Search Listening™ – A hugely underrated way to generate audience insight

There’s a ton of different ways we generate audience insight, right? From focus groups, to surveys, to social listening and beyond; there’s plenty of data to be had, online and offline, about the people we (or our clients) are looking to connect with. But there’s one source that I use on a weekly basis, that doesn’t get talked about a whole lot within the industry. And that’s search data.


The problem is that search data is synonymous with keyword research (which does get talked about plenty); the process of generating a huge keyword list of relatively generic phrases and applying volumes based on the search behaviour of the masses. But that’s just one, very SEO-focused application of search data. Search listening is a whole other application.


I’m calling it Search Listening™ with the assumption that you’re familiar with social listening; a fairly common practice for insight people. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, then Google’s current Answer Box when you search ‘what is social listening’ is pretty accurate:



I’d add to the above that, with social listening, the digital conversations you observe are only those happening on social media. So, it excludes the hundreds of thousands of conversations we, as consumers, have with Google every day. We literally treat it like a trusted friend, asking it questions, like:


  • Is it ok to wear white to a wedding?
  • Why does my elbow hurt?
  • How do you make pancakes?


I’ll bet you’ve spoken to Google in that human way at some point this past week, too. You might even have asked it something more personal to you; something you wouldn’t shout about on social media but are happy to type into Google’s anonymous white box, or to ask your phone or smart speaker. Something like ‘how do you ask a girl out?’ or ‘am I depressed?’.


That’s why Search Listening™ is just as valuable a research method as ‘social listening’ or any other method. There’s so much soul-baring data available to explore and it tells us marketers so much about the people we’re trying to reach; their hopes, dreams, fears and needs. Understanding search behaviour is useful way beyond SEO – but, for me, not enough marketers know that.


This really struck me following a trip to London last week, for Unbound’s 2018 conference. Billed as ‘a celebration of innovation’ and ‘the bridge between business and the world’s digital and technological pioneers’, the speaker line-up included Martha Lane Fox (who I am completely in awe of; I often have a fuzzy brain working just one job while she’s on the board at Twitter and Chanel, sits in the House of Lords, advises the government on security and runs charity, Doteveryone), as well as representatives from some big name brands like Johnson & Johnson, Vodafone, the BBC, IKEA, Nando’s, Expedia, Birchbox and more. Seriously, I could go on; the line-up was impressive. The format was great too, with lots of engaging panels hosted by interesting personalities. It meant that we got to hear about a wide range of experiences and perspectives.


One of the most interesting panel sessions was titled ‘How Customer Insights Inform Product Development’. The blurb went like this:


There is more data on consumers than ever but are brands utilising that effectively to inform their product development? With sophisticated developments in analytics, this panel asks how companies are leveraging consumer insights to create the most relevant products and fulfil their customer needs and invoke brand loyalty.


It was hosted by Georgina Wilson-Powell, Journalist and Editor of Pebble, and featured: Caroline Harding-Gelbard, VP Consumer Insights at Paperless Post, Dave Wascha, Chief Product Officer at Photobox Group, Janis Thomas, Marketing Director at Birchbox, Mai Fenton, VP of Marketing at UNiDAYS and Seb Hochmuth, Head of Product at Treatwell.


And the session delivered.


We heard how Janis painstakingly goes through individual survey responses from Birchbox’s customers on a quarterly basis; taking note of what women want from the brand on a one-by-one basis and using them to add colour and human stories to what she and her colleagues learn from other data sets. It’s this approach that enables her to find incredible stories like a zookeeper who uses their empty Birchboxes to create a stimulating habitat for meerkats!


We heard how Dave ensures that as a business, Photobox looks at the emotional drivers behind purchases and feedback as well as the rational ones. Dave gave a fantastic illustration of this with a story about how one of the most common reasons people to get in touch with customer services is to check that their card reached its recipient (despite Photobox not being able to track this; the cards are delivered without tracking, by Royal Mail – as stated when someone makes a purchase). A rational solution would have been to install a tracking system, but what he and his team learned after reading into customer behaviour (rather than unquestionably taking their feedback), was that they didn’t want to know it had arrived; they actually wanted thanks from their friend or family member! This has led to the business looking at solutions to help card recipients thank the giver.


One phrase which got mentioned during the panel session was Henry Ford’s assertion:


“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”


Echoing that sentiment, on numerous occasions the panel praised observed behaviour and the insight you can gleam from it. It’s true that people don’t often know what they want and so asking them doesn’t often give you reliable data or actionable insights.


Seb from Treatwell gave another real-world example of this, talking about how they’d made a change to the way customers could book multiple services within their app, following customer feedback, but then seeing a tiny percent of users actually book multiple services in that way once the change had been made.


So, largely, according to the panel, ‘observed’ data trumps ‘requested’ data (i.e. surveys, focus groups, etc.). And I’d agree with this. But while the panel covered social listening, analytics analysis and customer service observations, there was still no mention of search behaviour as a data source for consumer insight. And I think they’re missing a trick.


I’ve recently published an e-book, Consumer Insight in the Age of Google, which teaches you this very skill; how to extract audience insight from search behaviour. Ultimately, it’s down to not getting hung up on search volumes (sorry old-school SEOs!) and, instead, recognising that when it tries to auto-complete your search, Google is surfacing a whole load of long-tail search queries, based on what other people typically search for when starting their search in the same way. It’s consumer insight gold dust. More on that in the book – it’ll give you more guidance around hacks that help you get to insight around specific customer scenarios, like seeking advice and making purchases.


Sales pitch aside, please, if your job involves gathering audience data – no matter how you go on to use it – consider search data as a source and have a go at Search Listening™. You don’t know what you’re missing!