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Active Listening on the Social Web

  |  July 16, 2009   |  Comments

Businesses must do more than listen to consumers online. Here are four steps to take.

There are only a handful of things I remember about ninth grade algebra, and most of them are interesting things I saw while staring out the window.

One of the few things I actually retained was the phrase "necessary but not sufficient." It's a concept that's been on my mind recently as I've been observing the emphasis that brands and agencies have begun to place on listening exercises that scan the social Web.

Listening is just like...well, whatever math thing the expression has to do with: it's necessary, but not sufficient.

We all know that empowered, connected consumers have tremendous influence, and listening is certainly a great way to arrive at a real-time understanding of their wants, needs, and opinions.

But listening on its own is useless.

If a brand's ultimate goal is not just to know more but to actually have a positive impact on its relationships with consumers, that can only be accomplished by demonstrating through its actions that it's been listening.

In other words, the only thing that really matters is what you do after you've listened. Problem is, there are a lot of engagements underway that begin and end with listening.

That's because listening provides brands with a safe introduction into the social world. It feels like a controllable way to dip a toe in the water. Unless listening is turned into action, these exercises become the last thing anyone needs: another monthly meeting to review a deck.

So here are some suggestions to consider for developing an active approach to listening, one that makes listening both necessary and sufficient.

Don't Sign Off on a Listening Program

Only approve programs that have a clear and action-oriented business building strategy, and that happen to rely on listening as an input.

Acknowledge What You've Heard

Once you've launched a listening exercise, take advantage of one of the classic pieces of advice in interpersonal communication: the old "what I heard you say..." trick.

It's an effective technique because people appreciate being listened to, but don't know if they've been heard unless it's proven to them. If a brand just listens, but doesn't report back to its consumers on what it has heard, it gets no credit for the effort.

This could be a good way to put Twitter to use, since so many brands are there. One of the frustrations with following a brand is observing the de-contextualized tweets flying around.

If you're there to listen and learn and help customers, make sure you share. For example, "Just DM'd [direct messaged] with a customer who found our installation process confusing. Click here for the suggestions I gave him to make it easier."

Another underutilized way to acknowledge what you've heard is to leave comments on articles and blog posts. The listening report will identify the key discussions that impact your brand and where they're happening.

So go to those discussions, and leave a comment that helps readers understand that you're aware of the conversation and are considering the opinions being shared.

Share Internally

The decks that come out of listening exercises are thick. They have dashboards that look like an airplane cockpit noting the ups and downs of consumer sentiment. They have long passages with verbatims that help bring the consumer voice to life. And they are usually seen by only a few people in an organization.

Distribute the listening reports. To everyone in your organization. Let them know the reports represent a window into what consumers care most about, and challenge them to come up with business solutions addressing what you've heard.

Which brings me to my last suggestion...

Adopt Listening-Based Innovation

Set a goal to develop one new product or service per year based on what you've learned by listening. Make it a contest in your organization, open to everyone (since they'll be seeing the listening reports).

Call them LBIs, which is a catchy acronym. The point is, make a commitment that listening to consumers is going to lead to changes in the way you do business.

If you aren't prepared to make that commitment, why bother listening in the first place?

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Adam Cahill

Adam Cahill is the EVP, Media at Hill Holliday. You can connect with him on Twitter at @adamcahill.

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