By Stateside Associates

For whatever reason, when hearing the words “social media,” few of us think about the need to listen. I took a very informal survey of colleagues and friends recently and found that when asked about what the term “social media” means to them, most people began by using action verbs to describe their perceptions, for example “SENDING,” “POSTING” “TARGETING” and “BLOGGING.”

Some thought of individual social media platforms and some thought of the general features of these platforms. Yet for others the big picture came to mind, including the where, when, how and why of sending a message out using various social media channels. Very few made any mention of what I consider the more passive uses of social media. I didn’t hear anyone mention listening or monitoring.

Granted, this poll was quick and far from formal. Regardless, the results were surprising. Listening really only came up in my test as an afterthought, when it should have been far more prominent a consideration when examining social media use for business purposes. Only by listening at the outset to identify the content, location and participants in digital conversations, can we have any hope of making an impact on the outcomes.

One reason to explain why nobody mentioned listening might be that listening is second nature for many of us in this line of work. As policy wonks and/or political professionals we instinctively know that things move fast and we’ve acclimated to taking it all in without stopping to think twice. Whether monitoring legislation, forecasting regulatory activity or managing policy issues, we naturally understand that our strategy is predicated on the conditions on the ground, and that those can change in an instant. We’ve adapted to this world where the “fish or cut bait” approach gets results. Listening for, and anticipating, movement is the only way to stay ahead of the curve—the very same applies when we consider social media.

We need to know where we stand before we can figure out where we want to go. In these growing digital collaborative workspaces, we have to identify the conversations that are happening so that we can dive in with the right message, in the right format and at the right time and place.

To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation.” – Chinese Proverb

Ok, enough WHY, here’s some HOW

There are plenty of advanced strategies that come into play when considering using social media to listen, but there are also some very simple steps you can take to gather some of the low-hanging fruit. Take fifteen minutes today and start to listen online or increase the effectiveness of your current online listening.

1. Signup and Login – it’s incredibly difficult to take part in the conversation without access. The good news is that admission is free on almost all social media platforms; all you’ll need in most cases is a working email address (some choose to use a secondary email address so as to distinguish social media interactions from routine business communications).

For those new to social media, this step means signing up for a few social media services. Start with a few of the most commonly used platforms, like LinkedIn and Facebook. These sites will have the most users that you want to target with your message, and will therefore be the best use of your time.

Track down a handful of users that you are already familiar with. Make the connection on these sites and build from there. Even if you’ve been using these social media platforms already, chances are there are new individuals that have signed up since your last visit that you should be connecting with.

2. Join Groups – to get the real return on the time you’re investing when you join a social media community, join groups related to your primary business interests. These groups act as forums where issues are discussed and ideas are shared between industry leaders. See what your colleagues, competitors, clients or the general public are saying about a handful of issues that you care about.

Keep your search for groups to join broad at first. When you’ve have a chance to review the results, narrow the terms to get a more targeted set of results. Once you’ve started listening to the groups on your social media account(s), branch out into more traditional web groups. Some of the most common include Yahoo and Google groups.

Whichever groups you join, you should set up email alerts so that you’ll get a notice only when new topics of discussion are introduced. That way you don’t have to remember to check back until there is new content worth reading. If it’s an especially active group consider setting up a daily or weekly digest of all of the group’s activity to keep your inbox from getting cluttered.

3. Alerts – setting up alerts from many of the major web search engines and news sites takes only a few seconds. These alerts can be set up very easily to monitor anything that includes a few words or phrases you want to monitor. There are as many specific uses for alerts as you can imagine. Some of the most common uses are: monitoring the news each morning, keeping tabs on what a competitor is saying or doing online, ensuring nothing negative about you or a staffer appears online or seeing what people are saying about a specific product.

Alerts can be tricky to fine-tune depending on the search terms used. If the terms are too broad, you’ll get thousands of results; if too narrow, you won’t get any results at all. After a week or two of seeing results, reevaluate the search terms you choose and adjust appropriately. After some adjusting you’ll begin to receive exactly what you’re looking for. As with social media group notifications, you can choose the frequency and time of the communication you receive so your inbox isn’t flooded.

Listening is especially important for any organization or individual new to the social media world. Ear-to-the-ground is one of the best positions to acclimate yourself to these communication tools and the best way to prepare to eventually participate in the discussions.

One of the most common fears that I hear frequently is that through social media people will make disparaging comments online about a company’s product, issues, brand or employees. The fact is that it is occurring constantly and unless you are listening you will not be in any position to respond. By allowing us to listen to what detractors are saying social media gives its practitioners the ability to account for that additional feedback and correct or change course before it is too late.