If you to want to market to a demographic, then relegate your listening to an algorithm. If you want to reach humans, then talk to some of them. Have some good, old, analog, customer conversations.

Your complaint is out there

Have you had a conversation with a bot lately? Never mind, don’t answer that. If you’ve been online in the past couple of years, you almost certainly have.

But say you are someone who resists the bot.

You close the chat box as soon as it pops up and do things the old-fashioned way instead: you tweet your question or complaint, or you post it on a company’s Facebook business page.

Or even older fashioned, you rant about it on your blog. (Do you remember when blogs were strictly personal journals that some used exclusively for ranting? I had a friend who cut right to the chase and named his blog “Screed.” That was in 1994. Back then we thought he was a curmudgeon. I now see he was ahead of his time.)

Here’s the thing. Your blog may languish in obscurity (along with its odometer-style hit counter). You may only have 67 Twitter followers. The company’s Facebook page may have tumbleweeds blowing through it and the only other post is a photo of its location next to the Borders bookstore. But as sure as Agent Mulder’s truth, if you ever ranted about that company online, your complaint is out there.

And unlike Mulder’s, yours will get discovered in minutes by anyone using the right social listening tools to find it.

Measurably smarter

Automated voice-of-the-customer tools are getting more intelligent every day.

They can process huge samples – far more than an individual could synthesize in a lifetime.

They can scrape conversations from dozens or more channels of social platforms that would take an army of associates sleuthing around the clock to hunt down.

What’s more, they can eliminate the noise of filler words from a transmission and absorb only the signals of important words and phrases.

In fact, they can go further, and learn new words that may have importance.

So what if your complaint wasn’t worded precisely according to some fixed Mad-Libs style formula? Brands using listening tools can piece together the topic and categorize your words positively or negatively.

And armed with enough of these complaints, questions, or compliments, these brands can transform their marketing strategies.

  • Customer support departments can populate their chatbots, AI tools and call centers with canned responses. That will make them appear swift and responsive to customers while avoiding putting someone on virtual hold.
  • Developers can figure out which problems most of the online complainers are having and address those in their products.
  • Marketers can measure which social networks most of their questions, complaints or compliments are coming from. Armed with that data, they can adjust each of the campaigns on those platforms with the appropriate message.

Impressive, right? Every brand wants to be more responsive, and now they have access to the information that directs their responses. It’s data driven, cut and dry, measurable.

But those aren’t customer conversations.

Humans wanted

In “No Matter Where Tech Takes Us, Customers Still Need a Human Touch,” social marketing strategist Ted Rubin wrote that digital tools should be secondary to the interaction with customers they may enable. “Prioritize customer service,” he says, “and put the focus on people first, channel second.”

He’s talking about the conversations brands have in reaction mode – responding to a customer service call, for example, or a support question on a social page.

The point? Customers don’t want a canned response, or an awkward, not-quite-right answer, to a question about a product they have or are about to purchase.

For all your research and investment in actual social listening, those automated responses just make it seem like you’re not really, oh I don’t know, listening.

But what about engagement that happens far earlier in the funnel? Long before customer support is needed, and even before purchase? Should marketers scrape digital channels to craft the marketing conversation? Do they even want to?

Customer conversations

Tech companies think they do. Buffer defines Social Listening as the process of monitoring digital media channels – taking information from places that consumers participate in online – to devise a strategy that will better influence consumers. (Not reach, not respond to – but influence.)

Commercially available technology such as IBM Watson can process millions of data points and analyze them for sentiment, attitude, emotion, tone, mood, and intent. Platforms like Quill transform data into automated, human-sounding narratives, at what it calls “machine scale.”

But those aren’t customer conversations.

And that’s why we still need our human ears. Social listening tools can only “hear” what’s being said. Our brain-attached listening tools can hear what’s not.

Ultimately, these may be the final two small features missing from social listening tools that would make them the only capability brands ever need to discern the message behind consumers’ words.

Sure, any customer-focused product marketer will appreciate the data, note its trends, use it to eliminate (or prioritize) certain topics and issues, maybe start with it as a hypothesis.

But then, the most successful ones will go and talk to people in the market anyway. Same with UX designers, product managers, content writers and successful Sales leaders.

And they’ll do this in the oldest-fashioned way of all: by having a conversation with customers.