Listening Strategy

Gahlord Dewald of Thoughtfaucet
Photo by Jeff Turner

The Listening Strategy presentation was originally delivered at the RETSO conference in April 2012. I created a webinar-style video of the material. It’s pretty lengthy but you can just let it run in the background like a podcast if you prefer. Each main section is chaptered so you can skip around. The final three slides were not presented live at RETSO because someoneran over their time a little bit. 😉

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[EXPAND Transcript of Listening Strategy web video]

Listening Strategy: An introduction

Hi my name is Gahlord Dewald. I’m the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic content studio based in Burlington Vermont.

This presentation is called “A simple technique, Listening Strategy and some stuff.” Sometimes it’s referred to as “How to use a listening strategy and stop being insane.”

There are three parts to this presentation. There’s a little Twitter technique up front. Then I move into some strategy stuff which is a little more abstract. At the very end there are three sections that are really abstract. So skip ahead, skip back, whatever works for you.

Listen locally with Twitter

There’s a social network called Twitter. You may be familiar with it. You type short messages into your browser or a Twitter client on your phone. The messages go out into the world and people can listen in on what you’re doing. You can communicate with people. A lot of people are having fun with it and using it for a variety of reasons.

But if you are interested primarily in a particular market or a particular geography, Twitter can quickly become overwhelming. Because there are people from all over the world talking about all kinds of different stuff. It can seem kind of unfocused. It’s difficult to narrow in on people.

Perhaps you could go through and look at everyone’s profile and find the people who live in the town that you’re interested in and just follow those people. But that’s pretty laborious.

Some towns have a special hashtag–a computer code to categorize the Twitter posts about their area. The town I live in is Burlington Vermont and our hashtag is #BTV. You can probably see some of those in the Twitter stream on the right hand side of the slide.

There’s a challenge in listening just to the people who are local to you. If that is of interest to you for your business or otherwise then using Twitter can be kind of a challenge.

I’d like to present a technique for dealing with that.

This technique focuses on the idea of “Where do you listen to?”

You can follow individuals. Marketers on social networks typically zero in on “How big is your audience?” and “How many followers do you have?” and “Who are you following?” There’s a lot of focus on people. After all these are social networks so the people aspect seems most important.

But it’s just as important to consider “where you listen to” because where you are has a strong impact on the kinds of things you think about and the kinds of challenges you face. If you’re a business owner “where do you listen to” has an impact on the kinds of problems you help other people solve.

This technique is useful for zeroing in on the place that you listen to.

The first thing you have to do if you want to listen in to a particular place is find that latitude and longitude. Computers are pretty good at guessing a latitude and longitude based on a town name. But if you really want to get down to the nitty gritty it’s useful to find a latitude and longitude. Usually you just type in an address into one of any number of services and they’ll spit back a latitude and longitude number.

That’s something you’re going to need to figure out. What’s the latitude and longitude of the place you want to listen to.

Next up you’ll have to pick a radius around that particular point.

On this slide you can see there’s a dot in the middle of the UK and a big red circle around it. Someone was asking once about all of the Twitter posts about malaria that originated in the UK. It was an epidemiologist that was interested in outbreaks. They needed to pick a radius that would cover the entire UK.

So the radius could be big enough to cover an entire country or perhaps just five or ten kilometers. Either way you pick the best circle that you can get. Using this technique there isn’t a way to get fancy map borders. You’re stuck with circles. You do the best you can do with it.

Once you have a latitude and a longitude and a radius you have something that you can use. You have what’s called a “Geocode” that defines this particular boundary. If you go into Twitter and type geocode:44.5,-73.2,20km into the search field you’ll end up with all the Tweets from within 20km of Burlington Vermont.

But you might want to do more than that. You might want to focus on helping people.

There’s a special hashtag that people who want to be helped use. It looks like a question mark. Luckily no one has to be trained to use this hashtag because everyone’s been using it since the 13th century.

If you add the question mark to the beginning of your search string–? geocode:44.5,-73.2,20km–you end up with all the questions that originate on Twitter within 20km of Burlington Vermont.

