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Are Businesses Invading Consumer Privacy By Listening to Social Media Conversations?

Social media represents a new frontier in customer engagement. Not only can companies participate in conversations, a dizzying array of tools now help them listen to conversations as well. This isn’t news though. Everyone understands the importance of social media in business right? We all know that customers are demanding that businesses use social media to listen to ideas, engage them in conversations, and also solve their problems when in need. As I’ve often said, the best listeners often make the most engaging conversationalists.

Not so fast.

Perhaps what we think we know and what customers may actually want in social media represent an unforeseen gap that requires further consideration. According to a joint study published today by NetBase and J.D. Power and Associates, a double standard may exist in social media customer service where consumers say that listening is intrusive except when it’s not.

Cue the screeching brakes…


Social media listening is largely recognized as the new standard in community management. Listening after all is how companies can learn how to better serve and engage customers. And, doing so can improve sentiment and also foster stronger relationships, build communities, and encourage loyalty and advocacy.

Yet, your customers may not welcome your good intentions.

This creates an interesting dilemma as improving listening is a top goal for businesses this year. My colleagues at Altimeter Group found as part of its upcoming Social Business Strategies Survey that 42% of companies indicated that “listening/learning from customers” is a top three priority for 2013.

But, if consumers don’t want companies to listen to them, what are they to do?

Let’s take a look at the interesting story that NetBase and J.D. Power and Associates visualized in this compelling infographic, “Is Social Listening Too Much Big Brother?

A catch-22 may greet many businesses in social media as consumers believe that listening can be intrusive except when they need something. But how are companies supposed to help customers if they’re not supposed to listen?

Did you know that 32% of consumers using social media have no idea that brands are listening? I find this fascinating as social media, is well, social. We live in public and for consumers to be unaware of listening makes me wonder if it’s us or them who are living on another planet.

This is where things get very interesting. Over half of consumers (51%) want to be able to talk about companies without them listening. Perhaps more alarming however is that 43% of consumers actually think listening to conversations intrudes on privacy.

Businesses appear to be caught in a web of “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” At first blush, a double standard comes alive with 48% allowing companies to listen if the goal is to improve products and services. And 58% believe that businesses should only respond to complaints in social media.

As the infographic suggests, it may be time to sharpen your telepathy skills. Essentially businesses need to become mind readers because 42% of consumers also expect companies to respond to positive comments. And you’re going to love this, 64% of consumers want companies to only speak to them when spoken to. Huh?

Considering that 58% want you to engage in times of need, 42% wish to hear from you in good times, 64% only want you listening to be at their beck and call, and half of all consumers don’t want you listening at all, what’s a business to do?

Obviously social media, and specifically social listening, isn’t going away. But it does take tactfulness, genuine intentions and diplomacy to listen, learn, and engage (directly or indirectly) in ways that consumers feel recognized and important. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who says something negative or positive only to have it appreciated and considered by an organization will feel anything other than thankful.

To help CMOs and social strategists tread carefully while improving products, services and relationships, NetBase and J.D. Power and Associates offer the following four steps to follow:

1. Don’t just listen…understand. There’s a difference between listening and hearing.

2. Context is king here. Consider the context of each post before your respond, react, or assign engagement. This is where listening converts into intelligence.

3. Engage with good intentions. In social media, the end game is reciprocity.

4. Actions speak louder than words. Demonstrate how your participation in social media is dedicated to helping and building relationships. Do so relentlessly.

For additional insights into consumer impressions on social media and how it breaks down by demographics, take a look at the SlideShare below and also take a look at the free ebook.


Here’s the complete infographic for your review…

Please consider pre-ordering my next book, What’s the Future of Business?

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Originally published as part of the LinkedIn Influencer program

54 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Are Businesses Invading Consumer Privacy By Listening to Social Media Conversations?”

  1. Rob Kaminoff says:

    Everyone knows that what is said in social media is public information right? They are warned not to share, or allow themselves to be tagged in photographs taken of them in compromising situations. Why shouldn’t this information also be available to businesses for market research purposes?

