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Let’s face it, most of us make purchase decisions emotionally, rather than logically. But much of the research we do when marketing products and services is focused on big data, filtered and sifted, often to get the results we are looking for rather than to divine what the customer wants.

For decades, brands have focused on selling the product on hand rather than identifying and filling the needs of the consumer first. We see an opportunity and attempt to fill it, often in our own little vacuum. We think we’ve got the best possible answer to the problem.

We’ve used a variety of research tools to understand the problem and the solution by gathering data based on our goals and the “answer” we want to hear that validates our own decisions and the existence of our product. Then we complain that consumers appear to say one thing in that research and do another. We did the research, so why aren’t they buying? Why are consumers so unpredictable?

It’s how we are listening (or not listening)
Scraping the web, surveys, competitive research, all give us loads of data, but is it the right data, and how do we parse that data for the truth?

Data from research tools like these are particularly flawed. Why? Because they are based on the expectation that people make rational decisions based on facts.

Do you buy a book because of the emotion its cover evokes?
People may see the logic in choosing product A. over product B. when presented with only product highlights and specifications, analysis and data.

When the buying decision actually occurs, we are likely to choose product A because it is RED and red makes us feel good.

We buy a book or a bottle of wine because we like the cover, even before we read the liner notes.

Perhaps we associate it with a friend whom we respect who said that SHE liked this particular product.

Maybe we have loyalty to a specific brand because of a particular memory association. These are not the most logical decisions, but they “feel right”. We “feel it in our gut”.

Analysis paralysis
When Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied individuals in the 1990’s who had specific brain lesions that limited their ability to connect feelings to emotions. Damasio found participants were unable to make good decisions because they didn’t feel emotions connected to their choices. Whatever decision they made, it just didn’t feel right. They could reason, based on the data, but lacked the “feeling” about the data necessary to come to a final decision.

Understanding how emotion comes into play in buying decisions can be extremely useful when listening on social media sites. Rather than making decisions based on parsing the big data, we can listen in on conversations about the issue we want to address, our product, our competitors’ products, and the needs of the consumer.

Gathering this data is slower, and requires a level of engagement that most brands eschew because it takes a lot of resources to do it well. It’s not entirely accurate to use tools that judge sentiment as a data point either. For example, we may say, “Oh I hate it when it’s easy to win”. Do I hate winning? Nah, we’re being facetious. Sentiment analysis may add some context, but in general, we are guessing when we build predictive models based on social media data sets. Humans still have to process this data and guage what the feelings associated with it are.

Listen to social
To my mind, studying social media is ever so much better than using focus group scenarios. Why? because people know they are being watched in a focus group. In many cases, the demographic of the people who regularly do focus groups is fairly homogenous. People who like to be in focus groups or take surveys sign up, but is that really your actual market?

On social media sites we can eavesdrop on the conversations and understand what the needs really are and the emotions behind them. Listening to a wide range of conversations on social media gives you a perception of what people really think, unfiltered and, generally, unguided. Be a fly on the wall without an agenda of changing the conversation.

Listening mindfully
All of this is to say that data is not enough to base your social media marketing on. You’ve got to back it up with real conversations with real people. Listening for those who have questions that your product or service could resolve and then asking questions. Listening without trying to put your own spin on things, without judgment or leading questions.

When I teach mindful listening to a student, we will spend some time taking turns telling a story without interruption from the listener. You’d be amazed the trust that develops simply by listening and being listened to.

Let’s try that with our prospective markets, shall we?