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The Need for a New Listening Movement: From monitoring to learning

The market for listening services is rapidly maturing with vendors such as Radian6, Spiral16, Crimson Hexagon,, Lithium, Sysomos, and many others improving how businesses monitor consumer conversations and experiences. The wide array of options and capabilities are nothing less than baffling, requiring expert analysis prior to committing any significant investment of finances or organizational resources now and over time. For those seeking top line advice on the differences between many of the top listening vendors, please read this helpful post at

I’m not going to take this time to preach about the importance of listening nor am I going to focus on which platform will best meet your needs. I would like to explore a very real issue around the enterprise-wide adoption of monitoring systems, or perhaps better said, the lack thereof, and also what businesses should think about as social media becomes increasingly consequential to the organization.

Social media is praised by experts for its promise to open up dialogue between customers and businesses. Perhaps most notably, social media is celebrated for giving a voice to the consumer and eyes and ears to companies for which to see and listen. The reality is that customers always had a voice. Social media amplifies and organizes that voice and packages it as a tremendous gift for businesses ready to earn relevance in a new genre of consumerism. Nothing matters however, if businesses are not ready to learn, engage, or take action based on what they hear.

According to a recent study by Capgemini, 57% of businesses currently monitor online conversations about the brand, products or services. But 20% do not listen at all and another 23% of respondents weren’t sure whether or not the company is listening to online conversations.

Yes, businesses are learning to listen. But what does that actually mean? To what extent are businesses capturing insights, solving problems, learning from recurring themes, and engaging customers and prospects? According to the Capgemini report, the conversions of conversation to action are impressive, but nowhere near their potential.

The majority of businesses polled, 41%, only respond to customers when a direct question is asked. This behavior must shift to full engagement to realize the opportunity that lies before them. Engagement is the currency of relationship building. Those that listen and engage across a greater set of conversations, 36%, are well on their way to building a social businesses. However, there are 20% today that listen and never respond. This is a number that I actually would like to see diminish over the years.

Monitoring vs. Listening

Everything indeed starts with listening. But, notice that the word “listen” is absent in the Capgemini graphs above. Instead, the industry is standardizing around “monitoring” as it more accurately reflects the behavior of businesses today in social media. Monitoring is the process of tracking keywords and reporting on the various attributes surrounding the activity of each. For example, tracking mentions of the brand, products, key personnel and also competitors are analyzed and reported out to key stakeholders to portray the state of conversations and sentiment, capture the share of voice, and set the foundation for benchmarking and metrics. Monitoring also encompasses potential crises and serves as an early warning system for businesses. Listening however, builds a layer on top of monitoring that examines conversations for enterprise-wide learning and cross-functional engagement. The difference between monitoring and listening is initiative, the ability to take what’s observed and take action internally or externally to solve, improve, or validate experiences.

The enabler for listening is monitoring, but a case must be made for action as defined by responding, connecting, and adapting. This case must emphasize how corresponding actions improve customer experiences, relationships, and in turn, influence their capacity to act and guide their peers. To listen takes a culture focused on customer-centricity and a philosophy that is intended to steer customer experiences.

Revisiting the Capgemini report, we can clearly see that 32% of businesses surveyed are on their way to designing what many would refer to as a social business or a social enterprise. These companies see listening as an integral part of marketing, selling, and servicing customers. As customers continue to come into focus, 32% see listening as a means for better understanding customer sentiment and needs and another 25% view social media as an additional customer service channels.

Asking the Unthinkable

In a time when progressive companies such as Dell and Gatorade are celebrated for their newly erected social media command centers, it is their ability to truly listen and their openness to allow conversations to reverberate throughout the entire organization that serves as a next-generation model for customer-centricity. But how many businesses can build a command center where technology opens doors to bona fide organizational transformation? Sure, many large organizations house sophisticated business intelligence divisions and certainly big data is well on its way to dramatically impacting how a business captures, analyzes, and translates data into actionable insights, but in the mean time, social media lives outside of B.I. and thus is limited in its ability to transcend silos.

To listen to conversations and build an infrastructure that can 1) Learn, 2) Engage, and 3) Adapt across the organization, the construction of a listening framework becomes far more complex than merely monitoring keywords and reporting out to key stakeholders. And for those of you who have had to program dashboards in some of the most popular social media monitoring systems, you can attest to the complexity of development. Factor in the complications of programming, the typical user experience of most monitoring platforms, and the day-to-day needs and responsibilities of stakeholders, and you’re faced with a series of hurdles that impede adoption. These challenges face any organization looking to scale the act of monitoring, let alone the development of an infrastructure for supporting engagement and adaptation.

