Listening Is Key, But Don’t Forget Your Research

by Heidi Sullivan

Stage actors have an old, if somewhat crude, joke. When they read a script it looks something like this: “BS BS BS BS … I enter … BS BS … My line … BS BS BS … Another line … BS BS … My last line … annnnnnnnnnnnd exit.”

Actor with Script
Image purchased from iStockPhoto

As Geoff discussed here three weeks ago, whatever your influencer engagement strategy may be – Direct Community Interaction with Stakeholders, Top Down Influence, Flanking, or Creating a Groundswell – you need to first “read the tea leaves” to be successful. He rightly spoke of the importance of listening prior to engagement in social media.

But, listening is just not enough; it’s too passive. And to a lot of people, engagement sounds too much like “this is when I get to talk.” Let’s rethink engagement as a process that begins long before you post a comment to someone’s blog or show your face on Twitter. It begins even before you start listening. True engagement means committing yourself to a deeper understanding of your communities – discarding outdated assumptions, re-learning basic drivers of perception and behavior (and identifying possible disruptions), knowing who is doing the talking and where their head is at, and finding the right, real voice that adds to the discourse.

Knowledge should come first. In-depth research can lead to true engagement – knowing how to listen and what to listen for. From this comes a greater intimacy with your online communities, better networking and interpersonal communication practices, and the development of social capital and trust that will be the foundation of a rewarding social media presence.

Step 1: Learning to Listen

Before you can figure out who is talking about you or your industry (or who should be talking about you!) it’s important to understand your keywords so you can identify who’s using them. Because your community might not be talking a lot about you yet, find out who’s talking about your competitors and other topics in your space in addition to your brand itself.

Whether you use an advanced social media monitoring solution or free tools to listen to conversations, it’s important to assess the breadth of the communities you’re monitoring. Search across outposts to discover communities, trends and types of interactions in your space in addition to benchmarking your success within your community. Which blogs are receiving comments and tweets? Who is answering Q&As on LinkedIn? Are there any Web 1.0 communities (like Yahoo! Groups) in your space that are particularly active?

As you dig into the content you identify through monitoring, you’ll start to discover the content producers (whether it be through Twitter, a blog, traditional media or another social platform) who are mentioned most frequently, get the most comments and responses, and are producing content that is being shared by others.

Those producers are the building blocks of your stakeholder list. Quite simply, these digital influencers are as unique as snowflakes, and their influence can be felt in very different ways. By measuring across multiple outposts, you can begin to identify patterns of influence.

Step 2: Deep Dive and Discovery

Then, dig a little deeper: go beyond listening to truly understand your influencers, stakeholders and communities. Read all the blog posts, industry news and general community interaction to familiarize yourself with breaking trends, shifting perceptions and tastes, and begin to understand each individual influencer in your community.

Really “knowing your stuff” will put you ahead of the game just by showing that you are aware of what people are interested in – both personally and professionally. Getting to know the stakeholders in your space are simply the fundamentals of solid business networking – with a social media twist.

Analyze what you’ve discovered to develop a solid strategy before diving in. Identify business objectives and establish benchmarks – these will help you in the future when talking to the C-Suite about the benefits and ROI of your program.

Step 3: Authentic Engagement

The cornerstone of engagement is establishing community trust: You can blind copy dozens of journalists on a canned pitch and be dubbed a “spammer” or you can take your initial discoveries and create story ideas, guest posts, tips, breaking news, etc. that intrigue each stakeholder in your community. Guess which one will garner better results?

Ensure that your community interaction is exactly that – interacting as a member of the community and not just pushing your own content. Read blog posts and leave comments, send a related tweet to join the conversation, watch others’ posts on Facebook and LinkedIn. Think of it as digital karma – what you contribute to the community will be returned in kind.

Lastly, remember to maintain relationships that you’ve built. Engagement is not an in-and-out concept – even after you develop a great relationship or contribute great content, you must nurture the relationship to maintain the trust you’ve developed.

And as for that theatre joke, only the “hams” believe things like that. Great actors through the years, from Spencer Tracy to Meryl Streep, have said the same thing: “Acting is listening, truly listening.”

Heidi Sullivan (@hksully) is Vice President of Media Research for Cision North America and a self-proclaimed social media metrics nerd. Heidi was formerly an editorial manager for a firm that produced regional business magazines, an account executive at a PR agency and an editor and media researcher for a major newswire service. She is a host of the popular Cision Social Media Webinar Series, a blogger for Cision Blog and frequently speaks at industry conferences and events on best practices in social media, public relations and the changing media landscape.

  • Critical points Heidi. Loved this: “And to a lot of people, engagement sounds too much like “this is when I get to talk.” Let’s rethink engagement as a process that begins long before you post a comment to someone’s blog or show your face on Twitter.” The whole paragraph, really.

    Perhaps we should be thinking “engagement is when I get to help.” Or share resources. Or to paraphrase Geoff “like we’re a community or something.”

    • Thanks! I love “engagement is when I get to help!”

  • It is ironic really that what we are talking about here is considered innovative and disruptive, but it really is. It is not only innovative in the online space, but in the offline space as well. In my industry (real estate) a hands on, life-long relationship approach to our business is borderline heretical. Whether online or offline the folks who have embraced the mindset you are unwrapping here have been finding, and are continuing to find great success.

    Thank you for taking the time to post, Heidi.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head, Colin. Building relationships has always been key to business success, but oddly is a rarity these days.

  • Brilliant points, Heidi. There are various layers of listening , of which an organization should pass through and learn all as their social media presence matures. Listening via social channels cannot happen in a silo, though…during the deep dive and discovery phase it is crucial to connect the dots of the offline relationship, so there is a 360 view of the person. Listening to their point of need is not enough. To build the relationship you need to know all the touch-points they and their inner circle have experienced. Excellent post for those looking for education before diving into the social media deep end.

    • Great point, Lauren! Every stakeholder/influencer is so complex in their relationship and engagement – both online and off… I love the idea of doing an “Influencer 360” to truly build relationships.

      • Influencer 360 is definitely a smart call, Lauren. Finding different touchpoints to build the relationship is key. And really, these relationships are something we can tout in conversations with potential clients.

        You can’t flip a switch and build a social media presence. Have to follow the steps you outlined, Heidi, to find a starting point and formulate your strategy. And you can’t flip a switch and build relationships either. That’s why they are a currency in our business now more than ever (even though I hate calling them a currency, because it feels like it cheapens them).