "Megan" that later turns out to be a lonely, mature housebound woman called Angela who had manufactured multiple online identities to lure him. Deception in the social web doesn't have to be as extreme as this but the general point still stands: our social media identities are a carefully contrived image that we want to portray of ourselves, not the real 'us'.

For marketers trying to get an accurate picture of their community and audience – to communicate in a more relevant and, ultimately, profitable manner – the panacea of using social media data for customer insight is actually more a case of ‘seeing through the glass, darkly’.

From social monitoring to ‘content listening’

So, where can brands go for a more truthful and more useful reflection of the customer?

The author Walter Mosley once said, “A man’s bookcase will tell you everything you’ll ever need to know about him”, and it with this in mind that organisations are starting to see the value of understanding what content prospects and customers are reading and engaging with online. By tracking buyer interactions as they browse and engage with content, organisations can begin to learn their current and evolving interests, inclinations and needs — sometimes before the individual prospect knows themselves.

Think about your daily browsing habits: the content you choose to read is highly indicative of your current interests and needs. You’re reading this article now because you’re at least ostensibly interested in “social listening” and “content”, and any new innovation in this area. How much more could be learnt about your tastes and interests if we continued to follow your reading arc around this site? Very soon we could learn the content topics on that interest you the most (say, “First party data” and “data compliance”) and those which you have no interest in at all.

Why content listening, why now?

The argument for content listening could not have come at a better time. The social media explosion has gone hand-in-hand with a corresponding boom in content marketing.

This is particularly true for B2B organisations that are increasingly finding themselves using content (whitepapers, blog posts, newsletters, PDFs, etc) to nurture prospects over prolonged sales cycles and for demand generation purposes.

According to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2015 B2B Benchmarking Report, 70% of B2B marketers are creating more content than they did one year ago. Prospect self-education is taking more and more of the B2B (and high value B2C) purchase journey with B2B buyers getting (on average, according to CEB) 57% of the way through the buying decision before they’re even willing to talk to a sales rep. For companies that are using content marketing to attract, engage and convert prospects, ‘content listening’ puts them in an advantageous position where they can collect information about each prospect every time the prospect consumes a piece of information about the company - before they even engage with a sales rep.

Content - not social media - reveals the real you

As I’ve argued before, the content choices your buyers make are highly indicative of their current interest and needs. Your audience may self-censor or curate their image on social networks, but they can’t hide the intent signals revealed by the content they are reading.

Of course, social media monitoring still has its place but let’s not settle for less. If we want to get an accurate picture of our customers’ and prospects’ emerging needs and likely purchase intent, don’t stop at social media monitoring - move on to content listening.

Andrew Davies is co-founder and CMO of idio.

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