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Cool Tools Still Take Smart Humans

My consultancy, The Cool Beans Group, has recently been working with a client to evaluate social listening tools. And while I've been impressed at the ability to aggregate conversations and task follow-ups, it's become clear to me that automating these task may not always lead to the results you desire.

Now maybe a marketing podcast host doesn't offer the most neutral case study to examine. But The BeanCast aside, I feel I'm a fairly good judge of end-user experience. And I think that the research backs me up when I say that people in general feel pretty uncomfortable knowing their conversations are being examined.

I know the arguments. Social media means "public" and we need to know how our brands and the issues we face are being discussed in public venues. But there's no getting around that when someone posts a comment on Twitter, they still consider it to be their private thoughts that they are sharing with a group of private followers. It's irrational, it's unreasonable, but I dare you to think otherwise.

So when a brand comes out of the woodwork in a response to a comment you make on a forum or blog, it's a shocking thing, whether you are savvy about the tools that enable such interactions or not. People are naturally uncomfortable with it. So what you do with these few seconds after contacting someone in response to a comment is critical.

Instant Response Insanity

This is why I make the case that despite the "cool" factor of these tools, the key determining factor of their success is still the people who run them. I've made the case before that just because you can respond instantly, it doesn't always make it the best course of action. This was painfully obvious in my case.

During the presentation of one such tool, I tweeted a few of my thoughts. They were just some random impressions about how the tool was being displayed in light of my client's circumstances. Nothing earth-shaking, but I thought that people who follow me might benefit from a few insights.

Well, over the course of the next 24-hours I was bombarded with contacts from competitors and from the software in question. I also got lots of follows from other people at these companies who were obviously listening. And what was the predominant tone of the contacts? Argumentative.

Let me clarify that people were not rude or callous. All the contact were friendly enough. And I understand how sales works: You identify objections in your target, provide reasonable counters and show benefits. But that usually happens after building relationships. To have people coming out of nowhere in response to my comments trying to prove me wrong was...well...creepy!

I realize that these tools are cool and the best way to showcase how cool they really are is to show them in action. But the experience highlighted an essential flaw as well -- the tool is only as effective as the contact made. And no offense to the people in question (because I know they are still listening to me) in the hands of eager sales forces the exchanges were uncomfortable and downright embarrassing to me. I felt like I should have held my tongue and left my thoughts private.

For some reason, I don't believe that listening tools should be stifling conversation. Just a guess. But in my case, that's what was happening.

Listening To Listen Some More

The other thing that was quickly evident in these exchanges was how much my comments were misunderstood. Again and again I was approached by reps trying to convince me that "listening was important" or that I needed to be "listening to more than just my brand."

Now, I'll own that my 140 characters did a poor job of conveying the depth of my concerns, but I was surprised that there was such free reign to assume what the objections were without querying further. Not a single person/brand that contacted me asked me to clarify my concerns. We went directly from listening to talking. Which made me feel not listened to at all.

Again, I emphasize that I am no calling out the reps who contacted me because they were all courteous and kind. But it did highlight for me the need to use listening to do more listening.

The desire -- dare I say, "need" -- to use these tools for sales is obvious. You're laying a chunk of change down each year. You need to justify the expenditure with a direct correlation to closed business. But it can't be overlooked that if a tool is good for listening, then use it to listen.

A few simple questions of me would have revealed that my concerns were not over whether such tools were needed, but whether we needed such robust tools yet. My concerns ranged from our inability to even identify what search parameters we needed to be looking at yet to the fact that our searches were not yielding results all that different from Google Alerts. The value of listening and of the tool was evident -- we were simply feeling ill-prepared to get full value from them yet.

Creating a New Culture First

Now the reason I'm being so apologetic for the reps who have contacted me is because I honestly cannot say that we would have done any better if the roles had been reversed. If I had not had the experience I did, I would have probably remained oblivious to these insights until they were somehow pointed out to me. Which is why I'm more convinced then ever that successfully launching a listening program in any organization needs to be preceded by an internal cultural indoctrination.

Again and again on The BeanCast I've had PR people point out situations that the social media group think has called to the mat for not being responsive enough, that really needed no response at all. Motrin moms comes to mind, where the end result of the social uproar over their baby-wearing fiasco was...no one in the general public cared.

Knowing when and how to respond is vastly more important to a listening effort than the listening itself. Too many brands are diving into this space and making radical responses to teapot hurricanes -- pulling ad campaigns or making immediate and ill-advised statements, before understanding the true impact of the uproar. No tool is going to solve this. Only having the staff and advisors on hand to bring perspective will give organizations the true value of what social listening is all about.

So my ultimate point? Before you plug in the tool to the network, make sure you've selected the right people to plug into the tool.

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