Are Businesses Invading Consumer Privacy By Listening to Social Media Conversations?

Social media represents a new frontier in customer engagement. Not only can companies participate in conversations, a dizzying array of tools now help them listen to conversations as well. This isn’t news though. Everyone understands the importance of social media in business right? We all know that customers are demanding that businesses use social media to listen to ideas, engage them in conversations, and also solve their problems when in need. As I’ve often said, the best listeners often make the most engaging conversationalists.

Not so fast.

Perhaps what we think we know and what customers may actually want in social media represent an unforeseen gap that requires further consideration. According to a joint study published today by NetBase and J.D. Power and Associates, a double standard may exist in social media customer service where consumers say that listening is intrusive except when it’s not.

Cue the screeching brakes…


Social media listening is largely recognized as the new standard in community management. Listening after all is how companies can learn how to better serve and engage customers. And, doing so can improve sentiment and also foster stronger relationships, build communities, and encourage loyalty and advocacy.

Yet, your customers may not welcome your good intentions.

This creates an interesting dilemma as improving listening is a top goal for businesses this year. My colleagues at Altimeter Group found as part of its upcoming Social Business Strategies Survey that 42% of companies indicated that “listening/learning from customers” is a top three priority for 2013.

But, if consumers don’t want companies to listen to them, what are they to do?

Let’s take a look at the interesting story that NetBase and J.D. Power and Associates visualized in this compelling infographic, “Is Social Listening Too Much Big Brother?

A catch-22 may greet many businesses in social media as consumers believe that listening can be intrusive except when they need something. But how are companies supposed to help customers if they’re not supposed to listen?

Did you know that 32% of consumers using social media have no idea that brands are listening? I find this fascinating as social media, is well, social. We live in public and for consumers to be unaware of listening makes me wonder if it’s us or them who are living on another planet.

This is where things get very interesting. Over half of consumers (51%) want to be able to talk about companies without them listening. Perhaps more alarming however is that 43% of consumers actually think listening to conversations intrudes on privacy.

Businesses appear to be caught in a web of “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” At first blush, a double standard comes alive with 48% allowing companies to listen if the goal is to improve products and services. And 58% believe that businesses should only respond to complaints in social media.

As the infographic suggests, it may be time to sharpen your telepathy skills. Essentially businesses need to become mind readers because 42% of consumers also expect companies to respond to positive comments. And you’re going to love this, 64% of consumers want companies to only speak to them when spoken to. Huh?

Considering that 58% want you to engage in times of need, 42% wish to hear from you in good times, 64% only want you listening to be at their beck and call, and half of all consumers don’t want you listening at all, what’s a business to do?

Obviously social media, and specifically social listening, isn’t going away. But it does take tactfulness, genuine intentions and diplomacy to listen, learn, and engage (directly or indirectly) in ways that consumers feel recognized and important. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who says something negative or positive only to have it appreciated and considered by an organization will feel anything other than thankful.

To help CMOs and social strategists tread carefully while improving products, services and relationships, NetBase and J.D. Power and Associates offer the following four steps to follow:

1. Don’t just listen…understand. There’s a difference between listening and hearing.

2. Context is king here. Consider the context of each post before your respond, react, or assign engagement. This is where listening converts into 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.

For additional insights into consumer impressions on social media and how it breaks down by demographics, take a look at the SlideShare below and also take a look at the free ebook.


Here’s the complete infographic for your review…

Please consider pre-ordering my next book, What’s the Future of Business?

PClick  #WTF today

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Originally published as part of the LinkedIn Influencer program

  • Rob Kaminoff

    Everyone knows that what is said in social media is public information right? They are warned not to share, or allow themselves to be tagged in photographs taken of them in compromising situations. Why shouldn’t this information also be available to businesses for market research purposes?

    • briansolis

      You’d think so…but perhaps common sense isn’t as common As we think.

    • Anonymous

      I think it is a matter of trust. People are very suspicious of data being collected.

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  • Nathaniel Hansen

    On the surface, people will fight to protect sacred cows. Below the surface, they are ready at a moment’s notice to give up their sacred cows for a handful of magic beans. A powerful mechanism for securing a handful of magic beans is transparency. Transparency can, in many cases, lead to greater mystery…a deeper experience of “what’s there”. Once the culture atunes to this, no-one will complain about businesses listening to their conversations. Many have already caught on…and have made the hyper-leap to another lived experience…trading sacred cows for a handful of magic beans.

