So much time, mostly justified, is spent on how marketers speak, we often overlook what may be the most crucial skill a marketer has – his or her ability to listen. Sure, being able to think (and speak) on your feet is crucial. Being able to oversee the creation, targeting and distribution of well-crafted communication of all forms is vital. Being a good storyteller is intrinsic to the marketer DNA.

But the most overlooked, unheralded and underappreciated tool in the rockstar CMO’s arsenal is the ability to listen.

The good ones have always done it. The great ones still do – but differently.

Twenty years ago focus groups were the primary mechanism. No offense, but I’ve been to dozens and dozens of groups across the country and never gleaned much from them. Outside of gaining a few pounds on seemingly limitless M&Ms and developing an even more ghostly Irish pallor, little was learned. People were too self-aware. It was too artificial. They inevitably self-censored, not wanting to look silly in front of their “peers.” They generally played back what you wanted them to say – except that one guy hell bent to be “different.”

Different, alright.

To really find out what’s going on, you need to observe people “in the wild.” Dr. Bob Deutsch, a noted cultural anthropologist and frequent “marketing whisperer,” calls this the study of “people in life.”

If you want to learn about giraffes, you can learn an awful lot more in the Serengeti than you can in the zoo. Same goes for people vis a vis marketing. This used to mean going into an environment, being as unobtrusive as possible, and observing as many people as you can. I vividly remember doing some research on a toy brand for a big holiday promotion. This involved me spending about five hours in a particular mega-toy store going up and down the aisles, pretending to look at things on the shelves but actually watching how kids sparked to toys or didn’t. Did they react to things on their eye level more or less than things higher or lower (Yes)? Did they touch the things they liked best (Yes)? Did they begin imaginary play with the object of their affection right there in the aisle (You bet)? Did they generally behave differently with Mom and Dad in tow versus separated (the famous ‘shin kick’)?

I would have stayed longer, but I was convinced security was in route if I stayed one more minute.

Did I get a good sense of things? I did. Was it a small sample? It sure was. It was a leap of faith to assume these one-hundred kids or so in downtown Chicago would behave as kids would in Tennessee, to say nothing of Timbuktu.

Fast forward to today. Rather than starting from a place of “This is what I want to sell and who I think will buy it,” the best marketers are doing a lot of observation, looking and listening to what people say and what they do when they think nobody is watching. Mobile is at the very heart of that. Many people will “pre-game” with a mobile app, for example, before making a brick and mortar purchase. Many will omit the physical shopping experience altogether in favor of a perceived pressure and hassle free in-app or online experience. Just because you can’t see or hear them or observe them in a physical sense, doesn’t mean you cannot learn an awful lot from the engagement you had (whether they realize it or not). People respond and often share a brand’s social post, for example. Incredibly useful data. People put things in and out of carts. Data. They buy things on certain days or certain times of night. Data.

All of this data forms a picture of customers in the collective that informs the savvy marketer’s go-to-market strategy, rather than confirms it. They listen first and speak later.

But more importantly, mobility and personalization allow the best marketers to market to each customer individually. Are there still BIG campaigns designed to blanket a market? Always are and always will be. But increasingly those are wrappers to kick things off. The real meat of most strategies gets delivered with eye droppers, not tidal waves.

Now, instead of stalking the aisles like a creep, toy sellers can look at who’s bought what everywhere, all the time, not just one place at one point in time. Who’s the purchaser? A Mom or Dad? Grandparents? What else did they purchase? Full price or on-sale? How many times did they look at it before it went in the cart? Did they compare it to something else? Did they read reviews? How many visits to the site and app before the ultimate transaction? Are they in-store shoppers too, or single channel? What’s the purchase history of this customer? Does it differ by channel? Is it calendar-based around events, episodic or deal dependent?

Gathering all of the information and data from customer touch points, I can then find cohorts to this customer and see what aggregate trends emerge. Is there a city vs. suburb dynamic? Regionality? Are these first purchasers or loyalty members? Could this be a training wheels product for higher value purchases down the line? What have customers who’ve bought this product bought next historically? How can I lead more customers to that next best purchase via the straightest line?

As you can tell, there is so much to work with in an increasingly mobile-first world. Making sense of it all is no child’s play. But done correctly, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.