Programming dashboards around keywords, filters, exclusions, associated alerts is arduous. Deploying these systems across the organization and expecting lines of business and other business functions to adopt complex systems is an incredible ask. Many monitoring vendors offer dedicated or part-time resources to support programming and also monitoring, which businesses are keen to employ based on resource limitations and lack of expertise. But those services come at a notable cost. And, the cost of adding seats and keywords to these systems is also not inexpensive. More important, these costs are not commensurate with the perceived value of “social media monitoring” among executives.

An opportunity exists for outsourced command centers to assist social businesses with monitoring, listening, and engagement support while the overall value for social media and customer-centricity matures. Whether this model exists within a vendor infrastructure or that of an agency that maintains multiple vendor relationships, organizations need cost-effective, efficient, and proficient solutions at the ready.

Existing vendor support models are expensive and limited in scope as tied to the product.

Current agency models are dedicated to the function they are typically designed to serve, for example, marketing, advertising, service, etc.

A new model built on the technologies, systems, and processes powering some of the most renown command centers in play today, can help expedite the customer-centric evolution of a business and how it listens, learns, engages, and adapts over time. Additionally, this model can free-up resources within the organization to build the necessary architecture to capitalize on social opportunities to demonstrate business critical value and the overall promise of social media to executives and stakeholders.

I’ve had an opportunity to work with some of these hybrid models where the best of each system is employed against the needs of each business. Expertise is part of the value proposition and that know-how is translated into actionable insights and opportunities for the companies they help. As businesses mature, the listening framework migrates internally, preserving the investment and setting the stage for scale and adoption.

Businesses testing outsourced command center models will report both challenges and successes. But nothing about the evolution of business is designed to be easy. We’re dealing with culture and a significant investment in legacy systems and supporting processes. The reality is that the future of business is based on listening and the actions that manifest as a result. Businesses are forced to invent frameworks as they go, but stepping back to address the bigger issues of what monitoring and listening solves and accordingly, how that translates into tying business priorities and opportunities is where businesses must initially focus. Building an infrastructure around those answers is the opportunity for stakeholders, vendors and service providers to solve today.

Are you a vendor with ideas or experiences that can help businesses?

Are you a representing a brand that is solving this problem?

Are you a service provider that has built an outsourced command center?

Please share your insights in the comments section for the benefit of all.

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50 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The Need for a New Listening Movement: From monitoring to learning”

  1. Juan Isaza says:

    Good points and figures in your article. I can´t understand why there are no many companies using monitoring for researching consumers. Actually I haven´t seen from global research companies options for understanding consumers through monitoring their activity and comments in social media. 

  2. Chad Warren says:

    Brian’s spot-on in that all the technology today really only supports monitoring — no insights, no analytics, just trends and graphs. But, the market is already starting to evolve by developing solutions that support “listening” as opposed to just “monitoring”, and it’s coming from the folks that brought you web analytics.

    Look at web analytics 10-12 years ago — similar problem. A lot of page-view tracking, not a lot of insights. They built solutions to perform web measurement and extract actionable insights from online behavior.

    Now the folks that brought you those solutions are extending them to meet the needs of the listeners in Social Media. I’d know. Full disclosure: I work for Adobe and helped launch Adobe SocialAnalytics. 

    We’re taking social conversation and making sense of it by giving it business context (as in: merging monitoring data with business metrics, i.e. how does conversation impact activity on my website, purchases, revenue, conversions, etc…) It doesn’t address all of the use-cases of social media (there are quite a few), but we believe it moves the needle significantly toward real insights from listening data for marketers.

  3. Beth Kanter says:

    The problem is that learning requires the human brain and discussion.  In a age of data being flung at us – have we lost the art of reflection which leads to learning, which transforms that data into insight?   

