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Intentional Listening: The Foundation
of Social Media Marketing

By Eric Fletcher
Chief Marketing Officer at McGlinchey Stafford

If you interact with a significant other, neighbors, team members, or co-workers, no one needs to tell you that listening is critical to almost any relationship. Since social media marketing is all about relationships, there's been plenty of talk about how closely the two are linked to best practices in social media circles.

What is easy to overlook is the fact that all listening is not equal. Query your favorite Internet search engine for "types of listening," and you'll find plenty of content on discriminating (I-get-to-pick-and-choose), passive (I'm-not-really-engaged), and a handful of other labels that seem like attempts to quantify the fact that sometimes we listen; often we fake it.

It isn't difficult to make a case for discriminating listening in selected situations. It's almost impossible to find a market segment that isn't flooded with messages, each making as big a splash as possible in pursuit of mindshare. The art of communication often seems to have inexorably linked to the metrics of media buys, production costs, and decibels. The result can be deafening (survive the latest election season in the U.S.?).

And with all the talk about the subject, one can't help wondering whether marketers are listening.

An Opportunity to Reinvent

Few will admit it, but the proof is in the execution of strategies. Most of the strategies indicate that social media is viewed as another channel, put in play to convey a carefully produced and (theoretically, at least) finely tuned message to the masses. Follow this course, and we ignore at least two things central to social media's popularity:

  • At its best, social platforms build around interaction and community.
  • Social platforms afford everyone a voice.

Like it or not (and many struggle mightily with this), social media invites us to return to the basic building block of communication: the dynamism of shared experiences. This is the inevitable byproduct of interaction, participation, and collaboration. But it does not begin with messaging. The dynamics that result when connection is made through shared experiences demands more than our conventional approach to listening.

Enter "intentional listening:" listening by design, with purpose, and with ears wide open. This is the opportunity and potential of social media. And though the irony of talking about it this much is not lost, here is fodder for what can hopefully be an ongoing discussion around one of the most critical practices in social media.

Five Keys to Intentional Listening

  • First, begin by asking "to whom should we be listening?" as opposed to "what should we be saying?" Somewhere in the course of the media age, we have come to equate the best communication with the art of message creation and delivery. And though this is not to say that the quality of messaging is not critical, it is to suggest that perhaps we have placed the proverbial cart before the horse. The most successful marketing always begins with target identification.
  • Second, take note (scrupulously) of what your target audience cares about. Review tweet streams, examine past posts, and browse lists of friends and followers. This listening will yield some of the best marketing intelligence available—a glimpse into what your market values and invests in.
  • Third, build on shared experiences. Listen carefully, and your market will tell you exactly what it takes to connect. Build your connection strategy around shared experiences, interests, values, and common needs. (If you are unable to identify this point of connection, return to the first key.)
  • Fourth, remember the arithmetic. Listen more than you talk—at minimum, two times more. Practically speaking, retweet more than you tweet your own message, and ask questions that promote conversations around what your target market values. If the only time you seek interaction or feedback is when you want to precipitate action on your behalf, your arithmetic is wrong. Intentional listening is about what it takes to build relationships. It is not about exploiting a podium or pulpit. In short, give more than you expect to receive.
  • And fifth, help build. Community is the lifeblood of social media. Help build it, and with deference to the better mousetraps that might come along, your market will beat a path to your door. Build connections. Invest more time in a cause, event, or idea that is important to your market than you do in asking targets to join your cause, and you're on the road to relationships based on shared experiences. And there is dynamism in there.

This is the challenge for social media strategists: do we view this evolving arena as a message delivery media, or do we see it for what it is—a way to invest in intentional listening. The former squanders the potential, turning social media presence into little more than a firestorm of sound bites, slogans, and clichés.

Implement the best practice of intentional listening, and you'll be on the road to shared experiences, valued collaboration, relationships that endure... and yes, loyal friends, fans, clients, and customers.

Eric Fletcher

Eric Fletcher is the CMO at McGlinchey Stafford, a national business law firm. With 200 attorneys operating from eight offices across the U.S., he is responsible for all aspects of marketing communications and business development for the firm nationwide. With more than 30 years in marketing and communications, Eric has produced successful radio and television programming; served as a partner and creative director with an award-winning advertising, marketing, and public relations firm; and counseled a number of the leading professional service organizations in America. Eric is a member of The Social CMO, an informal consortium of several individuals who have embraced social media and the opportunity it represents for advertising, PR, sales, and marketing.