Chances are you’ve been told, taught or trained that the act of listening is one of the most important things you can do. In fact, you’ve probably heard this countless times in both your personal and professional lives. Does the phrase “You were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason” sound familiar?

Sure, it may sound cliche, but it’s also true. Taking the time to hear and absorb feedback and sentiment from the people in our lives is one of the most powerful ways to create trust. At its heart, listening lets people know we are connected, empathetic and that we care.

The good news here is most individuals can become good listeners. The art of “active listening” is a well accepted and well tread topic.

Where good listening becomes more complex is when it’s applied to an organization or business. What if you were part of an organization and you wanted to do the same? How would you listen to your audience to create empathy, connections and show your organization cares?

It pays to listen to your customers

There are traditional methods to accomplish this for sure. Focus groups, for example, have been around since the 1950s.

In fact, in one well documented focus group, the brand Betty Crocker sought to understand why their premade cake mixes weren’t selling. It turned out there was a good reason for their lackluster sales: their customers felt they weren’t doing the work of baking a cake for their families. Mothers in the focus group said they felt guilty because they thought it was too easy; all they had to do was add water and mix.

The answer for Betty Crocker was to add an egg to the ingredient list. This simple, additional step altered parents’ perception that they were spending more time and effort on the cakes. Spoiler alert…sales skyrocketed.

Focus groups allow us to reach our audience and understand how they feel about our brand. But these exercises eat up a lot of time and the cost of the average focus group is $6,000. Imagine the costs piling up quarter over quarter, and how quickly you’d reach your limit if you tried to listen to your audience via focus groups. Effective yes, scalable no.

Some organizations will leverage surveys to get a pulse on their audience. Surveys are a much cheaper alternative to focus groups but come with their own challenges. The first is the response rate. Surveys deliver notoriously varied completion rates which can range from the single digits in B2C to more respectable numbers in B2B. For many, this gap in conversions means they are missing out on a huge number on voices and viewpoints.

The second challenge is the number of unforgiving variables one must account for when building and distributing the survey. Marketers need to consider factors like survey length, copy, quality of questions, question formats (open-ended vs. not) and distribution strategies. If you don’t get one of these factors right, it can sabotage your response rate.

A better type of focus group

So where does that leave organizations who want to connect with their audiences without high costs or high volatility? The answer is to listen to the people we care about on social media.

Think of social media as one big focus group. With 77% of Americans currently using social media, social encompasses a wide range of audiences and distinct viewpoints. Through social listening, marketers can hear what people have to say about their brand, competitors and industry online.

Social listening also offers something at scale that most market research cannot: sentiment. Brands can discover people’s candid thoughts and opinions about a brand, competitor or trend simply by listening to the conversations taking place online. This information can even help brands dictate a new product or strategic direction.

A great example of a brand taking advantage of social listening is Brooks Running. Recognizing that research is expensive and honesty in surveys is hard to come by, Brooks Running used listening to quickly and easily capture qualitative data at scale. Brooks Running was able to dive into real-time social conversations runners were having online and identified keywords their target audience used to celebrate Global Running Day. As a result, Brooks Running created meaningful content that resonated with runners, leading to major growth in engagement, followers and messages received.

Market research for stronger relationships

But if social listening is a viable alternative to other forms of social research, why isn’t everyone doing it?

The answer is until recently, social listening had the same challenges as traditional research methods. Like the focus group, social listening consumed too much time, energy and resources. The complexity of different variables and reliance on professional service teams wasted valuable time and, if you didn’t get the results you were looking for, you were forced back to the drawing board.

Fortunately, that’s changed. Advancements in social listening platforms have helped democratize the insights gained through listening for all organizations. This in turn allows marketers to focus on the good stuff: understanding what their target audience wants and discovering the things that drive positive consumer sentiment. Quick, easy and readily available were never hallmarks of market research but thanks to social listening, today they are.

When brands leverage social listening data, they can even strengthen their relationships with customers. Marketers can pinpoint exactly who they should be targeting, create content that resonates best with their audience and foster authentic conversations with customers. And with listening insights, brands can meet and exceed their customers’ expectations by building the products and services they want.

Social listening ultimately creates trust, and trust creates connections—and brands can stand to be more connected to their audience. In taking the time to hear what people have to say on social, brands can show that they really care about and take their customers’ honest opinions to heart. As the old saying goes: If speech is silver, then listening is gold.