    • briansolis

      Very well said…

    • Nathaniel Hansen

      Thanks Mr. Solis. : )

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  • Mike Bailey

    If one person gives their point of view via SM, that is all it is, their opinion, of course it’s important to them and worthy of consideration, but if the business responds to them specifically is that truly what they were seeking?
    If 10+ people back up this persons opinion, then the business listening in has something worth engaging with, it’s not now a personal response, though it definitely could develop into one, but for starters it’s a general response to a shared point of view, ‘tell us more about what you think, how could we improve, how could ‘you’ benefit more if we approached things your way ‘ etc , then those responses could develop into 1-1 or smaller more specific discussions.
    Consumers can find it harrowing to have their point of view highlighted via engagement when the reason they posted was just to let off steam, but when the view is shared, the engagement is shared, the emphasis is shared, the pressure is released somewhat, it’s not going to be them V the megalith.
    A consumer posting ‘I can’t get the lid off this dumb (company named) tinned pie!’ is seeking others to share in their frustration, they are less looking for engagement with the business however helpful that may be intended.
    Once 10+ people (for instance) have shared they have the same problem, then the business has an issue, not the individual, then the business may want to step in with a way to open the dumb tinned pie, either way the business just needs to go away noting the issue and ensure it’s solved asap

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  • jaysonlinereviews

    Businesses have a team of employees or social media marketers that are paid to do research on various conversations or topics that are related to their business.

    Probably not right in a lot of cases they sometimes can use sneaky tactics but it is what it is unfortunately.

    Good post!

  • Life Bar Louisville

    As a business owner with multiple locations love social media to keep our customer engagement up. Back 10 years ago when I worked my first job at a fish market in Louisville ky , (real life)customer engadgement kept us in business because of the personal added value and suggestions I could offer . I may have been a bit mossy to some by listening to couples arguing over the king salmon or big eye tuna , in where i would interject my suggest which they mist likely would take. Me listening to social media conversations for my business looks like us taking a pulss of our clients.

    • briansolis

      Keep up the good work! Thank you…

  • Kevin Hudson

    Following on from my Facebook comment — The fact of the matter is this, the internet is a privacy free zone. It all comes down to the businesses having respect for themselves and their customers. Listening with good intentions (to help, inspire, educate etc) is fantastic human-business practice, in fact it’s fantastic human-being practice. Listening with intentions purely to sell sell sell should be punishable by bankruptcy – just one young man’s opinion.

    • briansolis

      Great comment Kevin.

  • Jessica Jorgensen

    Companies are still figuring out how to engage with their publics in meaningful and responsible ways. Not everyone automatically trusts a relationship, some people need trust to be earned. Companies have access to a wealth of information and communication online. That should never be a secret- companies need to make that transparent to prevent feelings of privacy violation. Companies also need to proactively communicate the use of this information in order to earn trust with stakeholders. Listening in social media can be a great tool to understand the comfort level, concerns, questions, and desires of individuals, but this information needs to be used to serve the public’s best interest.

  • Sarah Bauer

    The fourth point offered by NetBase and J.D. Power and Associates basically points back to the user’s main question, which must be answered at every checkpoint in a web marketing strategy:
    “What’s in it for me?”
    If marketers could articulate what users stand to gain from social listening, through their actions ( and words!) then the Big Brother accusations would surely simmer down.

    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

    • briansolis

      Yes…well stated, “what’s in it for me?” It’s also a two-way question…

  • Mark Coxon

    Your comment that “common sense may not be as ‘common’ as you think” is right on the money here. The aversion to social listening can be likened unto someone yelling in the street at their spouse who tells you to mind you’re own business when you notice them, but if they were yelling “help” or “fire” instead would expect you to be there in an instant.
    You can’t have it both ways, can you?
    Brands should listen, engage in helpful and constructive ways, and if someone takes offense, the other people watching the stream would see how unreasonable the complaint is, given the forum they chose to communicate in and the positive response of the brand itself.
    It exposes the brand as compassionate, and gives the one being listened in on the choice to be see as either rational or irrational in their counter communication.

    • briansolis

      Thank you Mark for the comment…really appreciate it.

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  • Sarah Song

    Wow, this is a very interesting and unique perspective you have brought to my mind. I knew that almost all the information consumers put online is liable to the eyes of almost anyone, but I have never really thought about what those “researchers” would do with the information they attained. Knowing that virtually everything we say/post is being recorded, I feel that companies can have somewhat of a right to act upon what they find. As you previously stated, it does depend on your intentions and a highly disciplined sense of discernment as to what can or cannot be acted upon.
    Ultimately any internet user must be aware of the “dangers” they put themselves in, but then that could also be applied to anything in life.

    • briansolis

      Great comment Sarah. Thank you!

  • Ellen Murphy

    I think it’s interesting that consumers say they don’t want companies listening to their conversations about their brand, when it seems that if you’re posting about a brand on social media it’s because you want attention of some sort brought to that company, brand, or situation. Whether you’re posting about a positive or negative experience, a consumer wouldn’t be putting their opinion out there unless they wanted some reaction. Although, as recently discussed in one of my PR classes, there have been a few cases of people getting sued by a company for libel after posting negative comments/reviews online- so in situations such as that, I can definitely understand why consumers would view listening in on their conversations as intrusive and an invasion of privacy (prohibiting their free speech).

  • Dave Crenshaw

    Well, my one takeaway from this post is: “demonstrate how listening doesn’t intrude but instead builds relationships.”Thanks, Brian!

    • briansolis

      Great summary Dave!

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Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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