Forget about thriving. For any firm to stand a chance of even surviving within its industry its managers need to answer two questions. The social age holds the answers.

To survive in any industry – let alone thrive within it – firms need to answer two fundamental questions:

  1. What do our customers want?
  2. How do we avoid being beaten by our competition?

Delighting customers

There are many ways to identify your customers. To understand their changing needs. To get to grips with how customers choose between competing offerings.

You can ask your management team. You can ask your front-line employees. You can conduct surveys. Host focus groups.

Surviving competition

As for competitors, a profound understanding of a firm’s competitive environment is crucial to a successful strategy.

Industry analysis allows you to make a first pass at identifying sources of competitive advantage by recognising key success factors within your industry.

You gain insights by reading competitors’ annual reports, their press releases, their beliefs and values as enshrined within their mission and vision statements. And, their financial accounts.

Of course the social age brings us an alternative. A far simpler way. A real-time snapshot. One almost guaranteed to provide more accurate results than previous methods.

The results may be more accurate because they bypass the bounded rationality and opportunism of middle managers. Those who can’t see the wood for the trees; overwhelmed by a deluge of information. Those who fail to make the connection between customer wants and a firm’s ability to satisfy those wants. Those managers with their own agenda for skewing information. Skewing for personal benefit – or protecting against personal status loss.

Outside the company the social age can bypass customers skewing surveys and focus groups, too. Those succumbing to the Hawthorne effect; customers trying to be helpful by answering questions the way they think the company wants them to respond rather than how they actually feel.

The authors of A World Gone Social offer social media monitoring as a mechanism for understanding the key success factors within an industry. They put forward a simple three-step process:

  1. Actively listen.
  2. Respond quickly.
  3. Meet customers where they are now.

Active listening

It starts with listening. Really listening. As a business leader you can listen in on Twitter to what your customers and competitors are really thinking and saying about you, your brand and your product line. You can turn to Facebook groups and Google+ communities. Watch LinkedIn group comment threads unfurl led by industry influencers; by your brands’ lovers and your haters.

Here crowdsourced tool compilations such as #PRstack are invaluable resources for finding the best fit social media monitoring tool for your brand.

Respond quickly

Want to learn more about who’s saying what and why they’re saying it? You can join Twitter Chats, participate in Linkedin groups. Leave comments in Google+ communities.

But, before you do, here are two notes of caution:

  1. Lose the corporate speak it’s a conversation you’re after you’re not reading from a sales brochure.
  2. Keep it real-time. Respond to questions and queries quickly. Keep the conversation flowing.

The aim is to develop permanent engagement with your customers not piecemeal, part-time engagement.

Go visit your customers

Go to where your important people are. The people talking about you, or the people you and your brand are trying to reach. Or even those speaking with you customers. By actively listening you already know the social media platforms preferred by your customers. So, go join them there. Don’t pull them to where you want them to be. Pay them a visit.

Obviously not obvious enough

This three-step process makes social media monitoring in business strategy obvious right? Not quite.

A survey released by Domo and in August 2013 found that nearly 70% of Fortune 500 CEOs have no presence whatsoever on any major social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+.

Many of the 30% of CEOs who do have a social media presence leave it at a Linkedin profile or turn their ‘personal’ Twitter account into broadcast mechanisms for their firms’ press releases and to retweet pro company tweets. Yes, the quote marks are for emphasis because, no doubt, many of these personal accounts will be driven by interns and communications departments and will go no where near the actual CEO.

It is easy for business leaders to become engulfed within the C-suite bubble. An existence where leaders only speak with one another. Cocooned from the hurly burly of everyday working life of their customer-facing staff.

Looked through the lense of answering what your customers want and how to beat competition however, social media monitoring becomes a killer strategic weapon. It allows you, as business leaders, to step out of the C-suite bubble and see directly what your customers and competitors truly think of your company. Understanding the variables you can influence allows you to make decisions which positively affect your firm’s overall competitive position within an industry.

About Scott Guthrie

Scott Guthrie is a management consultant specialising in progressive public relations. He has more than twenty years’ experience advising leaders within the business intelligence and financial services industries. Scott believes making money by being meaningful is the only sure-fire way businesses can make meaningful money over the long term.

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