Consumer Insights focuses on one core concept: understanding the audience. As students, we interviewed, observed, and immersed ourselves in different cultures. We walked a mile in the moccasins of our target audiences. By listening, we knew not only who was hearing our message, but how they would receive and take action on it.
Over the last 25 years as professional communicators, my classmates and I have witnessed an explosion of ways to listen. Social media gives voice to consumers on any subject they like, for any purpose they choose. Easy, affordable survey tools compete with more rigorous methods. Website data pours in and we can examine “stickiness” in minute detail. Apps collect legions of data on preferences and purchases. New careers in data analytics have emerged to help companies glean meaningful insights from billions of transactions.
Yet my conversations with marketing and communications professionals around the world hint at a scary reality: despite all the tools and technology, perhaps we’ve lost the art of listening. While putting out more content, stoking the news feeds, debating facts and alternative facts, we’re losing our basic mission and purpose: understanding our audiences.
Implications On Strategy
Strategically, it’s still essential to listen. The most efficient communications tap the audience’s energy to get them where they want to go. Rookies, and more than a few business leaders I’ve encountered, frequently make the mistake of saying what they want to say, rather than what their audience needs to hear. There is a distinct difference. Step one is knowing what you want your audience to think, say, or do differently. Step two is knowing why they would bother to think, say, or do that. Put all that audience insight together and you’ll arrive at your key messages, but without solid audience understanding, you’ll find yourself off course.
Inconsistency reigns at the strategic phase of communications, although reasons vary. Some organizations spend a lot of time on messaging/positioning. Others haven’t invested in the tools available to listen, so they guess at the best approach. Another group fails to understand the importance of getting strategy right in their pursuit of generating news or content. Still others haven’t hired the right talent to rethink their messaging at a strategic level. The best regularly listen to their audiences and evolve strategies based on audience insights.
Implications On Tactics
If organizations demonstrate mixed performance on their strategic messaging excellence, tactically there is more consistency. Companies and organizations do invest time and money to deliver their messages. Countless agencies and vendors offer solutions to microtarget advertising, PR, and content of all shapes and forms. With the data available to marketers today, it’s easy to find consumers who meet your target audience specs and match them to the right channels. But, it’s all for naught if the messages we’re delivering aren’t hitting the mark because we weren’t listening well in the first place.
Implications On Hiring
To ensure effectiveness of strategy and efficiency of tactics, communication leaders must be persistent advocates who hold the organization accountable for listening. The best communicators have the courage to stand up for what they hear, even if it’s unpopular, unpleasant, or annoying. They truly represent and amplify the voice of the customer and employee. To build out a world-class communications function, here are a few essential actions to revive the art of listening in our digitally enabled world:
- Be sure everyone on the team understands the strategy behind the communications – the intent and the purpose – and that they act as ambassadors in every corner of the organization.
- Hire ethnographers and journalists, people who are thirsty to understand people and their motivations, and who know how to go out and ask questions and get answers. They’ll be the ones who make your communications relevant and engaging.
- Staff up the social media team not just to post content, but also to monitor and engage.
- Keep analytical talent on board: those individuals who can interpret the data that is already there (from GoogleAanalytics to purchase data to survey results).
Listening in the digital age isn’t easy. Often communicators aren’t interested in looking for the data or aren’t asked to look at it; they don’t have the funds to collect it or the skills to analyze it. By building strong, diverse teams focused on taking the time to listen in a sea of noise, fake news, and alternative facts, you can emerge with a stronger strategy and more effective messaging.
Written by Leslie Krohn, IMC Alum Class Of 1993
Edited by Quning (Ning) Chen, Medill IMC Class Of 2017