Hey Marketers: Put Your Listening Ears On

Attend any marketing conference these days and you’re sure to see or hear this quote from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” I’ve even used it myself. Often.

And while it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Bezos made the statement, it’s clear it was a reaction to the lack of control or ownership that today’s brands have over their own stories. He was also undoubtedly referring to the modern digital age of marketing where social media, product reviews, and other online communities have as much voice and influence on a brand’s perception as any PR or traditional paid media might have in the past.

But while the pithy quote from Bezos is now held as gospel among marketers, it appears we’re still not listening. Most marketers are intent on telling their brand story in their own ways regardless of whether the people we care the most about are listening, what they’re saying about us or, more importantly, what they need or want from our brands.

And, unfortunately, it’s probably even more true in higher education than in other sectors. We continue to insist that we must “tell our stories better” or “get people to understand the value of the liberal arts,” use jargon-y, impersonal language, or just insult our audiences by presenting cliched, staged, or poor-quality images of our people and campuses.

It’s time we start listening! And that can take shape in several ways.

There’s no doubt that sound qualitative and quantitative market research methods remain among the most trusted of ways to understand your audience and how they consider your brand. But traditional market research must evolve. Response rates are falling. People don’t answer phone numbers they don’t recognize. And who can be bothered with a 20-minute survey? Options abound: short, mobile-friendly surveys with straightforward, quick response options. Research panels that can target obscure audiences. Text-message surveys to capture immediate reactions in real time. Instead of focus groups, 1:1 interviews.

Regular social listening and monitoring can also provide valuable insight. But it’s not enough to count mentions and sentiment or likes, shares, and retweets. You must also track what themes are being discussed, who is leading the conversation, and the accuracy of the information being shared, as well as look for opportunities for your brand to join the conversation.

But, as important as monitoring your brand might be, ensuring your institution is providing the right brand experience matters more. Brand loyalty exists on a tightrope. Just ask Uber. Emotional connections to brands can quickly disappear. Relevance and value drive connection to brands these days. And that requires careful listening and thoughtful action.

Spend some time listening—really listening—through research, user feedback, direct conversations or through your social channels, and you can learn a lot about your stakeholders and not just their reactions to your brands but their needs and desires.

You’ll discover a recent grad who graduated with a B.A. that just wants a bit more schooling to make sure she is appealing to an employer as she looks to change careers. Do you make it easy for her? Are you responsive when she is looking for information? How quick are you with an answer to her question?

And what about your students? Do you know if they are having a good experience? Is your institution meeting their expectations? When they were having a problem with a roommate and it was forcing them to stay out all hours of the night and impacting their grades, did you support them? Was there someone that was aware and offering help?

How responsive are you to alumni? Not in sending them updates on campus happenings or asking for a gift, a like, or an event invitation. But in truly keeping them connected with the many unique opportunities they had for exploration, fun, and connection they enjoyed as students? What about a little help to find someone local that may be in their field? Or a student that could offer some help as a summer intern?

College and university brands actually have the rare opportunity to be extensions of our lives. We have an untapped loyalty that many consumer brands dream of. But if you’re not listening, you’re not adding value. And if you don’t meet expectations, everyone will hear about it on their social feed.

Want to delve more into this topic? Join Jason Simon, SimponScarborough’s Chief Operating Officer, and thought leaders from throughout higher education in Chicago October 17-18 at ListenUp Edu, a cross-disciplinary conference that will explore how a culture of listening, service, and trust-building accelerates student success, marketing and communications, alumni engagement, and advancement.

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