When did “listening” become a Marketing skill?


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I remember the first copywriting class I ever took. One of our assignments was to write a 30-second radio spot. My teacher told us to use this rule of thumb when addressing the audience: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them what you’re telling them, then tell them what you’ve told them.

In marketing, we’re hired because we can “tell the story”. Whether it’s with words or pictures, we cleverly craft our messages and deliver them through some media outlet. If we want our message to get through, we tell it as loudly, frequently, and as cost-effectively as we can. Have you ever seen a Marketer’s resume that said “good listener”?

For me, the change happened slowly, I hardly knew it was happening. I began my career as a designer for advertising and print. The best shot we had of listening was whether the client was happy with how many coupons came back. Of course their goal is also to negotiate the best rates, so while I had many satisfied clients, I couldn’t be sure if it was the service or the results.

Shortly thereafter, I made a transition in my career and shifted my skills to the web and became a Webmaster. Few of my print colleagues were making this move, but clearly, this was the way things were moving. The first web analytics I ever saw were raw server logs. It was so cool to see how many people “hit” index.html or logo.gif. Of course things were pretty basic, but I was starting to listen. The challenge with web analytics is they are an aggregate view of a snapshot in time. It was listening, but it was like listening to a crowd – impossible to tell what any one person was saying.

Then Email marketing started to hit its stride. Now here was a way to tie a specific person to a specific action. I could tell that so-and-so opened my email, clicked through the link, and went to my website. Awesome! Except that they were then lost in the crowd, unless I went through some crazy web gymnastics, I could not tell where that person went, or what they did. Still, I could directly who responded to my message and who did not.

With email, the process was faster, I could very quickly tell if people liked my story or didn’t. I also had to be content with knowing that on any given day 95% or more of the people would dislike or completely ignore my story.

When I was first introduced to Marketing Automation, the lights went on for me instantly. Now, I could finally take all that email activity, combine it with their web activity, AND (and it’s a huge AND) build a conditional response. Wow! I could listen and respond accordingly.

Marketing Automation, while attracting a lot of attention, is still very new in terms of adoption. According to a recent interview with Jeff Pedowitz, CEO of The Pedowitz Group, he estimates that only about 3,500 companies worldwide are using these systems. That amazes me.

It is the people, process, or technology that is getting in the way?

At first, I said it was the technology. Marketing Automation was brand new. The companies were small, you weren’t sure if the salesperson’s slides matched the available products or just the vision. Today, these companies are available as SaaS, they’re built on world-class hosting facilities, and the products do as promised – they’re mature.

Maybe it’s the process…

How many times have you sat in an uncomfortable chair in a hotel function room listening to the story of *cringe* Sales 2.0? (I’m not a fan of anything labeled 2.0) Inevitably the story illustrates how Marketing is “owning the conversation” longer, sales is no longer the controlling source of information for a buyer, the internet changed access to information, yadda, yadda, yadda. Depending on the speaker, some technologies are bolted on and whammo! Money pours out the end of the pipe. Awesome.

There are two valuable take-aways from this: First, the buyer is in control, and second, we (Marketing) think we “own the conversation”.

Why wouldn’t we think we own it? We have ramped up our publishing skills, to push content out over a gazillion different channels, we can monitor everything, and we can automatically send responses based on those levers.

It’s got to be the people!

So as few of my colleagues at the time transitioned their skills from print to web, from web to email, how many were transitioning from email to Marketing Automation? After all, with all this great technology, someone still has to drive it, but more importantly they have to know where to drive it.

Marketing has to be listening on all channels in order to communicate on all channels. Simply telling the story isn’t good enough anymore. Which brings us to the latest development: Social Media.

Social Media accelerated the buyer’s control not just away from sales, but also away from marketing. Any illusion we had for “owning the conversation” quickly vanished as soon as it arrived. The individuals own the publishing space, their content is as valued as ours, and they control how they interact with us.

But listening got easier.

It’s now our job to look at the whole picture, from web visits, email activity, survey responses, and social media activity. We need to listen across all channels in order to identify the right prospects, advocates, and even angry customers. Some clues are obvious, some are very subtle.

Ideally, I think marketing should be trying to hand over the story-telling responsibilities to our customers. Why not? We strive for the credibility they already have. Our time should be spent listening, being good brand stewards, and communicating based on the dialogue that’s taking place. Of course we can still tell the story, but our stories should not be mistaken for the voice of our brands, that exists, as it always has, in the minds of our customers.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Edwin Thompson
Ed brings over 20 years of direct marketing and demand generation experience to TPG. His career has provided the opportunity to develop a unique blend of creative and technical expertise. Early in his career, while at The Boston Globe, Ed designed and developed one of the first publications to utilize a fully digital pre-press environment. Transitioning his skills to the web, Ed has spent the last 10+ years in marketing functions for technology companies.


  1. Great post.

    So many people rush in wanting to shout about their product or service before figuring out what their customer wants to hear. Two ears, one mouth story…

    Unfortunately marketing no longer works in the simple way of who can shout the loudest. Who listens the most quietly now wins in the ever changing battle to keep up with customers. Not keep ahead, just keep up.

    Marketing arrogance should be a thing of the past too but unfortunately often is not. In the Darwinian theory of marketing (made up just now), only the listeners will survive…

    Coo Marketing

  2. A very interesting article. As a HR professional this has significant parellels for employee engagement and management. Obviously we dont have the all the data available that customers generate. Maybe we should be working on developing this internal data…

  3. Love the way that you’ve make a great case here by ‘telling your own story’ Edwin!

    I completely agree that as marketing professionals we have been caught out by not being tuned in’ to the change that has been taking place

    The word in the market research industry now is that ‘listening is the new asking’ and that developing excellent listening skills is essential to be able to offer meaningful insights in the future! The balance has swung from the voice of the brand to the voice of the customer and we are – as Seth Godin has said for a number of years now – in an age of ‘permission marketing’

    David, I can really see the parallels that you refer to in HR and how the same skills will apply. It strengthens the case for better employee surveys (more open ended comment) even employee ‘communities’? After all, they are already making their voices heard on their companies’ own Facebook pages!

    Exciting times!

  4. Nice article.

    I am reminded that the speed of light is faster than the speed of sound and that’s why some people appear bright until they speak. This is not meant as a critical comment, but an affermation of what you are saying. I used to help design business reports using the information from our 64K Main Frames; we had to have the audience get past the fact that we really could produce a report. We learned very quickly to ask the managers what they wanted to see. Sometimes it took weeks to get an answer from them, but once they started to catch on, the requests came more often and were more complicated.

    The product was not the computer, it was the information contained within the punch cards and now the hard drives. Regardless of what you have to sell, the product is the perceived “benefit of ownership” from the customers’ perspective. Leave room for the client to make the decision based on their needs. This can only happen if you listen to what they actually want to buy, and not what you want to sell them.

    The only reason we see objects around us is not from the amount of light, but from the light reflecting from the object and entering our eyes. Now you have to decide on the light reflecting off of your object. What do you want to show them, and what do you want them to see? The only way you will know is by asking, and listening to what they say.


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