I write and talk a lot about creating content. But learning how to listen is just as (if not more) important.
Think about that last Zoom meeting you had. Your coworker was talking about the state of the business, the results from last quarter, or the proposed new project, and you had this internal dialogue going on as you nodded at the camera.
“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? How about now? I’m ready with an answer. What should I say to sound smart? I wonder what time the dry cleaner closes.”
We hear, but we’re not listening.
Hearing is a simple physiological act. But listening involves taking in the meaning of the words and the implied communication in the silences in between.
As Henri Nouwen put it, “Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond.”
Most marketing involves waiting to speak
In the latest CMI research, 68% of all respondents said they prioritize their audience’s informational needs over the organization’s sales message in content marketing.
But when asked about looking forward, content marketers mentioned understanding what content appeals most to different roles within the target audience as their top challenge.
In other words, they want to say something meaningful, but they don’t know what that might be.
Many of my clients feel confident that the company they work for knows what kind of content it wants to produce for audiences. But they feel less convinced that the company understands what these audiences want.
Too often, content marketers are waiting to speak (or offer content) rather than listening to what’s happening with the audiences we’re trying to serve.
Here’s an example. The marketing team at a B2B IT services firm I worked with a few months ago sends leads to the sales team based on the number of articles or thought leadership papers a visitor downloaded. In one case, an audience member had downloaded two papers in one visit to the site. Conversion triggered!
The algorithm automatically tagged this person as a lead, and sales got the notification to call. The salesperson felt frustrated when the “lead” indicated she had no intention of buying and wasn’t even convinced she needed to change.
In this case, the prospect was saying, “I’m trying to understand this concept, and I have unanswered questions about why I would change.” But marketing was waiting for the chance to say, “Great, thanks for all that information. How much change would you like to purchase today?”
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Active listening isn’t a technology problem
You may know that the answer to the “waiting to speak” challenge is active listening. This skill involves concentrating on what someone says, responding to it, and remembering it. Research shows that active listening can improve relationships, promote deeper trust, and motivate those we communicate with.
Many modern marketing technologies promise to help deliver more relevant, personalized content experiences. Some even say they use artificial intelligence to examine a customer’s content consumption and present the “best next” experience.
Don’t be fooled. Personalization isn’t active listening. While it removes some friction for some areas of the customer’s journey, personalization is just a faster way of waiting to speak.
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Real active listening in content marketing
One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned in nearly three decades of marriage is to listen with no intention of fixing something. A critical component of active listening is to be present but resist the urge to improve, repair, or have a prepared response to the information given.
This may be one of the hardest things for marketers and sales practitioners. Most of us are trained to provide the next piece of compelling advice to fix a customer’s challenge or serve a need or want.
But listening to customers without the intention to prepare a response offers real value.
Here are some ways you might employ an active listening approach in your content marketing.
Polls and surveys
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in trying to find data to support your decisions that you succumb to the temptation to make every survey question multiple choice. Even “Rate this article” widgets at the end of thought leadership pieces offer a scale from 1 to 5 to feed an algorithm or analytics tools. Consider running polls or surveys where the questions are open-ended and designed to foster understanding rather than being able to serve up a chatbot response or other piece of pre-programmed content.
Customer persona interviews
Persona interviews often get lumped in with buyer research. The questions become about listening for opinions on products, services, or the brand. But customer or audience persona interviews should include fewer questions about what they think about us and more about what they think. Full stop.
Instead of asking visitors for an email address, name, and phone number in exchange for a digital asset, why not ask the recipient something that doesn’t require identifying information? For example, instead of requiring an email address for your latest white paper, just ask people: “Tell us why you’re downloading this paper.”
Each of these approaches can return valuable information to fuel your marketing and personalization efforts.
By actively (and consistently) listening to our audience personas, you can make better decisions about the what, where, and when of the content you create.
You can also better inform others in your business who may be still just waiting to speak. Active listening with your audiences can empower you to know when, where, and how to cue the many business voices to speak with greater intention.
That’s when your marketing can evolve from simply saying something to having something valuable to say.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute