Social conversations are happening online, and for many brands it is very tempting to tap into what consumers are saying about their products/services among their friends online. Consumers express their opinions freely, but many are not aware that market researchers and companies are able to access their public posts and opinions. 

Research indicates that it is very hard to determine whether a company should listen in or not. People that are approached by brands without having expressed interest in a conversation report feeling uncomfortable when they realize that a company has been eavesdropping, even though in reality the conversation is publicly available to anyone. Social Media Analytics and monitoring tools allow for companies to pick up whenever something is said about their brand, as long as the post is public. When something is shared on Facebook privately that will remain private, however, the majority of conversation on social platforms, blogs, discussion boards and twitter are publicly shared by default and easily accessible to curious companies. 

People primarily turn to social media to talk to their friends, not companies. Jan Trent, a research manager with Wendy's International said during an MRA presentation on the need for private online communities: "In a public social media site, they do not want us there. We can't lead. People don't go to social media sites to talk to companies. They go to talk to their friends" People want to be able to express their opinions, and should not have to worry that a company intrudes in order to change the consumers perception of the brand.

Social media listening is recognized as the new standard in community management. Company's can better serve and engage customers by tapping into their genuine conversations online, and thus can improve sentiment, build relationships, communities and encourage loyalty and advocacy.

According to research, consumers believe that listening can be intrusive except when they need something. But that raises another question, how can companies know that consumers need something if they aren't supposed to listen to them?

32% of consumers are not aware that brands are listening in on their conversations online. Over half of all consumers want to be able to talk about companies without them listening, and 43% think that companies listening in their conversations intrudes on privacy. 

It may be hard for a company to figure out the best strategy here. 48% would allow companies to listen in if the overall goal were to improve products and services, but 58% believe that businesses should only respond to complaints in social media. However, 42% also want companies to respond to positive comments. So what is one to do?

A company can leverage the insights from the organic conversations and public opinions emerging online. But should they address an issue/complaint when a person hasn't addressed the company directly? 

The data is contradicting and confusing for marketers to understand. NetBase and J.D Power and Associates offer the following recommendations:

1. Listen, don't understand. There is a difference between listening and hearing.

2. Context is king. Consider the context of the post before you respond, react or assign engagement. This is where listening converts to intelligence. 

3. Engage with good intentions. In social media, the end game is reciprocity. 

4. Actions speak louder than words. Demonstrate how your participation in social media is dedicated to helping and building relationships. Do so relentlessly. 

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The Market Research company Vovici conducted a survey of 426 online users in the US. A staggering 95% were concerned about their privacy on the internet and 40% were very or extremely concerned. However, the study noted that although people express their deep concerns, they do not act differently than the people who were not concerned. They did not engage in fewer online activities, comment less on websites or share their real identities (photos, real names) less than those who were less concerned. 

69% of respondents were aware that organizations monitor and analyse public internet discussions, 45 % were aware that market researchers do.

According to research live,  the best way for researchers to behave in this field is:

  • respect expectations of privacy. Researchers are not the intended audience for social media discussions. 
  • don't engage with commenters. However, 56% thought it was acceptable for the organization they were commenting on to contact them. Only 15% thought it was acceptable to be contacted by independent market researchers through social media. 
  • 85% want you to ask them for permission if you want to share their comments in research reports. 
  • hide their identities. 43% prefer that you do not identify them at all, 24% think it is acceptable to be identified by demographic. A mere 7% think it is acceptable to be identified by name.