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Are Marketers Just Waiting to Speak? Tips for Active Audience Listening [Research]

Are we listening or just waiting to speak?

When someone – a friend, a coworker, or our life partner – speaks, how often are we only thinking about what we want to say next?

You’re in a meeting where your coworker is talking about the state of the business, the results from last quarter, or the proposed new project, and you have this internal Q-and-A dialogue: “Wow, that’s a lot of data she just laid out. Do I agree with it? Which statements should I respond to? Should I ask a question now? I’m ready with an answer. What should I say to sound smart? What was I supposed to pick up from the grocery store?”

We hear (and maybe even process) some words, but we’re not actually listening. We’re waiting to talk.

This is what is happening to our content and digital marketing approaches as well. We’re “waiting to content” rather than listening to (or observing) what’s really happening with the audience we’re trying to serve.

For example, my team recently worked with a professional services company sending its sales team leads based on how many blog posts someone read or how many thought-leadership papers someone downloaded. In one case, someone downloaded two papers in one visit to the site. Conversion triggered!

The first piece of content was research supporting the top reasons their industry is being disrupted. The second was an interview with one of the company’s customers about their decision to make a fundamental change to their business.

The algorithm tagged the reader as a lead, and sales got the notification to make a phone call. The salesperson was noticeably frustrated when the lead indicated she had no intention of buying and was unconvinced she needed to change.

In this case, the reader-turned-lead was saying: “I’m trying to understand this concept, and I have unanswered questions about why we would change.”

But the company wasn’t listening. It was simply waiting for its turn to say: “Great, how much change would you like to purchase today?”

Do marketers need better active listening skills?

So much of today’s content and marketing technology messaging is crafted around helping managers deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. However, in as much as high pressure and a plethora of technology exist for marketers to leverage to deliver the right content at the right time, most businesses are struggling with that very notion.

Recently, a research study from Salesforce found that only 49% of marketing leaders believe they provide an experience completely aligned with customer expectations. This gap is almost certainly due to today’s overreliance on “waiting to content” and the pressure for speed. Much of today’s marketing and content technology is designed to help marketers speak more, faster, across more channels, and with shorter and shorter wait times between what they’ll say next.

49% of marketing leaders believe they provide an experience completely aligned w/ customer expectations. @salesforce Share on X

In fact, the CMO Council’s State of Engagement 2018 report (gated) noted that when asked to name the most important ingredient to ensure consistent delivery of the customer experience strategy, 42% of marketers said “systems that leverage real-time data to deliver relevant, contextual experiences.” But the inherent assumption built into that answer is that the content delivered in real time is relevant to the customer. It’s entirely possible that marketers are extraordinarily capable of delivering exactly the wrong message at the right time.

It’s possible that marketers can deliver the wrong message at the right time, says @Robert_Rose. Share on X

It’s telling then, that the second priority cited by the marketers in the CMO study was an “organization-wide, single view of the customer to ensure uniform and consistent engagement.”

Put simply: We can easily build the ability to speak in real time, but we almost certainly need hearing aids to understand what we should be saying.

Research illustrates need to listen

Earlier this year, we released our 2019 Content Management & Strategy Survey Report. This research illustrates how marketers are using technology to help create, manage, deliver, and scale enterprise content and marketing, as well as how their teams use it to more precisely target and engage audiences across the customer journey.

As part of this year’s study, we looked at this idea of “waiting to content,” and in conjunction with software company Vennli, we included three questions about audiences and content planning. Specifically, we asked about the challenges faced when thinking about audiences, confidence levels while planning new content, and typical approaches taken to creating content.

As it turns out, the top audience-related challenge, by far, is prioritizing marketing’s effort toward one audience over another (71%). Interestingly, knowing what is most important to the audience is the No. 2 challenge (61%).

However, when we asked respondents how confident they feel while planning new content, their answers suggest an inverse level of confidence when compared with their top challenges. They feel most confident about:

Now, at first, this seems confusing. If the top two challenges are knowing which audiences to prioritize and what is most important to the audiences, how can the marketing team be confident about their messaging, channels, and calls to action? 

Well, we found the answer in another question. When asked about the typical approach to content creation in their organization, almost half (48%) said the creators are “project-focused” (i.e., they create content in response to internal requests).

This finding suggests that many businesses are simply waiting impatiently to speak. They know what they want to say (because their content teams are primarily responding to internal requests to do exactly that). But they’re often unclear on what audiences want to hear – or which audiences to prioritize.

Marketers know what they want to say, but are unclear about what their audiences want to hear: @Robert_Rose. Share on X

It’s time for marketers to focus, listen, and get much better at understanding how to deliver content that will solve their customers’ needs.

Be an active audience listener

Research shows that the average person listens at only about 25% efficiency. In any conversation, we miss around three quarters of the meaning of what is being said. Most often, we are either not paying attention or waiting to speak.

In our personal relationships, the solution to the “waiting-to-speak” phenomenon is to engage in “active listening.” In active listening, we concentrate on what is being said, acknowledge it, respond, and remember.

Active listeners know what is being said, acknowledge it, respond, and remember, says @Robert_Rose. Share on X

Several key principles are involved, but four of the most important are:

  • Focus – Stop talking and just listen. People in active listening mode don’t interrupt or finish someone else’s sentences. They concentrate on what the speaker is saying.
  • Empathize – Understand the speaker’s point of view. Active listeners aren’t just filing away ideas to either address or dispute. They make a conscious effort to understand the speaker’s point of view and the ideas being expressed.
  • Patience – Wait for nonverbal communication. A pause – even a long one – doesn’t necessarily mean the speaker is finished. Similarly, we don’t listen just with our ears but with our eyes. Active listeners watch for other indicators, such as body language or tone of voice.
  • Remember – Build memory. Active listeners remember what they hear – some even use tools to help them recall entire conversations.

In conjunction with Vennli, we’ve developed a paper covering both the research and a more detailed approach to how a marketer might use the four principles of active listening. You can download it for free here.

Something to say vs. saying something

There is a wonderful quote by Plato: “The wise speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”

The success of content as a strategic function of marketing and communication depends solely on our ability to measure its contribution to the business. Of course, technology is an inherent piece of how we scale our content production capabilities. But it’s a foregone conclusion that no business will “out-speak” or “out-produce” its way to results.

For long-term success, companies must deploy strategies that enable their marketing teams to listen as actively as they speak. That’s when our marketing can evolve from simply saying something to having something valuable to say.

For long-term success, companies must deploy strategies that enable marketing teams to listen as actively as they speak. @Robert_Rose Share on X

Learn more about how to be an active-listening marketer, download this paper: Optimize Content Marketing Performance Through Active Audience Listening

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute