Recent allegations of NSA spying remind brands and marketers that customers' concerns about privacy is at an all-time high. Although social media and online communities make it easier than ever to reach customers, asking for input isn't enough to ensure candid feedback in the post-Snowden era.

So how can you make your customers comfortable enough to be honest with you?

The following are good starting points.

1. Listen before you ask

As marketers, we want more data, more information, and more insights. We're eager to ask questions—and we want answers now.

Keeping in mind people's concerns about privacy, however, customer engagement shouldn't start by bombarding people with questions.

A better approach is to start with listening. Big Data—including what you hear on social media—can provide clues on what you should be asking people in the first place. Tune in to find out what people care about so you're not just asking about the known unknowns, you're also asking about the unknown unknowns.

By listening first, marketers are less likely to ask for information they should already know and they are more likely to come up with relevant topics that can help inform business decisions.

2. Tell people what happened to their feedback

Because of high-profile privacy breaches, more consumers are wondering what exactly happens to the data they share with companies. But, for the most part, marketers don't do a good job of telling people how consumer data is used.

That tension highlights one critical issue in many customer feedback programs: They're set up to collect responses only. Effective customer engagement works better when they close the feedback loop and inform people how their input affects business decisions.

What makes for good community management and good research also makes for higher levels of customer comfort with data sharing: If your customers see that the data they have shared is concretely affecting your business decisions, they'll feel better about sharing it with you.

3. Ask for permission

Technologies that enable social listening and Web tracking let CMOs and their teams get a more accurate picture of what customers do online. Marketing automation tools can help you understand what customers are looking for and how brands can fill in the gaps. From mobile apps to cars, brands are finding new ways of getting consumer data.

But, as we've seen with the public's reactions to the NSA scandal, customers aren't always OK with data-gathering tactics. Indeed, our own investigation shows that eight out of ten Americans, Canadians, and Britons are opposed to private companies' use of information gathered from customers' online activity. No wonder there's increasing public pressure to regulate data protection.

Considering that "do not track" laws are imminent, marketing teams can benefit from getting ahead of the privacy curve. To avoid intruding on their customers' privacy, marketers should ask for permission before gathering data in the first place. Gaining consent will help build customer confidence—an important ingredient in encouraging people to speak to you.

4. Avoid using vague buzzwords

One consequence of heightened concern about the use of their data is that customers want more transparency. Marketing lingo is vague, and it does little to build public trust. Marketers may like words like "love," "authenticity," and "loyalty", but customers aren't always looking for love; they are looking for clarity on why you're asking for 10 years' worth of credit card statements.

As CMOs, we can inspire our teams to do better. If marketers want customers to be comfortable enough to have an honest conversation with us, we should stop using fuzzy, wishy-washy words and start speaking the same language that people actually use.

* * *

Although consumer concern regarding privacy is at an all-time high, getting insights from customers has never been more important: After all, you need feedback from your customers to drive retention and sales growth.

As CMOs, we must lead our teams toward a more consistent, transparent, and two-way approach to the way we listen to the voice of the customer.

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Four Ways CMOs (and All Marketers) Can Get Closer to the Customer Voice

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image of Tyler Douglas

Tyler Douglas is the chief marketing and strategy officer of Vision Critical, developer of a Cloud-based customer intelligence platform that allows companies to build engaged, secure communities of customers. He is also the author of the e-book How to Keep Your Customers From Cheating on You.

LinkedIn: Tyler Douglas