Six approaches for social media adoption – 2. listen

Listening is a much underrated skill, not just online but in the real world too (or so my mother keeps telling me when she whines on…).

In the social media space, and with all the noise going on in government about creating blogs and wikis, I think the value of using social media tools to observe the conversations taking place around us is rather overlooked.

Making use of the variety of personalised news services, blog searches, RSS feeds etc to create focused alerts around issues or initiatives could in my mind have the biggest impact on the way government develops its thinking. If all those in government who are planning social media initiatives did in the next year was help policy teams to set up well crafted and targeted news and blog alert systems, that would be a massive step change in the way we do things. Forget building blogs, wikis, social networks and the like – help them to listen.

Opening up officials’ eyes to the conversations taking place will help them to easily gain a wider perspective on what people out there are thinking and experiencing. Imagine the impact that could have.

The tools can also encourage collaborative knowledge sharing across teams and organisations – when items of interest are identified, they can quickly be forwarded on to others.

Many of the tools are freely available on the web and require little investment (other than time) to set up. And they’re pretty easy to maintain once up and running.

There are some potential pitfalls in embarking on setting up listening services:

  • You might need to resolve IT security limitations that prevent access to online tools and sources (this is the case in my department by and large – hopefully not for long).
  • Generating helpful and relevant RSS feeds takes some skill and time to set up, if they’re not carefully focused at initiation they can become a burdensome task, especially if the monitoring effort is not shared.
  • The free online monitoring tools can be a little inflexible and slow to return results from obscure sources (especially if using niche keywords).
  • There is not yet a perfect automated method of extracting and sharing the results in a user friendly format, like email.

Because this is a fairly new thing, the skills set is unlikely to be found internally and will likely require freelance resource to oversee setting up and training staff to use the tools.

So, the next option on my list is ‘reflect’.

  1. A great post, and reminder that the listening side is a really valuable aspect in adoption.

    • andrewlewin
    • August 14th, 2008

    I agree with you, very important point. It’s all too easy for those of us working on comms to focus on getting the message out, persuading and winning the argument. That’s not the power of social media: if that’s all you want, stick to traditional broadcast media.

    I had been reluctant to get active in social media, thinking I had nothing wildly interesting to say. Probably still true; but I’m certainly getting a heck of a lot out of listening. Now to convince others (and IT departments) that this sort of thing isn’t some time- and money-drain on staff!

  2. Perhaps counter-intuitively, we’ve sometimes found the dashboards we’ve created to be one of the weaker ‘hooks’ we use. Listening is low-risk and easy, so should be a popular first step, right? Hmmm. Turns out that listening requires a complex set of skills and modifications to the routine, and can often fall by the wayside:

    – remembering to check your reader/dashboard
    – learning to scan and ‘mark all as read’ from time to time
    – accepting a ratio of ‘noise’ to the ‘signal’ and focusing on what’s relevant without being too distracted by the dross
    – evaluating sources and their credibility/influence
    – knowing how and when to respond – the ‘so what?’ problem

    Setting up simple emailed Google Alerts overcome some of these issues, but not all. We certainly haven’t cracked it yet, though we’re making progress on getting more relevant results into our dashboards.

    By contrast, the more sophisticated social media activities (commenting on a blog, stewarding an online community etc) seem to get more takeup and ultimately generate more converts to social media.

    Maybe it’s only once you start participating that you realise what’s out there and why you need the tools to help you to listen?

  3. Okay, there’s four more steps to come, but if I were in a discussion with a group and one of them (especially one with a lot of power) was ‘just listening’, and not responding, and not helping the discussion grow, and not trying out its own argument, etc. … at a dinner party that would be quite rude. Communication is a two way thing, it’s participation, not just consultation …

    So, still looking forward to part three (and four, and …).

    But I agree, it starts with listening, and there’s a few remarks I want to make on that:
    1. Try out Yahoo Pipes: great for managing your feeds, making rss even more efficient;
    2. Try out Bemba: it has a browser button to let you easily send url’s to your colleagues’ e-mail addresses, Twitter, etc.;
    3. Join it also has a very easy way of notifying someone in your network of an interesting site;
    4. Don’t forget as a source: I have a feed for all sites tagged with ‘government2.0’ in several languages;
    5. Start educating people working in ministry libraries right now because the have an important role but are slow at catching up. See my blogpost at

    On to nr. three! 😉

  4. A good method certainly and some good tips, but surely a few massive pitfalls where online conversations are so limited to certain groups of people?
    Plus, social networking creates the danger that you hear the conversations you want to hear, based on the keywords that you use and the sites your contacts recommend to you.
    Not saying it’s not good to listen to what is out there, but in Britain there is an enormous amount of conversation that isn’t getting close to the internet and that needs to be kept in mind.

  5. @Steph – hadn’t thought of that. I appreciate its a lot more difficult to set monitoring tools up than people think mind.

    @davied – thanks for those ideas.

    @Clare – you’re right, important to retain some balance.

  6. Totally agree that listening is step one, with potential to make a huge difference.

    I’ve been working on this recently: in particular setting up dashboards and alerts, perfecting query terms, and trying to excite officials about the potential. Some get it, and some don’t – and it’s really interesting to read Steph’s experience on that score.

    The dashboard approach can be an overwhelming ‘wall’ of information, even for me if I am honest, and I do wonder if email would be better way of getting the attention of busy people.

    A google on “RSS to email” throws up some interesting options, like:
    …has anyone tried these already?

    Good idea @Davied re approaching libraries, will definitely give that a try.

    • louisebrown
    • August 18th, 2008

    A really interesting post Jeremy, it would be interesting to hear more about how you think the gov is doing with this? There’s lots of info going out – new look no 10 site, twitter etc – but how much is being listened to and what’s the attitude towards civil servants spending time reading blogs and connecting with others?

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