  4. GReat thing really nice thing cool!)

  5. Willb says:

    We are an organization that offers both monitoring as well as listening services. We use a combination of some of the tools you mention to provide those services. And we are not an agency.
    We think that is why our listening services are valuable. We have worked in and led sales, service, marketing, product management, contact centers not to mention having P & L responsibility.
    And that’s what we believe allows us to provide a value added service. We can add listening to monitoring in the form of insights across the ENTIRE business.
    Our experience so far is that most organisations are still focused on reactive monitoring. Monitoring for issues and reacting where necessary to protect the brand. Few have truly crossed the chasm to being more than a social brand. But increasingly the conversations we are having are focused on the more strategic business value of listening leading us to believe that companies are just beginning to see the potential value.
    But it’s very early days for many
    Will – iGo2 Group

  6. Sean Follin says:

    Do you think that the command center model is the way of the future? It is certainly necessary right now, but I wonder how that will change as the people who are currently in college and high school enter the workforce. Will it ever just be a “natural” process for employees on every level? Maybe I’m thinking too far ahead and missing out on the now. 

  7. 40deuce says:

    Great post, Brian! A couple of things come to mind right away as I read this:
    First, people need to understand that listening to your audience is not new with social media. Companies should have always been listening to what their consumers and audience have had to say. Social media has only provided a way to amplify their voice and give them more direct access to companies to be heard.Secondly, I agree that companies need to understand that there is a fundamental difference between monitoring and actually listening. Both can be done at the same time, but are still two different things. This is something that we talk about a lot in the #SMmeasure chat. It’s great that people are talking about or to your brand, but brands need to really start hearing what they’re saying and then use what they hear when moving forward. Your audience/customer is the end person for any company. They’re the ones that buy, talk about, use, etc whatever it is that your company does/makes. If they’re telling you something, even if it’s complaining, they’re really telling you what you’re doing right or what you need to change. If you don’t listen, there’s a good chance they’ll move on to your competition who listens and makes whatever they do better for the end consumer.That’s one of the things that I love about working for my company. Yes, we make social media monitoring and analytic software that’s great at showing the numbers off to people, but I find that I get more use out of things like our text analytic tools because I can actually piece together a big picture story about what people are saying, not just stopping at the fact that they are saying something. Numbers are great and they impress the c-suite a lot of the time, but what would impress them even more is if you can show them what you learned beyond those numbers, make actionable items from them and then change things so that bottom line numbers go up as well. That’s impressive.

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

  8. Eric Melin says:

    I love this post. Going forward, I think more experience in the space pushes the need for context further into the forefront. As companies delve into the different kinds of relevant web and social data out there, they will be able to zero in on what is important and what isn’t. But you have to start somewhere. We’re constantly telling clients that even though our monitoring software offers tons of charts, graphs, ways to gather insight–don’t get caught in the weeds. The sooner your data can be connected to your objective, the better. Ignore the periphery stuff and concentrate on the data that can be used for real learning–in a context you can understand.

    Eric Melin @Spiral16

  9. Thanks for this and a question to you all: What topics would be helpful to an MBA student looking to fill some of the noted gaps? I’m working on a couple of posts around “data scientists” — but want to be sure to not just look at the hard-core analytic issues but also how to promote the questioning and discussion capabilities noted in the post & comments. Many of you have MBAs, what do you wish had been included?

  10. I do believe we will see the rise on SMM command centers, but the outsourced model may prove to be problematic. Personally, I think that the best experts are most likely already working for the company or are customers. It makes sense to take an existing employee that is intimately aware of the products/services, culture and audience and is sm savvy and transition them into this role, rather than get some someone to plugin to satisfy the need.

     The best listening tools can not replace passion, knowledge and experience.

  11. Excellent discussion Brian.

    At LiveWorld we’ve seen brands establish a presence in social without really engaging — many, as you say. They monitor but don’t really listen. To some extent, this is a legacy of the traditional one-way marketing model of present your message and track response, but now sugar-coated with social vocabulary. At its heart, social is about dialogue and relationships. Rather than just monitor and track metrics or buzz or even how many likes did a post get, in social we have to go deeper, actually look at (listen to) the entire conversational thread and dialogue with people to understand culture, tone, and true engagement. That is the basis for actionable insight and recommendations. Tools are a great help, but simply can’t asses the emotional dynamic in context; human eyes are needed for this. (Disclosure: LiveWorld specializes in a hybrid, tech-human eyes combination approach.)  Many new tools have come out that help even more; though there are so many, with none of them doing everything, that the field is becoming even more confusing.

    These past 6 months, several clients have told us, “I now have 18 different social web monitoring and metrics reports — lots of data, no actionable information.” They want to know what their customers really think and feel, and what to do about it. High-volume “likes” are great; but all it really tells you by itself is that you know how to get people’s attention, not what they think.

