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Too Few Companies Treat Social Marketing as a Conversation

March 28, 2016, 11:00 AM UTC

This essay originally appeared in Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. Sign up here.

It’s tough to find a marketing team that isn’t increasing their social media budget—Forrester Research (FORR) estimates spending for 2016 at $15.5 billion. But very few companies are encouraging two-way dialogues with their followers on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube. They’re too busy broadcasting their own splashy photographs, videos and other “native content.”

New research out last week from Lithium Technologies, which specializes in software running customer support communities, underscores how little companies are listening. Fewer than 2% of the 85 brands studied by Lithium consistently respond to complaints or comments posted on social media about their products or companies, while fewer than 40% are making an attempt to start conversations. (You can find Lithium’s report here; registration is required.)

Which companies are getting things at least partly right? Some of the names on Lithium’s top 10 ranking might surprise you, such as pharmaceutical giants Pfizer (PFE) and Merck (MRK). Others make lots of sense, like Sephora and Starbucks (SBUX).

Interestingly, just one business technology company is mentioned, Microsoft (MSFT). Many tech companies do a good job of broadcasting information ad nauseum but aren’t engaging deeply enough with their social communities, according to Lithium CEO Rob Tarkoff, who spoke with me about the finding last week.

“You need to be responsive across channels,” Tarkoff said. “You need to personalize the brand experience. You have to stop the historical practice of walking away.”

A great anecdotal example of why this matters was shared this week by JetBlue vice president Jamie Perry during a marketing conference hosted by The Economist. When a passenger jokingly griped about being unable to stop for coffee during a tight travel connection—something that wasn’t JetBlue’s fault—the gate personnel in the second airport ran to Starbucks for him. “We cannot control the way customers come to us,” Perry said, adding, “That guy raved about us for weeks.”

The good news is both Facebook (FB) and Twitter @twitter(TWTR) are taking steps to support customer service activities using their social platforms: both with changes to their messaging services. Apple (AAPL), for one, is taking some steps in the direction Tarkoff suggests by officially designating Twitter as an official support channel. But far more companies—notice that I’m not limiting this responsibility to marketers—need to get far better at listening to social signals rather than just blurting them out.