It seems obvious: if you want to be effective in your social media efforts, you should listen to your customers.  Whether they’re tweeting about your services, or starting conversations on your Facebook fan page, customers do these things because they find value in the activity…and they want their voices and opinions to be heard.

Yet despite this no-brainer, it’s surprising how many companies and businesses pursue social media simply for the sake of saying that they do it, rather than truly committing to the complex and resource-intensive task of starting–and finishing–relationships that happen at the speed of the web.

The Importance of Listening

Don’t get me wrong.  It is important to have a well developed (and executed!) strategy for your social media efforts.  Everything from frequency, to platforms, to messaging should be CAREFULLY considered and implemented even more intentionally.  Yet for all of this, remember that social media for a business is ultimately about giving.  Sure, you want to increase visibility, drive sales, and develop better awareness of your brand (and if you’re doing things right, these will naturally follow).  However, the bottom line of social media is ultimately about what your customers, fans, and followers get from you.  Yes, it sucks on a certain level, for you have the uncertainty of throwing time, energy, and resources at amorphous returns…yet this is the way it is.

So if the principle of giving is one of the bedrock ideas of social media, then we must ultimately conclude that the place to begin is by listening.  So how is listening “giving?” Let me give you an example.

A new business to Groupon launched their very first offer…ever.  It was a great deal on the surface, offering more than 60% off their normal fees for their services.  Unfortunately, the rules were somewhat obfuscated, and, in fact, actually discriminated against particular audiences when explanations of the rules and terms started to surface.  Grouponers immediately noticed and reacted with a flurry of protests and less-than-positive comments.

If the business was only in the “deal” to grab a few new customers and to get their name “out there”, they might well have ignored the comments and stuck to their original rules.  But rather than following some stubborn, unbending interpretation of their own rules, this business took the feedback received and actually changed the rules so that the unintended discrimination was wiped away. But they didn’t stop there.  They actually took responsibility for the oversight and went so far as to offer a sincere apology to the community for the unintentional offense.

Making it a Practice

Now of course, it’s unlikely that this isolated example of good social media dramatically impacted the business’ bottom line–individual circumstances rarely do.  However, over the course of the long-term, the inculcation of the practice of listening in a business’ approach to social media can garner positive, lasting outcomes that reinforce all the underlying goals that far too many businesses put above the fundamentals of online relationships.

So how is this done?  Here are some suggestions, based on my own reflections and experiences in social media over the last five years, that I think go a long way toward advancing the conversation.

Have Something to Say…and Say it Well

Far too many businesses wade into social media without anything of substance to add.  Drowning in a sea of noise, these businesses unwittingly contribute to the billion Fan Pages, and untold millions of Twitter accounts that nobody cares about (probably including the business itself).  Why is this?  It happens because far too many have been deceived into thinking that the mere possession of these social media tools will somehow advance their bottom line.  This, however, is patently false.  Without exception, if you look at the most successful Fan Pages, and the most followed Twitter feeds, you’ll notice something very common: something of value is being said.  If listening is key effective social media, saying something worthwhile is what creates the opportunity for the conversation.  If you “do” social media, you will only be successful if you have something valuable to say and give to those whom you interact with.  And, of course, you can only really know whether what you’re saying is of value if you listen to what people have to say in return…if they say anything at all.

Listen by Engaging

It is definitely important to listen and put into practice the feedback that you get from your fans and followers.  However, it’s even better to go a step further.  Does someone in the community have a great idea that you’re going to implement?  Let everyone know who said what, and why you think it fits in with what you’re trying to do.  And if you’re feeling particularly generous, why not find a way to reward your inspiration?  Little acknowledgements go a long way toward building a dynamic and vibrant community that fosters the kinds of conversations that accomplish all the goals that fly-by-night Twitter-book masters promise, but never deliver.

Don’t Be Afraid to Defend Yourself

While a lot of social interactions will be positive, you might get negative or even hostile feedback from the community.  Your initial reaction might be to ignore it, but instead of being a chicken, feel free to defend yourself.  Obviously, you need to be civil and diffuse any anger or hostility that might be coming from your antagonist.  But there is nothing wrong with engaging even those who have ulterior motives.  Not only does it show that you are actually listening, but your engagement will probably stir others within your community to speak up in your defense.  There is absolutely no better sign that you are doing social media “right” when you no longer need to lead the charge because those who value you and your services have taken the initiative.

Be Consistent

You can’t be a good listener if you don’t practice, and you’ll certainly not get any meaningful practice if your social media efforts are inconsistent.  If you want to do social media right, if you want to foster the kinds of conversations that will really communicate your message and build brand recognition, you’ll have to be a consistency Nazi.  This means you can’t be content to update your Twitter account once a month with a silly, irrelevant status update.  And merely adding random events to your Fan page doesn’t count, either.  No, stop everything right now and plan out your social media messages.  Craft a plan so that you have consistent, timely, and meaningful messages to communicate regularly, so that you can build a rhythm of dialog in your online social community.  But most importantly, in the midst of everything else that you are doing, you will need to build in time and resources to carry on the conversations.  For while you can blast messages to your audiences all day long to your heart’s content, the real value of what you’re saying will only be fully realized when someone hears the message, responds, and you are able to put into practice the art of listening that is so crucial to social media success.

Wrapping Up

Social media is a huge, wild, and constantly changing medium.  It presents new challenges for sure, but also forces us to continually refine skills–like the deceptively simple act of listening–that we might otherwise take for granted.  But if we truly work at it, and make listening not just an art, but an integral part of the culture of how we do business in the social web, we’ll find that all the successes that we dream of are really as easy as a simple conversation.