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Why All Businesses Need to Be Better Listeners

By Published on .

In the mid '90s, Penny Wilson and the developers at Alias Wavefront took notice when consumers complained about the fake hair on characters in their video games. By listening to their customers and creating realistic "digital hair," Wilson recalls that "it really leapfrogged us above any of the other competition" and within three years the upstart Canadian company sold to Silicon Graphics for $450 million. That's the kind of profitable lesson one doesn't soon forget.

Two decades later, now the CMO at Vancouver-based Hootsuite, Wilson still believes that "if you can pull those kinds of nuggets directly from your customers, it will really help your company get a competitive advantage." It's that promise that attracted Wilson out of retirement to Hootsuite, the social listening platform that has grown from a free tool for individuals to a major player in the enterprise space, with 16 million users overall. Wilson continues to practice what she preaches, offering numerous insights for all business leaders in our interview below.

You use a term "beyond marketing" when talking about social media. What do you mean?

I think people who consider social media at a very strategic level look at social across the whole organization, whether it's their marketers marketing, their customer service providing service, or their recruiters recruiting. They empower their employees to communicate with their customers in a one-on-one way. Not everybody is at that level of sophistication, but that opportunity exists. 10 years ago, we were still in a mode where we'd do a whole bunch of development around a campaign and we'd put it out there and we'd see if it works. Now we really live in a very different world; we have an opportunity to test and learn on an almost-immediate basis.

What were your top priorities when you became Hootsuite's CMO in 2015?

Entrepreneurs often have a desire to bring in some people who have been there and done it before. I think I was brought in to help the company scale and to lay some foundational pieces. One of my priorities was ensuring that we brought the voice of the customer into the organization in a consistent manner. The other priority was demonstrating to the world that we've had adoption of 16 million customers because you can start at the free level and then scale all the way up a large enterprise.

Voice of the customer is one of these terms that has been around for a while. What does it mean, and how does it impact operations?

We are listening at every stage in the customer journey. We're listening to customers who are aware of us, and those who are not. We're really looking at the overall journey that a customer has with Hootsuite, and making sure that every step of the way we have clear understanding, clear metrics, and a way to give that input to the whole organization, from the executive team to the people on the support desk. What I'm trying to do is build a culture that allows the customer to direct us, versus us trying to direct the customer. I've always been a proponent of letting the customer lead. Marketing is no longer on send; we need to be on receive mode.

How do you approach listening as the CMO?

I listen on my own, but I do have a team that puts my customer insights together on a regular basis to bring visibility to the executive team as well as the rest of the organization. We look at key metrics on our customer, we look at all of the input from our customers, we look for trends in that customer information. It's not just a marketing tactic anymore. Having a dialogue with the customer is really everyone's job. We live in this real-time world and customers expect an immediate response. It's so important to any business.

How have you seen the role of CMO evolve?

I think that CMOs are more and more coloring outside of our traditional box and that marketing is becoming more of a driving force across the whole organization. It's less siloed. It's less that marketing is separate from sales, or separate from customer support, or separate from product. It really is an integrating function. I would say that's part of what I see as the renegade side. I also think marketing has evolved a lot in the digital world. I started my career as a computer and data scientist in the financial services industry. I think that my understanding of data helps me make better decisions. It helps turn opinion to fact, and helps achieve a better balance between the art and science of marketing.

It's tough for a business to move up to the enterprise level. How did you break out of the small business and "solopreneur" box?

We worked really closely with the analyst community, organizations like Gartner and Forrester, to demonstrate the functionality of Hootsuite and to show the power of Hootsuite. I've given the example before of a company like Siemens where Hootsuite would have come on as a free tool in their corporate communications team. Then all of a sudden, they bought a professional seat and then they brought 10 people on, and they bought a team seat, and then they bought an enterprise license, and then they bought the analytics tools. It's really making sure that you have the tools to sell the social strategy up into the organization.

What's the toughest challenge you've had? Have you learned any lessons you could share?

One of the biggest challenges I find, meeting with a number of CFOs, is the constant need to get approval and tie the marketing work to the return you're getting from that investment. The CMO/CFO challenge. As the social starts to mature into that key customer engagement channel, I think marketers are challenged to demonstrate the return on their investment. It's really to equip the organization and the CFO with education and tools to understand how to connect social media to an outcome. You have to make sure you recognize the outcomes that you're trying to drive. Some could be revenue, some could be customer service, some could be brand perception. You have to make sure that you tie an outcome back to key business goals and have the ability to measure it.

Are there any opportunities in social media today that tend to be overlooked?

One of the things that marketers need to understand is that not everyone is comfortable in social yet, and in order for them to use the tools effectively to get their job done, there needs to be some level of education built into it. Whether it's your customer service or your CEO, make sure that you can use the 'human capital' that you have access to in the most effective way. I think about it with five key points. Social, customer-centered, authentic, listen and learn, and engage. That's my acronym: SCALE. I always like to leave a little memory enhancer.

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