"Listen" means more than you may think


"Listen" is a cliché of social media—perhaps the cliché of social media. If you've been exposed to any Social Media 101 discussion, you've heard about listening. There's a reason for that: everyone who's thought about it concluded that listening is fundamental to success in social media. But what does it mean? More than you probably think.

First, listen.
Listening is a metaphor, of course. We're usually talking about reading, along with watching a little video and—maybe—some actual listening. But listen goes along with the Cluetrain-inspired conversation metaphor that's also ubiquitous in the field, so listen it is. But what do you listen for?

The obvious answer is that you listen for discussion of your company and its markets. You pay attention in case someone says something that's relevant to your business, and then you can act on it. That's where a lot of talk about listening ends.

There's more.
But listening is more than the simple gathering of facts from online sources. Listening is the beginning of social media strategy, because it's how you learn—not just facts, but the landscape. It's the continuing foundation of strategy, because it's how you detect changes in the environment. Listening is learning from the market. If you do it right, you can learn a lot.

Listen to your market
Following conversations about your market—what people are saying about your company, its products and its people—should be your first step in social media. Before you try to engage your market in social media, find out what is already happening. Then, don't stop. You need to know...

  • Who is talking about you, and who is paying attention to them? You must understand the people.

  • What are they saying (You knew this one)? Individually and collectively, what are they talking about?

  • Where do the conversations happen? Is it in blogs? Communities or social networks? Product reviews? Which sites, specifically? What are the norms on those sites? What else is happening there?

  • How do they talk about you? What's the tone of the conversation?

  • Why are they talking? Based on what you learn about the people, what motivates them? If there's a complaint, is it someone looking for help, or is it just a rant from a critic who will not be satisfied? Can you tell the difference?
These are basic questions you should be able to answer for your company. But don't stop with your company. Think about competitors, partners and customers the same way. You're listening to a vocal segment of the market; what do you want to know?

Learn the environment
Listening before speaking gives you time to learn the social media environment before you begin to participate in visible ways. During the initial information-gathering phase, take the time to develop the skills and understanding that will serve you later.

  • Learn the tools. Social media is not primarily about technology, but there are some required tools. You wouldn't expect to monitor television without a TV, and you need a basic skill level to participate online. Fortunately, it's not that hard to figure out—all you need at the beginning is your web browser.

  • Learn the rules, written and unwritten. They vary by online neighborhood, and if you want to participate, it helps to know them. Online communities can be rough on newcomers who barge in to sell; it's better to join in on their terms. Focus on the specific environments you discover when you ask where relevant conversations are happening.

  • Find the experts in your own function, and read what they say. Whether it's marketing, PR or something else, someone has put real effort into figuring out useful lessons for you.

  • Learn from the experience of others, both positive and negative. Pioneers have already tried things that might work for you, and they've certainly discovered some that won't. There's no excuse for repeating well-publicized blunders in an environment where everything is saved, discussed and searchable. If you're going to fail, at least have the creativity to discover a new way.
Rinse, repeat
I suggest a simple, Listen - Engage - Speak framework for companies getting started in social media. The steps are in chronological order, but it's not a linear progression. Once you start listening, you never stop. Everything changes, from the topic of the day to who's talking where. Even the rules change, and the only way to keep up is to pay attention.

When you think about it, that's not so different from what you've always known. It's just that so much of the activity is on the Internet, and everyone in the world can share their opinions with everyone in the world now.

And that's my version of Listening 101. From there, it gets into the management layer of social media—organization, processes, tools and practices.


Great post Nathan. A well thought out & comprehensive definition of "listening". Are you going to post about part 2 - "engage"?

I suppose I asked for that. New post in the drafts folder, right away.

Very well articulated Nathan!

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About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
  • Principal, Social Target
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