You’ll probably still be getting a lot of noise in this channel. Someone will probably post something like “Want to buy my web analytics solutions? Click this link!”

One way to squelch the noise is to include -http in the beginning of your search string. That way anything with a link will be filtered out of the results. So anyone who is link baiting will be gone.

Another way to filter some noise is by putting in -rt. That will get rid of retweets. So if someone asks a question on Twitter and then 50 people repeat it for them because that’s a helpful thing to do–help someone find an answer–you don’t need to see all 50 of those retweets.

The important part is to note that we have a combination of a geocode and a set of filters. You can put other topic words in the filters as well, as needed. There’s a step-by-step tutorial on doing location search with Hootsuite or Tweetdeck on my site.

That’s a geeky tip. It’s useful if you’re working to listen to local community members or audiences on Twitter. But you might be asking yourself if you’re going to have to keep learning new tricks and geeky tools forever and how you’re going to possibly keep up. I encounter clients that are increasingly anxious about the number of tools and toys and tips and tricks they have to manage in order to stay ahead of online marketing and communications. Or even simply to do their job.

All of these new tools are causing a high level of anxiety. I’ve come up with a sort of process for dealing with this.

Understanding Strategy

I want to talk about strategy. In particular, a Listening Strategy as a way to deal with constant change around social media and other digital things.

To get started I need to go over some boring wonky strategy talk because I think a lot of people use the word “strategy” when they really mean something else. The word “strategy” has some specific meanings and we’re going to go over that.

The Situation

We’ll start with “The situation.” You don’t need a strategy if you don’t have some situation you’re dealing with. If there’s no situation then you’re just sort of sitting around and life is good. You only need a strategy if things are going wrong or not where you want to go.

There are couple different aspects of “situation.” There are way more than the four we’re going to cover today. But we’ll start here.

The first is an “audience.” If you have a marketing situation then the audience might be potential customers. If it’s an internal situation then perhaps the audience is employees. There’s some sort of audience for the work that’s going to happen.

Another aspect of a situation is your “organization.” Anyone that is on your team has capabilities and strengths and weaknesses etc. Your organization is an important part of the situation as well.

For social media and other online digital stuff “technology” is an aspect of the situation. Technology is another aspect to consider when trying to figure out what’s going on, what’s working and what’s not working.

The fourth element of the situation I want to examine is “timing.” Things happen at a certain time, at a certain pace, maybe seasonal, maybe in a rush with a sense of urgency. There is a certain amount of time in which the situation needs to be resolved.

There many more aspects of situations but these are four we’re going to focus on today.

Strategy definitions

In response to a situation we have strategy.

There are three words that get thrown around. Sometimes people treat them as if they’re interchangeable and they’re not. The words are “strategy,” “plan” and “tactic.”


I’m going to start with “tactic” because I think a lot people mean when they say “strategy” is in fact “tactic.” Tactic is the kind of thing you do all the time, everyday or as part of your practice. Anything that has a step one, step two, step three structure is probably a tactic. It’s the thing you do.

At the beginning of this presentation we talked about geocoding Twitter searches. That’s a tactic. That is not a Twitter strategy. It’s a tactic that is used to great effect for a particular purpose. But it’s not a strategy. It’s just something we do. It’s a tactic.


Next layer up from a tactic is a “plan.” If we take a bunch of tactics and put them in order–do this on Monday, that on Tuesday and so on–we have a plan.

The plan can be organized around a number of different things. It can be organized around marketing channels–an SEO plan, a paid advertising plan, a social media plan and so on. It’s a collection of tactics organized in some way over time.

When people say “SEO strategy” or “social media strategy” I think they actually mean “plan.” You really only have one strategy, a business strategy. This flows through to the different plans.


Above plan we have “Strategy.” You have one strategy for your business. It’s not your mission statement or your values or your objective. Your strategy isn’t “make a million dollars” that’s a goal.

