We live in a time where consumers share all kinds of feedback and opinions with brands, yet, according to a report from the “The Economist Intelligence Unit,” only six in ten senior business leaders view their companies as customer-centric, and only 56% report a clear understanding of customers’ tastes and needs. Say what? How can you stay in business if you don’t know what your customer wants?

The same study highlighted a disconnect among company leaders regarding whose responsibility it is to make understanding and interacting with the customer their top priority, and who should represent the “voice of the consumer.”

Here’s a suggestion: put your marketing agency in charge of this task. At Ignite2X, we believe that “know thy target consumer” is the first commandment of marketing, and this knowledge informs every single thing we do. We love being the voice of the consumer.

Of course we use big data to identify trends, track sales activity and measure consumer behavior online, but even the most advanced analytics are limited. They can tell you who, what, where, when and how, but they cannot tell you why. And until you know why, you never really know your customer.

You know what they say about assumptions…

If you really care about knowing your customers, you have to talk to them. Yet when it comes to qualitative consumer research, many marketers prefer to wing it. They make their best guess, based off assumptions or some half-baked online survey, and plow forward. Then they wonder why their message – or sales – fell flat.

Why is this happening? Talking to consumers, complain many Brand Directors, costs too much money, takes too long, or is just too hard to do.

Listen Up

The good news is that even if you can’t spend the money and time to actually talk to your customers, you can do the next best thing: you can listen to them.

We’ve had great success surfacing insights through “Social Listening,” and a technique called “Netnographic” research (the name’s a mash up of internet and ethnographic research), which involves studying the words, thoughts, opinions, ideas, behaviors and interactions of consumers using social media, participating in online forums, blogs and communities, and providing product reviews.

As a method, it can be faster, simpler, and less expensive, and has some benefits not extant in live research. It’s more naturalistic, immersive, and focused on context. What’s more, people are surprisingly open and honest when expressing themselves online. They will reveal feelings and attitudes and lifestyle characteristics to strangers (whom they consider their peers) that they would never share with a company representative or research professional.

By listening in, I have learned about daily routines, family dynamics, political views, leisure time preferences, influences, and the real reasons why people buy what they buy. Wouldn’t you love to have that kind of intel?

The voice of your consumer is out there, and it’s waiting to be heard.