If you interact with a significant other, a neighbor, team members or co-workers, no one needs to tell you that listening is critical to almost any relationship.

What we must not overlook is the fact that all listening is not equal.  Query your favorite 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 is not difficult to make a case for Discriminating Listening in selected situations.  After all, it is almost impossible to find a market segment that is not flooded with messages, each making as big a splash as possible in pursuit of mind share.  The art of communication often seems inexorably linked to the metrics of media buys, production costs and decibels.  The result can be deafening.

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 strategies indicate that messaging is what we value most.

While we focus on the creation and delivery of the message we ignore at least two things central to the most basic communication theory:

Like it or not (and many struggle mightily with this) the basic building block of communication is the dynamism of shared experiences.  Shared experience is the byproduct of interaction, participation, and collaboration.  It does not begin with messaging.

Enter Intentional Listening– listening by design, with purpose, 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 on-going discussion around one of the most critical practices if you’re venturing into social media.

Five Keys to Intentional Listening

  1. 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 solely with 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 and research.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 number 1.)
  4. Remember the arithmetic.  Listen more than you talk…at minimum, two times more.  Practically speaking, retweet more than you tweet your own message, 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 relationship.  It is not about exploiting a podium or pulpit.  In short, give more than you expect to receive.
  5. Help build.  Community is the life-blood 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 view squanders the potential, turning social media presence into little more than a firestorm of sound bites.

Practice Intentional Listening and we’re on the road to shared experiences, valued collaboration, relationships that endure – and yes, loyal friends, fans, clients and customers.