  2. On the surface, people will fight to protect sacred cows. Below the surface, they are ready at a moment’s notice to give up their sacred cows for a handful of magic beans. A powerful mechanism for securing a handful of magic beans is transparency. Transparency can, in many cases, lead to greater mystery…a deeper experience of “what’s there”. Once the culture atunes to this, no-one will complain about businesses listening to their conversations. Many have already caught on…and have made the hyper-leap to another lived experience…trading sacred cows for a handful of magic beans.

  3. Mike Bailey says:

    If one person gives their point of view via SM, that is all it is, their opinion, of course it’s important to them and worthy of consideration, but if the business responds to them specifically is that truly what they were seeking?
    If 10+ people back up this persons opinion, then the business listening in has something worth engaging with, it’s not now a personal response, though it definitely could develop into one, but for starters it’s a general response to a shared point of view, ‘tell us more about what you think, how could we improve, how could ‘you’ benefit more if we approached things your way ‘ etc , then those responses could develop into 1-1 or smaller more specific discussions.
    Consumers can find it harrowing to have their point of view highlighted via engagement when the reason they posted was just to let off steam, but when the view is shared, the engagement is shared, the emphasis is shared, the pressure is released somewhat, it’s not going to be them V the megalith.
    A consumer posting ‘I can’t get the lid off this dumb (company named) tinned pie!’ is seeking others to share in their frustration, they are less looking for engagement with the business however helpful that may be intended.
    Once 10+ people (for instance) have shared they have the same problem, then the business has an issue, not the individual, then the business may want to step in with a way to open the dumb tinned pie, either way the business just needs to go away noting the issue and ensure it’s solved asap

  4. Businesses have a team of employees or social media marketers that are paid to do research on various conversations or topics that are related to their business.

    Probably not right in a lot of cases they sometimes can use sneaky tactics but it is what it is unfortunately.

    Good post!

  5. As a business owner with multiple locations love social media to keep our customer engagement up. Back 10 years ago when I worked my first job at a fish market in Louisville ky , (real life)customer engadgement kept us in business because of the personal added value and suggestions I could offer . I may have been a bit mossy to some by listening to couples arguing over the king salmon or big eye tuna , in where i would interject my suggest which they mist likely would take. Me listening to social media conversations for my business looks like us taking a pulss of our clients.

  6. Kevin Hudson says:

    Following on from my Facebook comment — The fact of the matter is this, the internet is a privacy free zone. It all comes down to the businesses having respect for themselves and their customers. Listening with good intentions (to help, inspire, educate etc) is fantastic human-business practice, in fact it’s fantastic human-being practice. Listening with intentions purely to sell sell sell should be punishable by bankruptcy – just one young man’s opinion.

  7. Companies are still figuring out how to engage with their publics in meaningful and responsible ways. Not everyone automatically trusts a relationship, some people need trust to be earned. Companies have access to a wealth of information and communication online. That should never be a secret- companies need to make that transparent to prevent feelings of privacy violation. Companies also need to proactively communicate the use of this information in order to earn trust with stakeholders. Listening in social media can be a great tool to understand the comfort level, concerns, questions, and desires of individuals, but this information needs to be used to serve the public’s best interest.

  8. Sarah Bauer says:

    The fourth point offered by NetBase and J.D. Power and Associates basically points back to the user’s main question, which must be answered at every checkpoint in a web marketing strategy:
    “What’s in it for me?”
    If marketers could articulate what users stand to gain from social listening, through their actions ( and words!) then the Big Brother accusations would surely simmer down.

    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  9. Mark Coxon says:

    Your comment that “common sense may not be as ‘common’ as you think” is right on the money here. The aversion to social listening can be likened unto someone yelling in the street at their spouse who tells you to mind you’re own business when you notice them, but if they were yelling “help” or “fire” instead would expect you to be there in an instant.
    You can’t have it both ways, can you?
    Brands should listen, engage in helpful and constructive ways, and if someone takes offense, the other people watching the stream would see how unreasonable the complaint is, given the forum they chose to communicate in and the positive response of the brand itself.
    It exposes the brand as compassionate, and gives the one being listened in on the choice to be see as either rational or irrational in their counter communication.

  10. Sarah Song says:

    Wow, this is a very interesting and unique perspective you have brought to my mind. I knew that almost all the information consumers put online is liable to the eyes of almost anyone, but I have never really thought about what those “researchers” would do with the information they attained. Knowing that virtually everything we say/post is being recorded, I feel that companies can have somewhat of a right to act upon what they find. As you previously stated, it does depend on your intentions and a highly disciplined sense of discernment as to what can or cannot be acted upon.
    Ultimately any internet user must be aware of the “dangers” they put themselves in, but then that could also be applied to anything in life.

