The Chief Listening Officer

  • Published May 1, 2020
  • / By Charlie Melichar

“Get the word out.” “Express the brand.” “Hashtag it.”

Organizations spend a lot of time talking about, well… talking. From higher ed to hospital systems, there is an awful lot to say. There is also an awful lot of noise to cut through.

It is the job of the Chief Marketing Officer to lead the charge in getting the message out, but this expectation undervalues an essential function of this role: Listening.

We should seek conversation not just outbound communication. This means we need to listen to what the market is saying.

This is where your CMO adds tremendous value – informing institutional conversations and decisions through the intelligence they gather by listening to the market. Effective listening is critical to your institution’s ability to not just push an agenda, but to invite people into the creation of a new one.

The word “engagement” is tossed around loosely. Now is the time for your institution to show that you mean it.


So, what does effective listening look like?

> Asking questions

Research helps us untangle key issues at the global (industry), regional (market), and local (your institution) levels, but adequate, consistent funding of such research can be hard to come by.

Consider micro-research projects in addition to huge survey efforts. Pulse polls on social media, quick email surveys of donors or volunteers, capturing feedback shared during phone outreach. All of this counts (in my book at least), because someone your institution cares to engaged has shared their thoughts. Scientific? No. But does it both help you gather information AND send a signal that you care to listen? Sure does.

As we have all shifted to this new (ab)normal, some have stepped forward and solved for the research gap. SimpsonScarborough’s National Student Survey of Higher Ed & COVID-19 provided an early snapshot of how students and families were thinking. Bringing research like this to the decision-making table adds tremendous value.

> Reading the room

From website analytics to volunteerism and giving trends, those who respond positively to your calls to action – and those who don’t – are sending you a message. Are you hearing them or are you just tallying “heads” toward a goal (e.g. annual giving donor count, applicants, etc.)?

Now that essentially all programming and communication has moved online, are you seeing different people on your screen? Perhaps some alumni who never come to events are taking the time to join a Zoom call with your faculty experts on COVID-19, or a session with your admission staff talking about their counsel to current high school students. Take note, acknowledge them, thank them, invite them to come back. Start a new conversation with them, now that you’ve seen what resonates.

> Social listening

As media go, social is perhaps the primary victim of GIOT (Get It Out There) syndrome.

To many, social media accounts are rapid-fire content machines designed to hit as many people as possible with a story or piece of news… and maybe even go viral in the process. [eyeroll] A scan of Twitter on any given day will prove this point.

Social media has incredible value as a listening tool, but we have to take the time to listen well. The Campus Sonar team and their blog have emerged as a communications hero as institutions have struggled to get a read on the market. They are a team designed to help clients listen thoughtfully and build relationships. Listening to build authentic relationships. Sounds like good marketing to me.

> Listening and Remembering

For your listening efforts to have the greatest impact, they need structure. You need systems – and people managing them – to capture what you are hearing through research, through tracking response, and through social listening, media monitoring, and other efforts. To put it simply, you need a way to remember, to process and internalize what you’ve heard. What you learn has to be applied to the individual conversations (so you can follow up appropriately), and to the overall strategy.

Sound complex? It is, and that is why we need the Chief Marketing Officer. Not just to send the message out more broadly, but to build the organization and discipline around listening and talking.


The Listener in Chief

Marketing and engagement require a commitment to listening, to a genuine interest in the perspectives of others, and to a commitment to building the future together.

The institution should take the lead in blazing the path forward, but it must be clear that your constituents are valued partners, not just followers.

Listening is hard. It takes time – time to sit quietly as others are invited into the conversation and time to reflect on what’s been heard. And it requires a sense of vulnerability. Some may perceive saying, “We need you” as a sign of weakness, when it actually demonstrates confidence and sense that the work ahead is so important and urgent that it will require shared effort.

We have to be tuned into what our constituents, our markets are saying, what they need, to be responsive. Doing this well requires true commitment from leadership down, and the Chief Marketing Officer and the team this role leads are essential this effort.