The ARF Listening Playbook set out to answer four questions: what is listening, how is it used, how is it done, and where is it going? Through interviews, case studies and technology evaluations we learned a substantial amount about this emerging discipline. Our top line answers: 

  • Listening aims bring the lives of people into brands. 

  • Listening helps brands achieve the full spectrum of marketing objectives - such as discovering new customers, innovation, message development, repositioning and loyalty. 

  • Listening research fulfills many traditional market research roles, including concept testing, segmentation, and detecting marketing shifts, for example. 

  • Listening work draws upon various research approaches, like search, monitoring, text analysis, private communities and consulting. 

  • Last we found that listening data is being plugged into models that predict and forecast sales, market share, or TV viewing trends, and for media tasks like targeting advertising and planning.

Listening is not a "flavor of the month" or limited to one or two pet applications - customer care and insights come to mind, but needs to be seen as a potentially transforming practice with far-reaching and long-term consequences for advertisers, brands and their customers.

Yet all is not roses. Our research uncovered a number of bad habits that potentially minimize the value or contribution of listening - the "seven deadly sins." Here they are, paired with guidance on how to convert sins to virtues.

1. Checklisting: The practice of gathering vendor or software capabilities and features, and comparing them in fancy grids, which give the appearance of thoroughness.

To make a virtue: first develop business-driven listening requirements and then gather and compare solutions. Keep the horse before the cart.

2. Questionable Rigor: Listening is an emerging research discipline with a variety of approaches, but without standardized industry practices or an extensive body of research-on-research to date. Given the newness of the field, this is to be expected and will change over time.

To make a virtue: be involved in the process and insist on research transparency, that way you will better be able to judge the quality and applicability of the work.

3. Adding Listening to Staff Work: It is common for someone in the research department to be designated the listening guru. However, that individual is usually just starting up the listening learning curve and can be easily overwhelmed by multiple demands - learning a new field, implementing listening research, understanding the results and sharing them throughout the company, all while performing their day job.

To make a virtue: put together a skilled team where each member makes a unique contribution, such as project management, insights development, strategy based on insights, or communication with internal clients or business functions.

4. Collecting Everything: It is easy to be seduced by social media metaphors - "rivers of conversation" is one, and it leads to thinking that relevant conversations are everywhere and flowing.

To make a virtue: fish where the fish you want to catch are. Skilled fishermen know how to apply and adjust their knowledge of currents, temperatures, topography, and feeding habits to hook targeted prey, and avoid wasting time and effort on undesirable fish. Make sure your brand's listening is specific to project goals.

5. Relying on Observations: At a recent ARF Industry Leader Forum, Paul Banas, Kraft Foods' Insights and Strategy manager, told us that "observations are facts without wings - they don't take you anywhere." What good is it to know that brand mentions were 45% positive over the last year? He made the point that insights inspire action, evoke emotion, are unexpected, and lead to leverage-able ideas.

To make a virtue: dig deep to understand underlying motivations, passions and context that impact business. Kraft's insights are guiding content strategy, keyword strategy, identifying white spaces for product innovation, tracking KPIs, and improving brand positioning.

6. Using The Wrong Measure to Evaluate Listening: We learned that many of the measures used to judge listening are better suited for analyzing social media campaigns. This is a classic instance of using what's available, such as activity measures (e.g. clicks) exposure metrics (e.g. page views), engagement measures (e.g. time spent) and transaction counts (e.g. conversions).

To make a virtue: develop and use analytic and actionable metrics that reflect conversation and networks of people. Some examples: trends in conversation topics; conversation details (topics, subtopics, themes); sentiment, and; authority and reach of influencers. These measures contribute to insight development.

7. "It's Just Another Way To": Saying listening is "like a focus group," or "another source of insights," may be the greatest sin of all because these phrases make it appear as if listening is just another technique with limited application.

To make a virtue: understand ability and benefits of listening that help brands understand their customers and prospects more intimately, and explore new uses for listening data that help improve brand behavior and performance. 

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