Stop trying to engage your audience.

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When you read about social media or listen to presenters talk about social media it’s easy to get jaded. The big deal, according to these presenters and bloggers, is that you should “engage your audience” via social tools like Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn!

But what does that really mean, anyway? “Engage your audience.” It’s like telling someone who has a weight problem they should eat better. True? Yes. Helpful? Not very.

When it comes to my audience, I don’t really try to be engaging, instead I try to be listening. I try to be helpful.

Listen and be helpful, a simple example.

I’m going to give you an example. Hopefully this will make it easier to forget about “engaging your audience” and instead focus on listening and being helpful.

At a live tweetup or other event sometime in the past year I met Zack Luby. At the time Zack had just started Good Stuff Communications, a digital firm specializing in work with sustainable businesses. We had a great chat and I really admired his energy and enthusiasm–one of the reasons I like hanging out with other entrepreneurs.

Since meeting Zack in person we have occasionally communicated via Twitter, but not really that often. It’s pretty casual. You know, the “hey that’s a cool link, thanks for sharing” sort of thing.

Maybe you have people in your Twitter list like that. People that are more than just a Twitter handle but that you don’t interact with every day.

My goal, with using any media, is to find more opportunities to help people. Since I follow Zack and I’m looking to help people, I noticed this:

I follow almost 600 people. How did I notice this in my never-ending stream of Twitter madness? Zack isn’t on my “stalker” list. He isn’t a client or a prospect so his activity isn’t piped into my email or phone automatically. He’s just a casual contact.

But he used the special hashtag for people who are looking to be helped.

The special hashtag people use when they are looking to be helped.

In fact, Zack used the special hashtag twice. It looks like this:


I’ve trained myself, when scanning content streaming by on Twitter, to look for the special hashtag first and then look at the person Tweeting. This way I see more people who are looking to be helped. It’s sort of a mindhack–using your brain to overcome an obstacle.

As an added bonus, no one has to be trained to use the special hashtag anymore because people using Latin-based alphabets have been using it since around the 13th century.

In this case, I was psyched because I could help. I have ridden the train from Burlington VT to Brattleboro VT several times. I know what’s great and how to make the best use of that ride.

Less than a minute and a half and I was able to verifiably help someone.

But it doesn’t end there. You see, I gave Zack an awesome tip. And Zack is the kind of guy who appreciates an awesome tip. When I got to work the next day, my Twitter feed had this in it:

In the realm of helping someone out or just plain making stuff people like, this is the double decker sandwich. The idea was good, the reality was even better. Zack let me and everyone else know.

Since writing this article I’ve gotten even more strategic about this practice. I have developed targeted Twitter searches by location for people who want to be helped.

Listening and being helpful in social media

For a tactic to be useful it has to be repeatable. Maybe I just got lucky there, helping out someone. But I don’t think so.

I take specific steps and actions to listen and be helpful. I’m going to write about how I do this soon.

For now, here’s a list of the things I had to have in place in order to be helpful this one time:

  • Follow actual people on Twitter (as opposed to feedbots, robot brands, etc).
  • Follow people who appreciate being helped.
  • Trained myself to look for the special hashtag that people who want to be helped use.
  • Spot someone looking to be helped.
  • Have some specific real-world experience that is relevant to how the person wants to be helped.
  • Share my helpful experience.

There’s no real secret sauce in this, is there? It’s pretty much stuff I learned in kindergarten and earlier. Granted it’s taken about this long to sink into my skull, but I’m getting it now.

If the six areas I’ve outlined in the list above make sense to you, then you can stop engaging your audience too. You can just listen and be helpful instead.

Join the Conversation


  1. I still make a few “personality” tweets online that are a bit engaging. Just to show people who I am, but my tweet ratio is definitely MUCH lower than it used to be for this reason. I have a lot of columns set up to listen and help. Mostly in my surrounding communities. I may not always be the most visible peep out there, but I do believe I have a knack for being one of the most helpful. I definitely think this is a much better way to manage time and define who you are. Great post Gahlord.

    1. Thanks Lori. Definitely wouldn’t want to say people should only particiapte in listening and asking. A little personality is always good.