    The best marketeers in the last century had no end of surveys with the equivalent of brand likes, but knew that to really understand their customers they had to go out and talk to and listen to them.  The same is true in social, but with more opportunity to do so.

  12. Yang says:

    Monitoring is the first step to get close to consumers. It is the foundation of listening. But if we do nothing after monitoring, the monitoring itself is useless. Just like talking with others face-to-face, first we need listen carefully to gather the topic information, and then we should deal with the information to give our conversational partners responses. Responding and adapting is the most important part.

  13. We’re working on an approach (we call it the Text Analytics Command Center)  that applies technology and services to unify social & private data analytics.  Here at CI, we’ve long felt that social media, while a critical source for consumer insights, only represents a single venue. Our goal is to help organizations integrate and correlate social and private data analysis with other more traditional metrics.  The analytics outputs from either social, private or a combination of both can be integrated into existing BPM, sCRM or workflow processes. We’re not interested in reinventing an organization’s data management structure but work within their processes so the entire enterprise can benefit.

    As far as the term monitoring replacing listening, I always thought that listening implied a somewhat passive response to social media engagement, one that was focused more on awareness -based metrics.  The term monitoring, for me at least, implied a more active engagement in both the resulting insights and with customers.

    Thanks for the great post!

  14. rmsorg says:

    Great post Brian… My fav line is: “The reality is that the future of business is based on listening and the actions that manifest as a result.”

     So many business aren’t listening yet!  And some are but aren’t taking any actions! 

  15. Carla Jones says:

    Brian – this is truly a great article and it puts into words what ORM specialists such as ourselves have been saying for a long time now.

    I am a firm believer of listening as a first step towards any strategy.
    Listen > analyse > develop a strategy > implement > and then listen again to see whether the required results have been achieved. 

    And the strategy does not necessarily have to be on social media. It needs to encompass all elements of the marketing mix. 

    ORM tools, like ourselves, provide the brand with insights in terms of the audience, where they like to hang out, how they feel about you and your competitors, what parts of the business are most spoken about, key influencers, etc. However, if this information is not being used effectively by the brand to determine their way forward, they will never get the full value out of it.

    I furthermore believe that any strategy online needs to be backed up by actual changes in business processes. There is no use engaging with people on social media and responding to their complaints, if these complaints are not being solved on the ground.

    Thank you for the great read!

    Carla Jones
    GM saidWot  

  16. Kathy Doyle says:

    Love this article.   And really appreciate the statistics that show how few companies really understand, or effectively use, social media.   As a qualitative research firm, Doyle Research has adopted social media listening as yet another tool for capturing the voice of the customer, and we integrate it into mixed-method approaches for our clients.   It adds a rich source of data from which to derive insights, and is a wonderful complement to many exploratory research studies — to understand the landscape, develop hypotheses, identify white space opportunities, inform study design for subsequent research efforts.  What is truly frustrating is that the vast majority of market researchers in client companies we speak to do not yet understand the value of social media as a tool for market research, and view it as the purview of marketing, PR or customer satisfaction.  As long as it remains silo’d within companies, it’s true value is being lost.

  17. jnolan says:

    Good points… and they certainly mirror what we hear from our customers. One of the challenges with the listening is that there is so much to listen to relative to what is directly actionable, and on the latter point it’s not likely that the person who is listening can take action so routing to the appropriate “node” is pretty critical. 

    Community management in the context of a company-to-customer engagement model brings together many constituencies in customer service, sales, marketing, and product, therefore successful platforms develop around a listen-learn-route workflow that ultimately loops back to the customer.

  18. Mark Shaw says:

    Heh Brian as always some excellent points.. I am constantly amazed at big businesses. They spend zillions on advertising yet so many ignore the very people that are actively talking right now about them.. Businesses miss so many opportunities to ask for feedback, improve their products, their service, differentiate themselves.. they seem to almost view the ability to listen and hear what their customers are saying as a pain in the arse….

