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It's important to know your customers. But it's just as important to know and understand your competitors' customers.
Social media is the new soapbox. Anyone who's ever had an unsatisfied customer turn to Twitter or Facebook to rant about bad service, faulty products, or any other malfeasance (whether bogus or bona fide) knows what I'm talking about. These popular platforms are like a megaphone, amplifying every critique levied against your company. I've personally tweeted about poor customer service at least a dozen times, sometimes seeking resolution, other times just letting off steam. Regardless, the use of social media for the public airing of grievances has generally been perceived as empowering for consumers and potentially dangerous for brands – unless you choose to capitalize on those complaints.

Whether or not your company has embraced social media and established a robust presence on a given platform, you should be utilizing this tool to listen in on not only what consumers are saying about you, but also what they're saying about your competitors – especially at trade shows, when all you have to do is follow the event's official hashtag to gain entrée into the conversation.

A few years ago, I sent a tweet about an exhibit for a particular brand of beef jerky. I don't recall what my beef was with the booth in question, but I do remember that a company called Perky Jerky responded and suggested I try its product. I had never heard of Perky Jerky before, and the company wasn't even exhibiting at the show, but when I saw the product at a Home Depot a while later, I remembered the exchange and made the purchase. Now I'm a loyal customer.

Similarly, during the International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, I sent a tweet complaining about an uber-disappointing Uber experience. Within minutes, BMW responded, offering a complimentary ride in one of its new models any time (and to anywhere) during the run of the event. I took the company up on its offer, and a BMW salesman picked me up and drove me between two of the show's venues, all the while conversing about the car's features. I don't cover the auto industry, but I tweeted several times about the experience and the impressive automobile.

As marketers, it's important to know your customers inside and out. But it's just as important to know and understand your competitors' customers. At the very least, knowing what they rave and rant about helps you to better position your brands. Simply following the show's official hashtag gives you intimate insight into attendees' wants, needs, and opinions. Listen, learn, and engage when an opportunity presents itself. If top prospects tweet about your competitor's products, respond and invite them to come to your booth. And if press reps are tweeting links to stories about the show, reach out and encourage them to meet with your CEO and discuss your company's newest offerings. It's not rocket science, but it can be a remarkably effective strategy.

Much has been written about how brands should be using social media to incite dialogue, rather than using it as a content-distribution vehicle. And while I agree, I think most brands go about it in the wrong way. According to a study from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, only 1 percent of consumers engage in conversations with the brands they follow on Facebook. And Simon Dumenco, a columnist for Advertising Age, writes that most social-media engagements between companies and consumers consist of the latter simply liking or retweeting content, not bantering back and forth. In fact, he calls the "utopian notion of two-way conversations" on social media "impractical and unscalable." But if brands spend less time trying to initiate conversations and a little more time listening to existing ones, they'll likely be more effective at inserting themselves into the dialogue. E


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