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 True engagement means committing yourself to a deeper understanding of your communities – discarding outdated assumptions, re-learning basic drivers of perception and behavior (and identifying possible disruptions), knowing who is doing the talking and where their head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.

From Branded Content Publishing to Networks (Madonna vs. Lady Gaga)

A written narrative of my #NextLevel Hawaii Keynote…

Issues Day - St. Mary's Hall Empty Theater

There’s nothing worse than performing before an empty venue. Yet isn’t that what most nonprofits and companies do on the social web?

The rush to play with new tools in this scary Brave New World has been the focus. We’ve seen the many, many successes, and yet organizations find they rarely succeed.

Then they blame the media forms. You can hear them now, “FourSquare, Facebook, Twitter, Gowalla, YouTube or blogs [take your pick] don’t work! And don’t even start with the Augmented Reality conversation! This isn’t what was promised in the New York Times. We were told this was where people met!”

World of Coca Cola Party

The truth of the matter is simple: Companies and nonprofits alike are hitting a real wall with social media. They’ve established their beachheads. They’ve built their Facebook and Twitter and X accounts. They might have even gotten a few thousand followers. But the results have been lackluster for most.

These are the things I hear when I talk with the disenchanted, “Click throughs are minimal. There are no tangible leads, donations or sales. No one follows us.”

When I look at their social outposts, the reason why is invariably obvious: Organizations don’t talk with people!!! Instead they play with their social media tools like they were press releases. They content publish like social media was a PR feed, controlling the message and trying to look good. That’s not what social media enables.

Social is about conversations within a larger ecosystem. And big business has come to play, yet when companies and nonprofits have done so they have rebelled. Executives and communicators alike don’t want to invest the time to be successful or allow for uncontrolled conversations.

Organizations insist on publishing hard pitches to deliver ROI. And brand control is of the ultimate essence. While this can happen (ROI and branding, not control) in social media, these objectives are all by-products of building a networked community through long term, sustainable relationships that are nurtured with real conversations! Social media is still organic!

So what’s an organization to do? Stop content publishing, stop pushing your spiel. Start talking, practice the law of natural attraction, bring your network to you by becoming part of the larger ecosystem. It’s what Dell and LiveStrong and so many other successes have done.

When you let go of the postured brand control methods of mass media communications, and become a contributing part of ecosystems, things start to happen. You see organizations entrenched within larger conversations. People start paying attention, and a community starts to take hold.

Issues Day - Theater

This kind of thinking — that your nonprofit or company is part of something bigger — is a huge breakthrough for most executives and communicators. Manish Mehta, Vice President of Community at Dell, likened it to Nicolas Copernicus’ 16th century breakthrough that displaced the Earth as the Center of the Universe.

When nonprofits and companies get over themselves and all of their contrived communications — like an awkward young adult finding themselves — they are able to focus on the big picture, and participate online in meaningful ways. They can add social to their larger communications mix as a real means to begin conversations with stakeholders. Whether that’s for fundraising/sales, community relations/customer service or volunteers/community loyalty, it really can happen on the social web.

Madonna vs. Lady Gaga

Let’s analyze a couple of stars that all of us can identify with… Madonna and Lady Gaga. The storied brand and the networked phenomena.

Madonna is an unmatched branding genius. She is able to transform and reinvent herself decade after decade and stay relevant. Her 2008 album Hard Candy was a #1 bestseller, the seventh of her 27 year career.

Yet Madonna is not a huge social media success. The branding doesn’t translate. Why? I think you need go no further than her community page, which reads: “Please note that posting Madonna unreleased material (including photos, audio and video) to your profile is not allowed. Doing so could result in the immediate termination of your membership with Icon.”

Madonna is in control, Madonna is messaging at you. And her image is complete, her content quality secure. And no one really wants to talk about her in conversational media forms, and given how she has controlled her community, is it any wonder? Prince has made similar strategic errors on the social web.

The there’s the current phenom, Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga plays the networked game, encouraging her Little Monsters in real dialogue on Twitter and elsewhere. She empowers them too, letting them take her content and repurpose it anyway they want to. Recording at a show? Post it online, no problem ( a la the Grateful Dead’s long-time community embracement). She has done everything in the face of the recording industry’s usual command and control approaches to marketing artists.

As Jackie Huba’s fantastic case study points out, Lady Gaga has built a magnificent global network of Little Monsters. Summarizing Jackie’s post in bullets, Lady Gaga has done that methodically:



    1) She gave her fans a name

    2) Lady Gaga made Little Monsters bigger than her, creating a larger ecosystem

    3) There are shared symnbols, and content, too.

    4) She makes her customers feel like they are rock stars, too (Chris Brogan is also a master at this)

    5) And lastly (note lastly) she has used social media tools to achieve these networked community objectives

Both artists are brilliant writers. They both get the stark, wild sexy imagery that captivates us all. I think it’s fair to say that while Lady Gaga doesn’t have the brand track record of Madonna, she understands branding very well.

Yet only one owns the most viewed YouTube video in history, quickly approaching 200 million views: Lady Gaga. Is it any wonder that her first six singles, good or bad, like them or hate them, have gone straight to #1? Lady Gaga has transcended 20th century marketing to become the ultimate brand of the 21st century.

Issues Day  - St. Mary's Hall Packed House

I think you get the point. Getting a packed room to listen within social channels requires a networked approach, an ecosystem ethos that caters to your community. It’s not just a flash flood either. It takes consistency, a commitment to keep delivering a larger conversational experience over time.

Unlike Madonna or other command and control organizations, it’s about making it easy for people to embrace the brand and run with it. Keep finding ways to enthrall your community, starting with the most important influencers who are the trusted voices in the community all the way down to the lurker who bookmarks content religiously.

We all have to deliver return on investment in some fashion. Measurement remains crucial. But remember, campaigns end while networks live on. When your community doesn’t respond, don’t pound home your sales message. Find out why. Look at your conversation (is it compelling and ecosystem centric?), your calls-to-action, your integration into other marketing channels. Because the problem — and the answer — is not the network, and it’s not the social media tool of choice.