Listening, Audience Awareness Key to Social Media Success

Melvin Gaal/CC

Melvin Gaal/CC

Listening has always been a crucial skill in informal communication exchanges as well as organizational communications work, and so much of Olivier Blanchard wrote in “Social Media ROI,” resonated with me and reminded me of past experiences.

Blanchard points to “focused listening” and “situational awareness” as critical elements in the social media space for brands and organizations, and essential activities for the social media teams and community managers who represent and communicate on behalf of them. The readings brought to mind some real-world situations and experiences.

My first recollection was of the skillfully-designed “Listening Tours” Hillary Clinton initiated years back, before she was elected as New York’s U.S. Senator.  That was a convincing (if not overt and transparent) public relations initiative, supposedly undertaken before she formally decided to seek election.

These tours comprised a well-publicized, weeks-long effort showing New Yorkers that she could, and indeed would, listen to potential constituents and the media reflected the act of her listening to constituents occurring.

The tours were an effective way of providing ongoing publicity for Clinton, and I watched them with interest because I was a practitioner of political and community-oriented issues PR at the time.

Hillary’s recognition of her audience’s need to be listened to was the first “win.”It was the kind of intuitive connection that all constituencies seek, in my view.

This same human need is also the element that makes social media such an effective two-way communication channel, and so a preferred means of organizational communication today.  Social-channel communication is highly differentiated from traditional PR tactics of pushing messages (only) outbound today.

Blanchard advises that social media programs must begin by asking what the organization should be listening for, not what it should be saying (p. 128). That discovery begins by asking questions  about what might be most valuable for the organization to learn from its audiences.



This discussion reminded me of two situations with national brands where consumer feedback affected corporate decision-making at the highest levels.

A few years ago, Coca-Cola, in what seemed like an “out of the blue” internal decision, changed the formula and taste of its quintessential soft drink product. The company spent millions retooling and advertising an introduction to the “New Coke.”

It was a klinker, a #fail move.

  • Consumers didn’t like the “new” taste
  • They overwhelmingly preferred the “old Coke.”
  • Eventually, consumers won out and Coke retreated.
  • The company pulled New Coke products off the supermarket shelves and returned to production of the original product.

If social media had been a mainstream communications tool at the time, this would have constituted an epic #FAIL.

Another similar consumer reaction to brand changes that did occur within the realm of real-time, online communication shows the velocity and power of these means of communication.  When GAP stores changed the company’s logo, consumers rebelled and rejected the new look, and they did it through social channels. The forceful reaction caused the company to pull the new logo and revert to the original.  As reported on Mashable on October 10 2010 (Ben Parr):

“Gap has announced on its Facebook Page that it is scrapping its new logo design efforts, acquiescing to a torrent of criticism coming primarily from Facebook and Twitter users.”

Blanchard also talks about “situational awareness.” This is the same sort of activity that is typically called “scanning the environment” in conflict resolution practice.

In my personal experience in the public relations and public affairs department of a large and controversial organization, we routinely did on a face-to-face basis what is now possible by listening through online social channels and tools.

The upshot of Blanchard’s contentions is that companies need to have some sort of system in place to “capture, analyze and respond to situations where the organization is being mentioned” online.  An organization or brand is unable to respond to threats and opportunities, he says, “if you are not aware of them in real time.”

That’s why I agree with Blanchard that for any organization or any brand, a plan of  “listening before talking” is essential. Because as he says, “the  more you know, the more you understand about your environment, the more you can react to it and adapt to it.”



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