What Do Lady Gaga, Ted Branson, Lululemon, Know About Listening?

In a webex sponsored by uberVU a few weeks ago, Lady Gaga’s social media expert Jaunique Sealey announced that “listening is innovation”.

Virgin founder Ted Branson advises new business owners to listen more than they talk in a LinkedIn blog. “Brilliant ideas can spring from the most unlikely places,” says the omnipreneur. “So you should always keep your ears open for some shrewd advice.” Branson advises everyone to follow online comments, ask the frontline staff for their opinions, and get out there, listen to people, draw people out and learn from them.

Lululemon ceo Christine Day does not do formal market research. Instead, she walks into stores and listens in on what her customers are saying on the salesfloor and in the dressing rooms. Lululemon staff are trained keep an open ear on customer comments as they try on Lulugear.

Wall Street analysts point to Day’s unique ear as a key reason why the yogawear company is able to keep inventory low and sell at label prices rather than at discount.

Keeping the listening tubes open has always been a good idea. Never more so than today, when social media lets us hear what people are saying quantitatively across time, geographies, and context.

But despite the fact that we’re hearing the What, When, and Where, the next step in listening is knowing the Why?

Last year Rod Swanson, senior director, brand integration at Electronic Arts took a step closer when he volunteered to go to a homeless shelter last year. But instead of standing behind the serving table, he actually stood in the food line and sat with homeless persons. Stepping across the line from service to participation helped Swanson actually hear how homeless persons live on the street.

Paul Polak, author of Out Of Poverty, also mixed with homeless persons in his hometown Denver while conducting his own research. (Polak advises that his first, second and third methods of research are to talk to people.) After spending a day walking the streets of Denver with a homeless man he named “Joe”, Polak uncovered that homeless persons in the Denver area actually represent a million-dollar market in locker rentals, cigarettes, and consumables.

Needless to say, this is a fresh new perspective on the homeless.

Listening is innovation because it provides a bottom-up look at what’s really happening at the consumer level. Rather than top-down thinking that leads us to make what we make because we can make it, it reveals the white spaces and blue oceans that surround us.

A report this week from AOL and advertising agency BBDO provides a fresh birth perspective on the mobile space and what people do with their smartphones. The study, conducted by research firm InsightsNow, combined qualitative, quantitative and ethnographic methods, and tracked user behavior and clickstreams in the US, across mobile web, apps, and other mobile services.

Which means all the listening tubes were open.

One of the key findings is the stunning fact that well over half of all mobile interactions occur in the home, not on the street. That means that people are using their mobile devices on their couches.

Segmenting the mobile bucket into groups, the report reveals that while many are finishing up office work or doing research for future tasks (what movie, which restaurant), nearly half of smartphone users (46%) engage in what the researchers label as “Me Time”, averaging 864 minutes (14.4 hours) per month per user.

What’s important (and innovative) about this, is that the majority of marketing messages during “me time” are irrelevant or, worse, annoying. This encourages content to become me-based, home-based, entertainment-based, not solely geo-location based.

As Christian Kugel, VP, Consumer Analytics and Research at AOL reports,  “Many in the [advertising] industry tend to focus their messaging on the nature of the devices consumers are using, as opposed to the mindset they are in when using the device.”

With smartphones having recently outpaced laptops in volume sales, Mobile is no longer an adjunct or spinoff for online laptop-oriented efforts. Just as laptops usurped desktops, Mobile is becoming the primary all-in-one (TV, gaming, txting, et al.) communication device.

This new mobility gives us license to create new and better apps and advertising best-suited to smartphone pixels. Nowhere is this better visualized right now than the mobile site for Chicago design group Studio Blue. Their site creates a wholly new dimension rarely seen even on the computer big screen. Wow yourself.

For another peek into the future, check out the Sealy app already cited this year.

In related news, another recent study of over 1000 consumer electronics users discovered that over a third of consumers did not know how to use the functionality encased in their electronics products—this includes those geeky early adopters. Which makes us wonder why consumer electronics manufacturers are steadfast in cramming in all that functionality? Sounds like an opportunity somewhere.

Finally, Procter & Gamble has its ears-to-the-ground “Tide Newsdesk” that responds in real-time to social media chatter. Their effort recently took advantage of NASCAR workers using Tide to clean up a fuel spill at a race, which resulted in 350 million impressions to consumers who ordinarily might not be thinking about Tide.

There’s an old saying, something to the effect that we first see with our ears. Keep listening and you might spot the future coming at you.