  11. Ellen Murphy says:

    I think it’s interesting that consumers say they don’t want companies listening to their conversations about their brand, when it seems that if you’re posting about a brand on social media it’s because you want attention of some sort brought to that company, brand, or situation. Whether you’re posting about a positive or negative experience, a consumer wouldn’t be putting their opinion out there unless they wanted some reaction. Although, as recently discussed in one of my PR classes, there have been a few cases of people getting sued by a company for libel after posting negative comments/reviews online- so in situations such as that, I can definitely understand why consumers would view listening in on their conversations as intrusive and an invasion of privacy (prohibiting their free speech).

  12. Dave Crenshaw says:

    Well, my one takeaway from this post is: “demonstrate how listening doesn’t intrude but instead builds relationships.”Thanks, Brian!

  13. Madeline K. says:

    It is crazy enough that gmail knows what ads to place on my welcome screen due to the private conversations it sifts through. I don’t think I want social media conversations to induce even more “listening,” especially if that “listening” isn’t leading to good. I agree with that if the companies are planning on using the information they gather in order to improve their products, I rather have them listening than not. But if they are solely using it as an eavesdropping device with no apparent level of usefulness, then I do not want to be listened to.

  14. Claire B. says:

    There is definitely a fine line between being too intrusive and making the customer feel heard. You do a good job addressing this in your post. What I will take away from this is to really contemplate what goes out on social media for the groups I am involved in. The relationship between customers and businesses is so important that businesses really need to think about how their messages will be perceived.

  15. Ahna Schamore says:

    Companies will use listening to get information on their brand whether people like it or not. If people don’t like the fact that companies are listening to what they say then they shouldn’t be writing it. Social media listening is a great tool for a business. So much is being put online about brands that a company would be almost stupid to not listen to what consumers are saying through social media. Overall, I think social media is one of the best tools a company can use to gain information about its brand.

  16. Websdirect says:

    This is one of the most interesting post I’ve read about social media. Good question, difficult answer.


  17. Thank you, Brian, for bringing to light the (surprisingly large) gap between expectation of privacy and assumption of privacy. Whether you’re shouting in the street or posting on a public twitter feed, you have no expectation of privacy. But Brian’s study shows that a significant percentage of people assume that this type of interaction is not available for public consumption (including analysis by companies for marketing purposes).

    While consumers have a lot to learn, I think there is a lesson for companies that goes far beyond listening: Learn to use good judgement.

    I will be the first to admit that I don’t always get it right when I hear my name mentioned in a conversation (in person or online), but I suspect I (and most people) do get the response (or lack thereof) right most of the time. As humans, we do this intuitively based on our learned social judgement and our understanding of social norms.

    Companies don’t have the ability to make intuitive judgements (at least not when there are two or more people involved). So companies must learn how to process the social norms of media in which these norms are still evolving.

    When they do, they will be much better at learning to respond the right way and at the right time, and build stronger, positive relationships with their customers.

  18. wizbang_fl says:

    When a organization response is “We take your complaints seriously. Please send the details to bla bla email to investigate further. However, customers go to social media to vent about the experience with the company and the lack of seeing forest because the company reps are looking at the leaves. As a result the last thing the customer wants to do is the speak with a company rep who will regurgitate the same drivel canned response that they received before and aggravated them to the point of going to social media. I know because I have been to that point when I contacted a mobile service provider about the amount showing on the bill they were sending was not the amount they were charging when they submitted to the bank. The excuse “The VM reps response was they “didn’t know how much taxes and fees would be” to put on the bill.” Wha….? How couldn’t you know what the taxes and fees are? Or are you just choosing a random amount to put on the bill. Again another canned phrase. As a result I sent a letter to the FCC about a week ago and another to the visa/MC organization. I think they are going to be in a bit of a pickle at the end of this ride. (Visa/MC requires you to give a total amount of the charge submitted to them for collection and itemize any taxes collected) Which they aren’t doing they are just billing my CC the total and giving a receipt for the monthly rate without fees. I have net to get a proper receipt.

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