The strategy should be a short phrase that guides your plans. It helps you choose tactics that will be appropriate for your specific strategy so you don’t get unfocused, confused or lost.

Example strategies

I’ll give you a couple of examples of what I mean when I say “Strategy.”

One strategy that is common is called “Total Saturation.” If you have a Total Saturation strategy you going to be focused on buying all the advertising on the television, every newspaper is going to have your ad, maybe you’ll buy all the bus stops. You’ll be everywhere. So that no matter when someone is looking for something they’re going to bump into your message.

That’s “Total Saturation.” It’s the classic old media method but it’s still used today. I think the way a lot of organizations use social media, frankly, is a total saturation method. They aren’t actually engaging much on social media, they’re using it to broadcast messages to the greatest number of followers. That’s a total saturation strategy.

It’s not bad or good or anything. It’s just an approach. If it’s in line with the goals of your business and you have the resources to execute on that then it’s awesome.

Total saturation is going to focus on the timing elements of the situation. You want to be acutely aware of when people are doing things in the environment so you can have a message waiting for them. You’ll have to manage all the other aspects of situation as well, but timing will be really important.

Another strategy example is “Precision.” We see this one coming to the foreground with the internet. Search marketing would be an example. You buy an ad that only shows up when people type in a particular word. Instead of saturating everything everywhere you might just buy ads for when people are specifically looking for something.

Precision will require you to focus in on a lot of the different technology aspects of the situation. You’ll need a strong command of the different targeting and retargeting tools.

Those are two different strategic approaches. You develop different plans for them and you’d have different tactics for them.

With “total saturation” you might have plans based on channel; organized around where the media buys are. For “precision” you might have plans organized around different topics and keywords.

For example, if you’re in real estate you might have precision plans based on people who know the names of all the neighborhoods in a town and you have some for people who are relocating and don’t know the names of neighborhoods.

Situation: Overfocus on technology at the expense of your organization

There’s a situation that is causing a lot of anxiety in marketing circles.

If you’ve ever been to a social media conference you’ve probably seen the slide titled “The Conversation Prism” by Brian Solis and JESS3. It has hundreds of logos and lots of bright colors. It kind of swirls around. If you look at it long enough it might be kind of mesmerizing.

This is how its creators describe it: “The Conversation Prism gives you a whole view of the social media universe, categorized and also organized by how people use each network.”

That gives you a quick sense that this could be used to identify some tactics. That might be useful.

But then they go on and it goes downhill in a hurry: “Version 3.0 introduces new groups and networks and also removes those networks no longer in play.”

So of those hundreds of logos if you memorized or thought about version one or two that thinking is now out of date. You have to keep up with stuff. This is where the anxiety starts. You have all of these different things and checklists and what do you do?

Then they get it even worse. We get to a real problem here: “Use the Conversation Prism to see what you are missing!”

So now we have this huge sense of urgency. We’re missing out on stuff!

This approach is not helping. It’s not helpful.

The reason it’s not helpful is that the Conversation Prism itself is really focused on technology. Technology isn’t something that you have a lot of control over. Unless you are technologist, and even then you only get to control one of those hundreds of logos.

You don’t get to decide when a new network shows up or disappears. It’s totally outside your control. You’re having to keep up on version 2 and 3 and so on.

It’s not helpful. You don’t have any control.

When we add the “keep up with this to see what you’ve been missing!” we’re focusing on timing. Which is another thing you don’t have a lot of control over.

You don’t control the pace of technology. You don’t control the actual parts of technology. So as an organization, what are you supposed to do with that? They’re just reminding you of these things you don’t have control over.

You end up running around like a rat on a treadmill.

It’s not just Brian Solis. This is common in media. Here are a couple of familiar images as well: Jeff Bezos showing the hockey-stick graph of the adoption rate of e-books and the time on site for Facebook. Bit hockeysticks focusing in on timing and technology.

Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be paying attention to these things. But when all the exclamation points are set on these aspects of the situation that you don’t have a lot of control over then of course there’s going to be a lot of anxiety.

