“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand,” wrote Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Rather, “they listen with the intent to reply.” Fitting, then, that there’s no shortage of wisdom from great thinkers about listening. Hemingway urged people to “listen completely,” and Susan Cain cautioned that we should listen twice as much as we talk—we have two ears, after all, and one mouth.
Listening, then, can be a critical way for organizations to distinguish themselves—a quiet life preserver tossed into a sea of noise. Terms like “social media monitoring” can seem cynical: Nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations don’t want to merely gather information about their audiences, but to learn from them.
“Social listening” is the process by which an organization gathers feedback from its audience, considers that feedback, and uses it to inform future action. It’s a two-way street: Effective social listening means that an organization takes in feedback with an open mind and a willingness to adapt its practices.
“Brands cannot talk to everyone in every social channel,” writes Keith Quesenberry, author of Social Media Strategy. Nor can they give equal weight to all feedback, some of which may be more valuable to an organization’s goals. Two of Quesenberry’s “back to basics” social media strategy—“listen to your target audience” and “create social media content that drives engagement”—amount to a social listening strategy. An organization that is devoted to its audience should carefully consider feedback, and respond—literally, sometimes—in a way that keeps the lines of communication open. If your audience feels heard, then it will return the courtesy.
So, to prepare for our upcoming workshop on managing online communities, we decided to help you prep your ears. Here are three reasons why social listening is essential.
1. A willingness to connect
In 2010, DELL created its “Social Media Listening Command Center,” through which dozens of employees monitor hundreds of carefully sorted social profiles. The company boasts a “98 percent resolution rate” through its “social outreach services,” and says that the process transforms one in three “ranters” to “ravers.” The command center made DELL a leader in the field of social listening, and other companies followed suit.
The Red Cross worked with DELL to develop its own social listening specialists, “to rapidly share life-saving safety and preparedness information and match up people to resources.” As part of its social listening campaign, Red Cross created a “disaster tech timeline” to remind its audience that it values feedback, and relies on it to help Red Cross launch effective campaigns.
Not every nonprofit should build the bridge. But—follow our Star Trek analogy here—a commitment to social listening reminds your audience that your organization doesn’t exist in the vacuum of space. Purpose-driven organizations meet the demonstrated needs of their audience. As those needs evolve, so should your organization’s efforts. To do that, you need to listen.
2. A more flexible organization
Dialogue happens in real time. No organization can respond to every tweet at once, but speed is still a factor in making individual members of your audience feel heard. “Rapid response engagement, understanding what issues are most important to supporters, and sentiments on issues…allow for more personalized and effective communications,” writes Jeanette Russell at Attentive.ly.
Since social listening happens in an evolving context, the best organizations will find new ways to listen to audience concerns and engage more efficiently. Before the annual State of the Union Address, Attentive.ly contacted nonprofit leaders and asked them how they would use the event as an opportunity for social listening.
Wisdom from those nonprofit leaders emphasized the two-way nature of social listening. Focusing your organization’s attention on an event like the State of the Union can enable you to attract new perspectives and validate longtime supporters. “When the President talks about paid family leave, equal pay, childcare, healthcare, and more, we’ll be ready to amplify our supporters who really care about these things—and hopefully to bring new supporters into the conversation,” one social media manager said. Another replied, “As advocacy groups live tweet the State of the Union, they should incorporate retweets from their members into their own feed. This will enrich the quality the groups’ commentary while deepening relationships with their members.”
3. A more precise campaign
A social listening strategy may feel, at first, like more work. But purpose-driven organizations and nonprofits should play the long game: Social listening will help you better serve the needs of your audience by providing you with a more precise idea of what it is your audience members need.
“Timing is everything with communications, especially on social media,” writes Rosalyn Lemieux, CEO of Attentive.ly. “Social listening takes the guesswork out of knowing when your base is fired up and ready to take action.” Rather than expend the same energy day in, day out, organizations that practice good social listening can time their work to the pulse of their audience.
“For example,” writes Lemieux, “United to End Genocide used social listening to inform their decision on when to ramp up their campaign efforts in Yemen last year. They began monitoring the conflict using social listening in Luminate Online with their Attentive.ly integration, but didn’t run any advocacy campaigns until their members gave a signal of their interest.”
Perhaps “social listening” feels intuitive, even obvious. But a careful listener never assumes the needs of his audience. Instead, he stays open, to better connect. A silent world is a perfect one, but boring. Those organizations most devoted to fulfilling their goals should always find something new to hear.