Don’t rely solely on social media for understanding customer sentiment



Nordstrom’s flagship store in downtown Seattle. President Trump’s tweet earlier this year critical of Nordstrom did not end up hurting the retailer’s sales. CreditTed S. Warren/Associated Press

The article Brands Heed Social Media. They’re Advised Not to Forget Word of Mouth by Janet Morrissey in The New York Times provides great advice for startups and established companies as well.

Virtually all my mentees rely on social media, Facebook and Instagram in particular, to get help understanding their customers. But as Janet Morrissey points out with several salient examples, social media monitoring is necessary but far from sufficient.

On average, 19 percent of a brand’s sales — or between $7 trillion and $10 trillion in annual consumer spending in the United States — are driven by social conversations, both online and offline, according to a new study conducted by Engagement Labs, a Canadian company that analyzes conversations around brands.

The study, which looked at 170 brands, found that companies often wrongly saw social media as an accurate and sufficient guide for tracking consumer sentiment. Often, though, that social conversation might be much different from what people are saying in private conversations with friends and family, the study said.

But the question is, how do you track offline conversations to better gauge customer sentiment? Here are a few methods:

  • Focus groups – A facial expression, a tone of voice or even a pause can reveal concerns that a social media post or tweet will not.
  • Online questionnaires – by only providing results only AFTER the customer has filled out the questionnaire the group-think of social media is avoided.
  • Survey cards – in these days of everything online you can cut through the noise with a cool looking postage paid survey card or include one with a shipped product.
  • Instrumented focus groups – participants are hooked up to sensors to detect emotional reactions. Often people say one thing, but actually feel/believe another.
  • Home visits – if memory serves me, I believe that Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, actually followed customers home to observe how they used his Quicken bookkeeping product. He learned a lot more from these visits than from the artificial setting of usability labs or focus groups. As he has said: “Spend time with the customers, immersing yourselves, watching, spend time at their homes,”  “Hear what they say but, most importantly, watch their behaviors as the indication of where the pain is. And then go solve that pain.”
  • Reach out with phone or Skype calls – not every customer has the time to spend on a focus group or the inclination to invite a founder into their home or office. But you can learn a lot by calling two types of customers: those who love the product (find out why and if they tell their friends) and those who had a bad experience (what was it, how you can make it up to them and convert them to fans?)
  • Attend events and button hole prospects or customers – this isn’t easy and takes come chutzpah. You’re going to need a great opening line. And wearing your company branded apparel may help get a conversation going.
  • Turn customer support contacts into learning opportunities – after you’ve solved a customer’s problem they may well be in the mood to answer a few, short questions for you.

I’m sure there are other ways to gauge customer sentiment outside of monitoring social media. Don’t give up on social media, but be sure to complement it with live, real time, customer feedback. And be careful that your questions don’t bias the customer, or as the lawyers would say, “Don’t ask leading questions.”

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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