Online Listening Made Simple(r)

By: Karla Taylor

Four steps to hearing what your members are saying in social media—before it blows up on you.

A textbook case in drama-free social media response played out last November at the annual convention of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. A blogger posed a tough question and challenged ASHA to respond. Social media manager Maggie McGary noticed and forwarded the post to the convention manager, who replied on the spot. Thanks to fast teamwork and an authoritative response, the issue blew by instead of blowing up.

"A lot of associations hem and haw, asking themselves, 'Is it important to do social media listening or not?'" McGary says. "It's important." Consider these tips from experienced listeners on how to handle this demanding task efficiently, even if—especially if—you don't have a social media manager on staff.

Appoint a point person. When you don't have a social media staff, your PR team is the next best thing, says Richard Levine, communications program manager at the Entomological Society of America (ESA). Because he already has a system of alerts, "I might as well check our Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn pages to see what members are writing about." He also knows which topics are troublesome or trivial and who should answer specialized questions.

Develop a social media response policy. "Some might be fine with 'We'll get to it when we get to it,' " McGary says. "But if you want members and others to trust that you care, you have to be quicker." ASHA's policy is to respond within two to four hours during the business day—the same as for email and phone. On nights and weekends, expectation control is vital, says Audrey Caldwell, senior manager for communications at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). "If you clearly state your hours, generally people will observe that."

Know when to call in the authorities—and when not to. Levine answers general questions ("Why can't I log in to the website?") but refers specific issues ("The registration lines at the convention are too long!") to relevant staff. He posts replies on behalf of the society. If a hot topic arises, he works up the chain of command to the appropriate manager and only after that to the CEO, who decides if it's board-worthy: "You don't want to bother the CEO and board with trivialities," he says.

Figure out whether and how to log what you hear. Many associations, including ASHA and ESA, track social media topics informally. But ASCE has instituted a system to keep tabs on several dozen Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn outposts and trending topics. By 11 a.m. each weekday, the society's social media specialist distributes a summary of the previous day's posts, organized by importance within each social media platform. She emails the summary to interested staff daily or as a weekly digest.

Caldwell says that in addition to keeping ASCE on top of trends, the report builds awareness of social media's importance and its role as an alternative to ubiquitous email blasts. It also sends a message she wants internal staff to listen to: "Social media is not just something those people in communications do. Members expect the whole organization to be responsive," she says. "We have to work together so when they have questions for your department, you can respond quickly and accurately."

Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland. Email:
[email protected]

Additional Reading

For more on ASCE's social media listening strategy, see "Mission Possible: A Social Media Strategy in Six Weeks," by Audrey Caldwell, December 7, 2011 .

Karla Taylor

Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland.