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How Natalie Merchant Taught Me to Listen

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In social media, we are often told to “listen first.” So, we dutifully set up our Google Alerts, purchase monitoring solutions, and so on. And when the data starts flowing in, we get excited about the volume of information, the share of voice that our brands or products are experiencing, and even the Klout scores that some of our advocates miraculously maintain.

The problem is, however, that the majority of us are not listening; we are interrogating. We are looking for a gap, a way into the conversation, and often our efforts result in clumsy social interruptions. We may be listening, but we haven’t changed our mindset or become attuned to the patterns of online social interaction.

You see, social media monitoring is like eavesdropping from afar. People are (sometimes unwittingly) sharing their thoughts, intentions, and actions with others as they engage in the activities of life---and social media surfaces this and makes it available for all who care to look or listen. But it is only very rarely that these observations are actually about your brand or your product. Mostly it’s about that person, your customer. Your brand is just there---like a free consumer-generated product placement.

This is a small but vital detail, but understanding it changes everything.

Think about how you listen to music. What stands out in the music that you love? What sends tingles down your spine? What brings you up and can bring you down? I believe that, as marketers, we have to listen to our customers like they are the musicians that we love. And for me, one of the most profound musicians---and one from whom I can learn---is Natalie Merchant.

When I hear Natalie Merchant sing, I tend to hear beyond the words. I listen for the intention. I listen for the care that she takes in phrasing. What she emphasizes. Where she attacks the note for emphasis and where she pauses for impact.

In the YouTube clip below, Natalie performs with the Perkins School for the Blind. Watch the clip and listen. Really listen. At about 3:10 through to 3:25, there is a particularly powerful section where Natalie zeroes in on her partner. She watches, collaborates, supports and allows space for him to share his voice.

Hesitatingly, his body moves, his breath stutters, and he delivers the line just in time. And all the while, Natalie calmly waits, ready to step in.



This is how we should be listening to our customers. Sure, we have more than a passing interest in our brands---but it is how they are brought to life through our customers that counts. That’s the thing that drives recommendation and interest. And rather than interrupting the flow of our customers’ conversations, we should be looking for ways to shepherd them through various levels of engagement. After all, what else are you listening for?


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Gavin in VP & Principal Analyst with Constellation Research Group. He possesses extensive international experience in driving measurable outcomes via digital customer experience platforms, digital strategy and executing innovative content driven campaigns. With a background in enterprise technology innovation, digital strategy and customer engagement, Gavin connects the dots between disruptive technologies, enterprise governance and business leaders.

Most recently, Gavin led the customer experience, communication and social media programs for SAP's Premier Customer Network. And over the last 15 years, he has been at the forefront of innovative digital strategies for some of the world's leading companies - from IBM to Fujitsu - and on the agency side, leading the global digital strategy for McDonald's.

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  • by Heather Poduska Tue Nov 29, 2011 via blog

    FANTASTIC article. As an opera singer and brand strategist I am always thrilled when other people make the connection between music making and business. They are not that different really. You need to find your own voice first, project it, and have enough confidence in your own ability in order to be sensitive to and interact with your partners whether they are fellow performers or audience members.

  • by Gavin Heaton Tue Nov 29, 2011 via blog

    Thanks Heather - that is a great analogy! The whole topic around finding one's voice, inhabiting it and projecting it into the world is fascinating. I like your thinking!

  • by PHIL Wed Nov 30, 2011 via blog

    I was unable to link to the video...was it for "Motherland?"

  • by Gavin Heaton Fri Dec 2, 2011 via blog

    Yes, it is Motherland - you wil find it easily on YouTube.

  • by Jen McGahan Sat Dec 3, 2011 via blog

    A very sweet post here, Gavin, thank you.

    There is always that moment when you are listening to a customer and you realize that you heard a lot more than words alone. Just like music; that is the substance worth paying attention to! It is amazing how smart and valuable we can truly be to a customer or client when we shut up and listen!

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