The Art of Active Listening

  |  November 18, 2009   |  Comments

How to use social search tools to listen to conversations and then participate.

Active listening is a method of paying attention and responding to another person, which improves each person's mutual understanding of the conversation at hand. Often, when people talk to each other, they don't really listen attentively to what the other person is saying. They're often distracted -- half listening and half thinking about something else.

Yet, when people are actively engaged in a conversation, they're frequently responsive to what is being said. Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding, that inherently focuses the attention on the speaker. The listener must take care to attend to the speaker fully, and often must repeat, in the listener's own words, what she thinks the speaker has said.

This is exactly what happens when someone retweets someone else's tweet. The listener doesn't have to agree with the speaker -- she simply restates what they think the speaker said -- in 140 characters or less. This enables the speaker to find out whether the listener really understood the message in the first place. If the listener didn't, the speaker can explain some facet of the conversation in greater detail. For Twitter, this could be in the form of a direct message.

Social media venues provide us with many ways to chat. But the question is if anyone is listening? There are some pretty quick ways to find out if you need to be part of the conversation when your brand or online business is already the focus of the conversation. But first, you have to listen.

By using a free tool like, BlogPulse, or Google Blog Search, you can quickly get some ideas about social media mentions of just about anything. For example, from Quarkbase we can see that ClickZ is fairly bookmarked, what's been dug on Digg, is often blogged about, and has an active Twitter stream, among other details:

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By using some of the social search tools that are available, you can quickly discover where to start listening to different conversations, as well as consider the possibilities that some of these destinations could directly impact your link-building efforts.

When online companies consider developing a social media strategy, embracing active listening is a great place to start. Simple alerting tools, like Google Alerts and feed readers, make it easy to listen in on social conversations. It's equally easy to follow brand related tweets in Twitter search and aggregate feeds into Netvibes or iGoogle, as a way to keep your different listening sources organized.

If you find that you're overwhelmed monitoring multitudes of minute conversations, you can always use a social clip service of sorts, such as Radian6, BuzzMetrics, or Cymfony, among others. In order to actively listen to pertinent conversations about your business, sometimes listening platforms that provide reporting capabilities about brands or specific product-related keywords will make it much easier to get a handle on what is being said.

Determining how to respond to the conversations will be based on what is being said. Taken as a whole, social media conversations can also help you develop highly responsive social media campaigns, if you're really listening. The following guidelines can be applied to participating in nearly any online social network:

  • Be sincere: Sincerity is a critical element of social conversations; if you aren't able to be sincere and transparent, then social media is probably not the best medium for your business.

  • Remember it's not all about you: Social media is a conversation, which is by definition two-way. In other words, it isn't all about you, your company, your products, or your agenda. Participation involves actively listening and participating in the broader community of people. Don't just expect people to help you; jump in and help other people in areas where you have some expertise. If all you do is promote different products or services without contributing to the broader conversation, people will lose interest in listening to you pretty quickly.

  • Focus on individuals: Participation in online communities and social media should be focused on individuals, not corporate entity. For example, it's alright to have group blogs for a company, as long as posts are tied to individuals -- real living, breathing, and thinking people. You wouldn't want to have a blog where every post is authored by "Anonymous." People work at companies, but the real connections and networks happen between individuals. Show a little personality and a little bit about who you really are from a personal standpoint.

Just talking at people isn't going to cut it in this new social order where a sense of belonging is critical. If you're going to be successful in social media marketing, you and your business should be a part of the broader community of people with similar interests, both online and offline, by participating in, but not trying to control the community. If you make active listening a habit, then you will be building your social media marketing campaigns on a string foundation for effective communication.

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P.J. Fusco

P.J. Fusco has been working in the Internet industry since 1996 when she developed her first SEM service while acting as general manager for a regional ISP. She was the SEO manager for Jupitermedia and has performed as the SEM manager for an international health and beauty dot-com corporation generating more than $1 billion a year in e-commerce sales. Today, she is director for natural search for Netconcepts, a cutting-edge SEO firm with offices in Madison, WI, and Auckland, New Zealand.

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