So you’re listening—are you really hearing?

The lovely folks over at the Metaverse Mod Squad beat me to the punch on the title of their recent post, “Listening and Hearing Aren't the Same Thing,” but I wanted to go ahead and add a few thoughts of my own the matter, since it’s something I've been noodling on for the past couple of months.

I feel like the most common piece of advice given to companies looking to get involved in social media is “LISTEN FIRST!”

It’s obviously not bad advice, and there is a whole industry dedicated to supporting the growing need for social listening. I think it’s important to stress, however, that listening is worthless if you’re not ready to hear. Listening is great. It’s an extremely important first step to any social media program or initiative, but it’s an inherently passive activity.

Hearing, on the other hand, prepares you to take things to the next level. Hearing means:

Letting go of what you think you know

The online world is remarkably similar to the offline world, right? So, how much do you enjoy being stuck next to the guy at the party who thinks he knows everything you're going to say? If you go in looking only for confirmation of your preconceived notions—that’s all you’ll get. You’ll miss out on an incredibly rich opportunity to learn new things and you’ll make it that much harder to create a genuine conversation online. When you’re really hearing what your customers have to say, you’ll find new and surprising insights where you least expect them.

Seeing yourself in context

Whatever product or service you offer, it's only one part of your consumer’s world. This is something I see every day in online health communities. Maybe a medication only treats one symptom of a multi-faceted disease. Maybe insurance only covers a certain number of pills a month. Whatever the context is (and it certainly doesn’t have to be related to health!), be prepared to acknowledge it when you reach out to your customers.

Showing your work

Unless you’re prepared to do something with all this information, the fact that you listened at all is of little benefit to you, or anyone you listened to. Let your customers and community members know that they’ve been heard by showing them the changes you've made. Likewise, be careful of the reverse—don't ask for feedback if you're not really prepared to hear it.
Truly hearing what your customers and community members have to say about you, across the social web, is the foundation for any strong social media program—so if you’re listening, make sure you’re really hearing, too.