So dealing with this situation of an overfocus of technology leading to people being confused and scared and screwing up their approach to business, let’s look at a strategy.

Listening Strategy

Let’s look at a “Listening Strategy”. In a Listening Strategy we’re going to be focused on making plans about our organization.

It’s our organization that’s going to listen. And the organization is the aspect of the situation we have the most control over. We can control what we do far more than we control technology or timing or the audience.

So what do I mean when I say “listening?” What kind of plans are we going to be developing for a listening strategy?

Listening Strategy Plans: Hearing

We’re probably going to be doing some “hearing”. We’re going to hear what’s going on with our audience out in the marketplace. To do that we’re probably going to have tactics that involve analytics, social media monitoring–listening to what people are saying out in the world–and also anyone who talks with customers.

Let’s not get overly focused with technology. You probably have a sales force or a front desk or a help desk. Any of those sorts of people who are talking with the audience day in and day out, those people are getting valuable information. If your strategy involves a plan for hearing then those people should be involved.

As much as I love web analytics–I’m a total junkie and I do a lot of work in web analytics–if I had to choose between web analytics or a really good sales team or support team that was good at documenting what kinds of problems actual people have I would choose the sales team over the analytics.

Luckily that’s not a choice you should have to make.

So you have a plan around hearing in a Listening Strategy.

Listening Strategy Plans: Reflecting

You might also have a plan around “reflecting”. Ideas are coming into your organization and you’re going to want to process them. Again we’ll have tactics that are based around things that our organization will be doing. We’ll be putting the things that we’re hearing in context. Maybe we have team discussions about what we’re hearing in the marketplace from the sales guys or the gals in support.

You’ll have plans in place for dealing with what you hear. It could be augmented with technology, maybe it isn’t. The focus is things our organization can do.

Listening Strategy Plans: Helping

Finally we get to “helping.” It’s not enough to gather a bunch of information and sit on it. We want to do something. I recommend being helpful with what you’re learning about your audience and the world around you.

To be helpful you’ll need courage. You have to have the courage to go out and help people.

I know it sounds like unicorns and rainbows but it’s not easy. It’s not easy to see that people are having a problem and then build something to fix it or helping them solve it.

It also takes a tremendous amount of courage to decide that there are some people you can’t help. Technology companies face this all the time. They’re asked to customize a piece of software and they really want to be helpful for their client. But by spending resources making a custom one-off version their own business is threatened and they might go out of business. Then no one is being helped.

Having the courage to say no as well as the courage to help someone–it goes both ways.

Ultimately solving people’s problems and focusing on generating satisfaction is where you want to end up; solving an actual problem. You know about the problem because you had a plan for hearing about problems and you had a plan for reflecting on it and understanding it. You can then take the final step and generate satisfaction.

These three aspects of a Listening Strategy are very dependent on your internal organization. You’ll have to spend time working on your team. But the good news is that this is a lot easier to control than it is to control technology.

Using a listening strategy you can have your technology focused on supporting your organization instead of having your organization focused on supporting technology.

Listening Strategy Review

Tactics, planning and strategy. Important things to keep distinct and understand how they work.

The situation, we covered four aspects of situation. There could be many more. This is simplified.

People being overly focused on the aspects of situation over which we have little to no control leads to anxiety.

Pick a strategy that works for you, that fits your strengths. Then you won’t experience so much anxiety around technology, change and improvement.

Will you have to keep learning new tricks and tools forever or be relegated to the dust bin of life? The answer is “maybe” aka “The Consultant’s Tapdance.” But using a listening strategy you’ll have a chance of getting through in a more fulfilling way that is good for your organization and your audience.

Three abstract thoughts

I want to talk about three concepts that may or may not be useful or helpful in the world.

The customer is always right

There’s a phrase that goes like this: “The customer is always right.” That phrase is not necessarily true. Anyone that’s been in business for awhile knows that it isn’t true. But it’s still repeated all the time.

