SO I post the following to twitter the other day:

new rules – RTFC – read the f’ing comments social means listening as much as talkin

… because I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about outreach. Mainly I was thinking about the pre-launch side of outreach – the seeding of the ground before a project, platform, blog, whatever goes live. Talking to people, investing in a community, listening. And I realized I was taking for granted the other side of outreach – the post-launch, maintenance, retail part of outreach where you actually live in a community, doing your thing day to day, listening to your users.

As a result of that twitter post, the awesome Britter posted on her blog Bold Words:

Dying to Listen
Participation Goes Both Ways

To play in this particular pool of creating, I think you need to develop equal skills in watching and listening. Because individuals can respond, if you fail to pay attention, they’ll take their eyeballs, ears, and minds somewhere else.

So I complain about listening, and Britt responds with a excellent post (you should read the whole thing) and then I get some data on a project of mine that blows my mind. I have a project where we spent tons of time thinking and mapping and trying to plan for how we were going to roll out blog posts and videoblogs over the next year – an editorial calendar. One of the biggest things hanging over the project was the idea “feed the beast”. We need to be able to react quickly. We need to have lots of quality stories and ideas on the site and it was going to be dynamic – we couldnt plan the whole year long program out. Feeding the Beast was always in the back of our minds.

In the first 5 days of the program, on one section of the platform we built, we created a blog-like page that had a big idea from the client at the top and then we asked the users to give us their feedback. The results were staggering. in 2-4 days we had over 230 really great comment. Thoughtful, insightful, “I want to see x y and z” and “i think the big issue you arent talking about is [issue]”. Killer stuff.

Feeding the beast? Hell, the users are giving us ideas that are as good as anything that came from one of my strategy decks or a 4 hr brainstorm. If we listened to the users, we would NEVER worry about coming up with something to say. They were helping us define the editorial calendar. We dont need to worry about shooting or writing or recording something they might like.

Today, Chris Brogan (a living, breathing machine – i have no idea how he gets it all done) wrote this great post: 5 Starter Moves- Should Blogging Go Next

I’m going to step out and say that maybe a blog ISN’T a good first choice. Why? Because I think that blogs are fairly substantial steps, and that an organization might feel really exposed if their first attempt at clearing their throat is an A Cappella moment on stage in front of thousands.

And he is right. Its a big step for a company to go from tightly managing their message and their brand to “going without a net” and walking the social media highwire. It isn’t comfortable, its not safe. But if done well, with honesty, humility, and effort, the users will appreciate it.

I left the following as a comment on his post – dont know why I didnt leave a trackback… early morning, sleepy, etc 🙂

PR guys get storytelling thru press releases, briefings, etc. Marketing guys get message management, taglines, desired brand impressions. Blogging requires them to go outside their comfort zone. It requires them (hopefully) to say less about what they want the user to hear and more about *what is happening here*. The biggest thing I find clients need to understand is they have to “feed the beast” – write good stuff, early and often.

“Why isn’t anyone commenting on my blog post?!!?” – because you keep letting the intern copy-paste press releases into your blog. Users are taking one look at this and decided it is crap. “Why isn’t anyone subscribing to my feed/visiting my blog? – my pageviews suck!” – because you announced the blog through a press release. You didn’t bother to become part of the community your company wants to have a conversation with. You don’t link to or comment on others blogs with anything of value. You are trying to reach a world that doesn’t read press releases and discovers information and stories with a very low “bullsh!t” tolerance.

A lot of clients start blogging long before they learn to listen for one reason – listening is hard work. It doesnt scale well. If you have a blog with 50-60 comments per post (after spam and dirty word filtering) that is a LOT of work to read through them and respond to each one – especially if the users are writing thoughtful comments. If you have your CEO or VP of x as the author of the blog, they are most likely writing the post on their blackberry and sending it to the web team to post, if at all. Reply to each and every one? Not gonna happen.

And when you don’t listen, you anger the users. You are “using” social media tools, but aren’t really invested in the concept or practice of social.

Companies want to jump in with both feet, and will, recognizing they may not have a handle on this whole blogging thing (the active listening side, the active storytelling side or the outreach side) – sometimes actually coming out and saying “we cant respond to all of your comments, but we do read them all”. And thats OK (for now). Its an evolution not a revolution. You have more than one chance to make a good impression, especially if you have some humility, make the effort and invest in the community you are trying to build. A company can get it wrong, dust off and try again.

The irony is, “feeding the beast”, coming up with good stories to tell isn’t very hard if you are listening. The users are telling you what interests them. They are giving you free (and incredibly valuable) advice on comment by comment basis. Real feedback, not focus group “I want to please the moderator and get my $100? nonsense. The more honest a company is with blogging, the more honest the users will be in their comments.

If companies listen, they will never need to worry about running out of things to blog or podcast or videoblog about. The users will set the editorial calendar for them. Which is actually kinda cool.

3 thoughts on “On Listening and Blogging

  1. Don Lafferty

    Maybe feeding the beast is an albatross whose time has passed. Observing Steve Baker’s discussion in prep to update his 2005 BW cover story about Blogging,, I’m inclined to think feeding the beast may be old school, albeit 2 year old school, especially in the context of the sheer volume of choice available vs. reader time budget.

    I think what we’re up against is a fork in the blogging road, where some blogs will serve as update streams of relevant global data in appropriate quantity while others, perhaps published in parallel by the same company, will serve up the chunkier, more personal bits, providing higher quality.

  2. Sean Post author

    I dont disagree with you – I think we were looking at the problem _all wrong_. I think we didnt give the users enough credit. I think we were approaching this more as a publishing effort and less like a social conversation. We wanted to have enough stories to tell to keep the user engaged and happy without planning for the users input.

    The nice thing is, we can always turn on a dime 🙂

    What I dont want to see is blogs become another outlet for press releases. The only time I care about quarterly reports is when I am researching a stock 🙂

    There is enough corporate cholesterol in the world right now and blogging is a way to get real voices into the conversation. It requires a lot of intestinal fortitude on the part of the clients to both start and support these efforts (especially when something bad happens).

    The thing is, if you dont have feedback loops in place, blogs just become another megaphone – and we have enough of those already (and I am an advertising guy saying that)

  3. Jevan Woolley

    I am suing you for stealing my phrase, Mr. Bohan. 🙂 Great post.

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