    It astounds me that so many businesses broadcast all day long.. and do not think that they have a communication channel on their hands.. and please dont start me off with the old ROI argument… why does ther have to be an ROI on things… I am a customer.. I have bought something from them, why will they only talk to me via Twitter if their is a proven ROI on doing so… Please…

    I accept that businesses dont all have zillions of dollars to have dedicated centres etc… but for the majorty just a few well trained people who have the support of their bosses and love being social is all that is needed…

    Approx 3-4 months ago i wrote about a new scoring / index that I wanted to develop… the Engagement index… it simply looks at tweets ‘to’ a business or person and then did they reply and in what time frame… for people this would be a realtively fun score… be interesting to compare social media experts who them have a very low score as they dont engage with anyone….

    but for businesses it could offer some really simple insight into how they are doing compared to their competitors.. no one likes to be at the bottom of a leage table in a specific sector… it would also allow customers to see at a glance who takes customer service more seriously than others… I think that as it would be public it would be a game changer for many businesses as they would have to up their game…

    In time most businesses big and small will realise that twitter allows them to build relationships through conversations… and that by doing so they can create brand advocates.. way better than wasting zillions of dollars in advertising to people that are not listening..

    Mark Shaw

  19. Andy Beal says:

    I totally agree with the need to make a distinction between monitoring and listening. I wrote about this just last week. Dropping a link, but delete if you don’t feel it adds to the conversation Brian. Thanks!

  20. PaulDunay says:


    I totally agree this is much more that monitoring for tweets that say negative things about your brand. The level beyond that requires a listening partner that can feed you “actionable insights” as you put it so that you can pre-inform your marketing.

    At Networked Insights we are able to paint a complete picture of your social audience and tell you what they like and dont like – such as TV, Movies, Celebrities, other Brands, online websites – so that you can pre-inform you marketing plans. Never before have we been able to gather such synchronous data. Normally as a brand you get a variety of asynchronous reports such as Nielsen, Q-Score, Brand Health reports, Market share reports, focus groups, surveys etc and by the time you act on them – the market has moved.

    I think the Social Customer will have much more impact on the Social Business than we think – early adopters are flocking to this type of technology to get the jump on their competition. The question is — what is your brand doing about it?

  21. Some interesting points…listening offers opportunities for an organization to look at itself from the outside in..many question social data’s statistical significance..but as a client of mine recently pointed out (echoing my thoughts) it doesn’t matter…if the online ‘word’ is that ‘you suck’ then many others will believe ‘you suck’ – that’s what this this social thing is all about – other peoples opinions not yours – you choice is then to learn ‘why you suck’ and then try and see if there is anything you can act upon from this intelligence..alternatlvely listening offers an opportunity to put a wrong right..if you know how? Listening offers opportunities to segment audiences and deliver deep psychographical insight versus insights gleaned from focus groups..listening offers our  ’emotional’ drivers that we simply don’t talk about in focus groups as we are inherently bad at describing how we feel on request…lots more..

  22. Anonymous says:

    Reflective listening — listen,  assimilate, adapt, evolve —  the key to the reiterative process. I am interested in how government can integrate listening practices with process improvement to “fix” broken services.  The thing about government from my experience is that employees have too many “bosses” to listen to and the boss at the top – often the politician — isn’t committed to listening and adaptation beyond the short time frame of the press’s short attention span. How can the evolution of the newsroom help government listen better and adapt? I have some ideas I am working on … but I need some test subjects.

  23. Brian,

    We (SoMeGo) are a company that started this year providing outsourced customer service command centers for customers to monitor, listen and engage.  We have both Federal and commercial customers and our model is evolving rapidly with the “real” problems we are solving daily.  

    One of the key developments in building out our methodology was the difficulty to build out a collaborative process workflow with different departements (sales, customer services, product development, etc).  Another major hurdle has been educating customers on how to properly integrate this outsourced command center with their overall social media strategy specific to engagement.  Thankfully our company recognizes the importance and value of true engagement so we don’t have college interns manning our command centers but trained social media analysts, however we have to remind customers this command center is not a shiny new toy to check a box on customer service but there needs to be true emphasis to engagement.

    Thanks for the post!


  24. @pragsy says:

    Hi Brian, I agree with what you say in this article, but I would also like to add that the while monitoirng is undeniably the first step into Social Media, to really understand what is going on and get meaningful information that can be ploughed back into a sound social media strategy you need to analyzie the activity. Understands the trends that are happening otherwise one runs the risk of getting drowned in the data. Find your social media boat that can help you enjoy the ride across this river of tweets, posts, comments etc.

  25. Social media + business intelligence = IMPACT. 

    If you can’t tie everything back to your business, the data will only get you so far. The key is not only to listen, but derive actionable insight with the right people, technology, and strategy on your side. 
    – Sergei Dolukhanov

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