      Setting up systems to listen locally makes all kinds of sense and is great for all location-based businesses–especially real estate.

  2. Gahlord, as a real estate we are taught to be good listeners. To ask questions and actually hear what our customers and clients are telling us. I love it when a customer/client tells me I actually am the only agent they worked with that actually listened to their wants and needs.

    This post is a good reminder for us to practice listening online as well. Thank you for reminding me.

    1. Jay: Glad it was useful. There’s something about online stuff that encourages people to write things they wouldn’t say and behave differently in general.

      Remembering to listen is one of those things that marketing focused people definitely forget. Myself included.

  3. Great article, thank you for writing it. I hear a lot about ‘engaging the audience’ all the time. This makes so much more sense, both personally and professionally.

  4. Dan: Thanks for stopping by and very glad this post was useful. It’s exactly that sort of conference bubblehead chatter I want to dispel with this line of thought. It’s helpful to know I’m headed in the right direction.

  5. Thanks Gahlord!

    Your help totally made my trip better.

    Any time we are mindlessly repeating buzzwords (like “engaging your audience”) without thought to what it actually means, how it can be actionable in your business, and how it can help you be successful, it’s a sign that we are missing something. Dissecting what it really means, and then communicating it, is powerful stuff.

    Thanks for the Amtrak tip, and the post!

    In my Amtrak searching I also found that you can get $12 one-way tickets on the Vermonter until December, 2011 if you book a day in advance and are traveling within VT.

  6. I haven’t figured out how to get past all of the spam on Twitter – it is insane… I created a search today for “?” and it was interesting to see what showed up, but if anybody can point me in the right direction for filter the massive amounts of automated bot postings I would really appreciate it!

  7. Gahlord, after reading the post from 1000Watt, “In Real Estate OK is Becoming the New Great” and now this, both powerful reminders of why listening is so meaningful and worthwhile. After the day I had today (feeling discouraged that biz page lacking engagement) timing could not have been more, well, timely. 🙂 Thank you for your insightful words. Completely made my day, week, month, etc.

  8. Hey Gahlord,

    I quickly met you about 2 years back at REBCSF. I was introduced to you via the MyTechOpinion crew. I am now just finding your blog. Great site for tips right at my level. I have been floundering on twitter for almost 3 years now – not really knowing a successful way to share my voice and meet people/strangers via microblogging. In social situation am not an “engager” but I can be a great observer/listener. I think that this is a great strategy for me to pursue in my online efforts.


  9. Carin: Glad it was helpful! I can say from experience, that many of the “engagement” metrics on my own content fall flat. But the in-person responses and business generation I get from it when I investigate show that things like comments or follows or likes are a poor indicator of success.

    Brendan: Cool! Glad this is helpful. Hopefully I’ll catch you around at another event sometime. I’ll be in SF for Inman week.

  10. Great stuff Gahlord. I don’t think I look enough to help in my streams. At least I don’t do it often enough.

    Thanks for the wonderful reminder that it isn’t about you. It’s about those you help. Thanks man!

  11. I often struggle with breaking it down for the newbies…you NAILED it Gahlord!! I have said we over complicate Social Media and really “it’s just talking”….of course in my mind the really excellent communicators/relationship builders are the ones that take a genuine interest in others first, and really… that’s listening. You rock! How goes the Z-pro certification 😉

  12. Thanks for taking the time to write these tips and suggestions. If helping people is truly your mission then watching for the special hashtag will definitely help. Thanks to Katie Lance for reposting your article!

  13. Hey Gahlord,

    Very cool ‘zen master’ type stuff!

    Appreciate it. Now what do you do and how can I help you since you have helped me? See, I’m a fast learned plus I know that knowledge is not power. Knowledge plus Action is Power!


  14. Hi Gahlord.

    I also just stumbled onto your site, and met you at REBCSF years ago. I love how down to earth your approach is. It’s really is so simple and should be so obvious, but that’s seems to be where genius lies. Thanks for reminding us that we’re in this (life, business, real estate) to help each other, and to keep it simple.

    Best wishes,
    (a Realtor in Berkeley, CA)

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