There used to be a time when brands had the luxury of talking at—not with—their customers. The infrastructure required to initiate communication across more than just a handful of individuals was substantial, and typically required access to media such as radio, television, or print resources.
As such, in the customer-vendor "conversation" (such as it was), it was the vendors doing the majority of the talking. This enabled them to set the agenda and frame the conversation, since the resource requirements were substantial and out of the reach of most customers.
From the customer side of the equation, significant friction prevented customers from talking to each other. In the Industrial Age, the only individuals most customers could talk with about vendors were their family members, friends, and co-workers.
Accordingly, the impact of customer conversations on vendor actions was typically nonexistent, as the amount of impact any individual customer could have was limited to the extent of his or her personal network, in addition to the means and frequency with which the customer communicated with the vendor via face-to-face and telephone.
With the increasing accessibility and decreasing cost of massively networked communication tools such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, and the like, suddenly the imbalance between the vendor and customer starts to fade away. This has resulted in three major implications.
First, the network has amplified customer voices, granting any individual with an Internet connection the opportunity to be heard anywhere on the planet. Global reach used to be out of the reach of all but the largest organizations; now it's available for free at the local library.
Second, the network has connected those customer voices, so that what may have once been a series of customer voices in isolation now becomes an identifiable mass outcry. This means trends and patterns that previously were hidden in the noise now can be both identified and recognized.
And last but not least, the network has made customer voices persistent, searchable, and findable for as long as any published tweet, Facebook wall entry, or blog post remains online.
There are an increasing number of tools available that enable organizations to actively listen to what their customers are publicly saying about them:
On Facebook, for example, Facebook Lexicon (www.facebook.com/lexicon) will graph which terms are showing up with what frequency across the Facebook network. This can act as an "early warning system" for a brand, and highlight trends and potential hot spots where customers may be talking about a brand. Similarly, Twitter search (search.twitter.com) is a fantastic resource to know
exactly what customers are saying about a brand on the microblogging service at any point in time. It also can be used to gather basic customer sentiment analysis about a brand. Try entering the name of a company's products or services, followed by terms such as "love" or "hate," to understand how customer feelings are trending.
So what's a vendor to do? As we move into the Network Age, listening, not talking, is a good place to start. Get up to speed on the basics of the tools. Learn how their search capabilities work.
That will help you truly understand your customers and address their needs in real time.
Christopher Carfi is the CEO and co-founder of Cerado.