There are implications to this idea that the customer is always right. From dealing with main street–maybe customers are wanting better parking. So downtowns of America are focused on parking issues instead of focused on issues of “how do we make great experiences so that people want to come visit us?” everyone gets wrapped around the axle about parking.

While parking is an important aspect of shopping downtown, you’re not going to be able to compete with the edge of town where there are miles and miles of room to lay down a parking lot. So strategically you get messed up trying to compete on parking.

On a global scale the issue of the customer is always right plays out. There are changes afoot globally in terms of “who is the world’s customer.” Understanding how “the customer is always right” plays out on a global stage is just as important as it is locally. Understanding this is critical.

There are plenty of successful examples where the customer is not always right. Ranging from the early success in the industrial age of Henry Ford–with the Model T that you can get in any color you want as long as it’s black–all the way up to the modern titan of manufacturing Apple. Apple has very specific controls in place. Even though customers request certain things Apple isn’t necessarily going to go along with them unless Apple feels like it.

It’s important to note that this still remains in some way about being helpful. It’s not like you have contempt for your customers. But you need to have the courage to say no sometimes when customers are asking for things that aren’t good for them or are bad for your model.

If you have aligned your plans for hearing and reflecting you’ll have a better chance of doing this successfully.

“The customer is always right” may not be helpful and may also be causing anxiety.

The sharp end of the spear

Another concept is called “The sharp end of the spear.” A spear operates by putting tremendous pressure on a small point. People typically think about the sharp end of a spear when they think of a spear at all. It’s the exciting part, the sharp part, the part you don’t want to get stuck with.

But what makes a spear work really is that there’s a long pole that is perfectly aligned behind that point. The point is just a small beginning of something. There’s a long piece of wood that’s perfectly aligned behind it. That whole operation together–starting small, widening and having a long aligned substance behind the sharp end of the spear–is what makes it a true threat. This is the difference between getting a nick and getting run through with a spear.

That’s just something I wanted to throw out there to think about.

Will it scale?

The third abstract item I want to think about is “Scaleability.” Something that’s asked all the time is “will it scale?” Whether in IT Data centers or business process.

In social media it’s brought up all the time. “Is this what we’re doing here scaleable?” The search for scale might not be helpful. Unless you’re selling computer hardware perhaps.

But treating social media as a scaleable thing might result in not-social media. It’s going to look like advertising. The focus on followers and getting a lot of people to see your messages isn’t social.

Which isn’t to say it’s wrong. Just don’t confuse what strategy you’re using. If you’re moving into a “total saturation” model be aware of it and do it consciously. But if not, then figure out what you’re doing that is social.

I would encourage people to consider scaleability not so much in terms of scaling out and bigger and broader, but instead finding ways to scale in and scaling deeper. Make stronger connections.

With scaleability in social media is a related concept of “strength of weak ties” and both of those concepts together have the potential to be limiting in how organizations use social media. If instead you can find ways to have technology serve your organization in ways that maximizes your ability to make direct strong connections with other people–locally or within your business topic community–that is the kind of scale that might be worth pursuing.

Those are just some things to think about. I don’t have any big answers on any of them. But they’re things that are worth thinking about.[/EXPAND]

[EXPAND Additional Listening Strategy Resources]


You can download the Listening Strategy Mindmap as a PDF file.

Listening Strategy Slides area available as a PDF as well.

Join the Conversation


  1. G THANK YOU… I’m going to listen a couple more times, Today is a ‘catchup day’ so you as always, are giving me food for thought …. On thinking of listening as is relates to the realestate consumer….. Do you find them thinking outloud online? To me the serious ones seem to almost be invisible as far as their thoughts and experiences but boy are they researching our product and us… After they meet us or we are recommended to them. Thoughts?

  2. Jodi: Thanks for your kind words.

    “Listening” isn’t just with your ears. It’s with your eyes and everything else too. In the case of consumers researching you and your product, your web analytics will be a valuable tool for listening. What pages do they visit? What pages do they see first? What pages do they see last? Those are just some basic places to start with that.

    You can also use qualitative survey tools like 4q from iPerceptions to “hear” from your visitors.

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