Listening Comes First

The following is draft material for the second edition of Now Is Gone, which is almost out of print. Comments may be used in the final edition. You can download the first drafted chapter of the new edition — Welcome to the Fifth Estate — for free.

@kanter Readies to Lead a NonProfit 2.0 Session

Ever interrupt a conversation with people you don’t know at a party and start talking right away, only to find the members leave? It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? No one likes to have their conversation interrupted, and normal conventions are to walk up, listen, introduce yourself, maybe even ask a question, and then participate after listening for a couple of minutes.

Yet isn’t that what most organizations do when they first engage on the social web? It’s almost as if places like Twitter and Facebook have turned into shouting matches featuring organizations’ latest statement, message or random fact they find important. The worst are the press releases that get posted as links for presumed readers. Then they wonder why they struggle to generate significant followings online, often making the claim that social media doesn’t work.

Many organizations are not used to listening. In a mass communications world, they’ve done most of the talking.

Social media communities present a different set of rules. Two-way communication is inherent allowing stakeholders to have equal footing with businesses and organizations. The Fifth Estate does not have to yield to business, their decision to interact with an organization is strictly on an opt-in basis. Thus failure to listen to the larger community creates situations where stakeholders either act with anger, or simply turn deaf ears on the company.

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.

The intelligence an organization gathers from listening can be likened to market research. In reality, the conversation happens with or without the organization, so your group may as well get the benefits from this form of passive monitoring.

Intelligence gathered includes but is not limited to product awareness, sensitivity towards particular social issues, motivations, trends towards product features like geolocation, etc. etc. Dynamic conversations can turn into virtual focus groups for savvy organizations that tune in. Empowered by this intelligence, organizations can create new dynamic messages (as opposed to those old boring statements) that serve as provocative conversation starters. The benefits of listening don’t stop there.

The recent Forrester Wave: Listening Platforms, Q3 2010 report showed that some social media listening platforms have evolved to the point that organizations are using them to address a variety of marketing and business functions like campaign measurement, market research, customer support, and sales enablement. Currently, according to the Forrester report the top paid platforms are Converseon, Nielsen, and Radian6. The three are leading because of the range of product functionality and ability to meet businesses’ needs beyond reactive brand tracking.

But, if you don’t have the budget there are many free tools to enable listening from basic search to tools like FollowerWonk that measure influence. Even the poorest department can allocate time to research effectively.