Our friends in marketing have been conducting observational research for years, and now leading communicators are following suit. Think of it as a tactical adaptation bred of a Darwinian necessity—it’s a messaging jungle out there, and if we are to survive we must be ruthlessly in touch with our stakeholders’ realities so we can somehow influence them with our words and images.
▶ Why mingling with the people is essential.
Let’s run down your listening checklist. Social media monitoring? Focus groups? Polls? Surveys? All of these are informative and essential ways to listen.
It’s also important to be aware of what we may not be getting from these channels. Surveys and polls are limited by what we thought to ask people, how we asked it and how they interpreted it, by the means available to them to express what they were truly thinking.
Focus groups likewise are very controlled and confined by what we are asking and how. And they are generally composed of a sample group—a bunch of people who don’t know each other and are therefore a little less open.
Social media monitoring is critical and brings in more information than ever before—with more and more context, as the technology and possibly our monitoring budget catch up.
But, as with other channels, the voices coming through social media carry bias—self-selecting for people who frequent those spaces and are inclined to speak up—and choose to represent themselves a certain way, while we just have to take their word for it.
Observational learning can fill in a lot of gaps and provide a reality check to help make sense of all this other data we have coming in.
▶ How do your practice observational learning?
Observational learning is simply watching your stakeholders in their natural environment. That may be following a customer around for a day to see how her or she interacts with your products and services at home, or how they travel or go to the bank.
It may be hanging out with employees at work and listening to them on the phone, watching them interact with clients or observing how they actually interact with colleagues to get their work done.
You can do focus group-reminiscent activities as well, but with a spin—pull together people who already know each other into and just get them talking.
Ask some provocative questions, then sit back and listen. Set a camcorder on a shelf and just let it roll so that you have compelling evidence to share with your team and business partners later on.
And it will be compelling, because people who know each other well and are given room to run will talk. And talk and talk and complain and opine and make associations we hadn’t anticipated and use all the layman words we would never dream of using as an official, self-respecting corporation. Try getting that from a survey.
So loiter in the break room at one of your manufacturing facilities or have some key investors who know each other meet you for dinner at their favorite restaurant.
You’ll walk away with insights about their thinking you would not have otherwise, and probably some great vocabulary to flip around and use on them in your messaging. That’s how you cut through the noise and get people to pay attention to what you have to say.
I know that you’re thinking about logistics. You are more than welcome to hire a vendor to do this for you, but we’ve heard from several teams who do this successfully that they do this on their own and on a shoestring budget.
Designate two team members to go on a few listening visits, or maybe team up with a few marketing colleagues and simply take turns taking a day out of the office. What’s more fun than that? PRN
This article originally appeared in the November 18, 2013 issue of PR News.