The Listening Cycle, Part I

We co-wrote The Listening Cycle with Jessica Steimer, who has been helping non-profits use social media more effectively as part of her work with Aspiration. Jess rocks! Find her on twitter @JSteim. You can also find a version of this article on the Aspiration Social Source Commons Blog.

Social media has completely altered the way we consume information. No longer are we at the mercy of the major media outlets to get the information we care about. Most people now learn about news and major events via their social media feeds before they learn about it from anywhere else. For advocacy and activist organisations this provides huge value as individuals can connect and get information directly from them without having to get vetted by news publications. The value social media provides organisations is not just about broadcasting, but also in providing advocates and activists with a way to listen and better understand campaign stakeholders and key audiences. This allows them to craft their messaging that meet audiences where they are at.

We’ve been huge fans of the ‘Big Listening’ techniques shared by Upwell  on using social media to monitor and shape discussions about the ocean.  What we are hoping to do in this series is present a ‘how-to’ on applying big listening techniques practically, within the context of an advocacy campaign.  We are assuming that you are an advocate, activist or community organiser working with little to no resources.

This blog post will teach you how to:

  • identify key stakeholders in your campaign and where you can find them online
  • look for discussions either directly about or related to your issue and
  • learn the vocabulary being used so that you can craft messaging that will engage stakeholders rather than alienate them.

How to get started

Before using any technology it’s critical to know who your key stakeholders are in your campaign and what you would like them to do. When we use the term ‘stakeholder,’ we are talking about the people who are impacted and/or involved in your campaign. Use the stakeholder mapping and power analysis exercise to understand who your stakeholders are and what tactics you want to use to engage them. Once you’ve identified the key stakeholders in your campaign, you know who you want to listen to online.


Stakeholder Mapping

So in a listening context, for the people you’ve identified as:

  • Allies.  You’ll want listen for opportunities to amplify their key messages in through your own social media network (remember that reciprocation is a key value on social media: what goes around comes around)
  • Neutral parties. As campaigners we often exist in our own bubble and have formulated messaging that works only with our allies.  If you want to create messaging that will work to educate neutral parties and make them allies, you have to understand what issues are relevant and what vocabulary they use.
  • Opponents. As you actively try to discredit, counter and even disempower opponents, social media gives you an opportunity to learn about their arguments and terminology around your issue.

Next, you will need to identify what you are listening for. For this you will need to start with some brainstorming and then do some online detective work.

Using this Campaign Listening Template to capture what you find, list out the different keywords and people associated with your organization or campaign. Try to make a list of anything that someone might mention when talking about you, your organisation, issue, or campaign.

You may want to listen for:

  • names of
    • organisation(s) involved
    • key leader(s) of the campaign
    • an Executive Director or CEO
    • any spokespeople for or against the issue
    • campaigns, propositions, or programs that you support
  • any events or protests that you’ve been a part of
  • any #hashtags you’ve created or used frequently to contribute to online dialogue about your cause

The Campaign Listening Matrix Template was developed as a collaboration between Aspiration and Fabriders. We used our combined past experience of working with campaigners and listening online to inform the development of this document. That said, it has not yet been tested in the wild. Try it out and let us know how it is useful to you or how you have tweaked it to work better for your campaign.

We’ve put together this Example Campaign Listening Matrix to help show how you might fill the template out for your own campaign.

You may want to listen online for keywords that don’t quite fit into the categories on the template we’ve provided. That’s okay, list them out anyway. Each organization and campaign is different, trust your instincts.

After you’ve figured out what keywords you are listening for, look at where your stakeholders are online and notice how they are talking about your issue. You’ll want to visit and listen to stakeholders in all three groups from the half wheel exercise, allies, neutral, and opposition. Go to their websites, blogs, social media accounts, interviews, articles, and papers published online, and use the template to list out the terms they are using to talk about your issue.

As you list these out, look for the most common terms that they use. These terms are keywords, or the words that have the most significance in how they talk about things. Some organisations may need to create two keyword columns, one that lists the current vocabulary terms and the other that lists the desired terms you’d like each group to use.

Testing… testing

Now that you have some search terms, it’s worth using google on them to test out your assumptions. As you search each of the keywords, look for clues that let you know how different stakeholder groups are talking about your issue or campaign. Do the results support your assumptions? Whether yes or no, this should inform how you use the vocabulary terms in your messaging to connect with different online conversations happening.

Let’s walk through an example:
If you are a sex worker advocate, and are actively promoting sex work as ‘work,’ then you would know that your allies are probably using the term “sex worker”and opposition tend to use the word “prostitute.” Neutral parties who are less clear about the terms would be using both “sex workers”or “prostitute,”interchangeably.

Words that people use to describe sex workers give insight into their attitude, feeling, and respect for the issue.
Allies Opponents Neutral
Search Terms “sex worker” “prostitute” Both, “Sex worker”or “prostitute”

Pro Tip: If I use google’s advanced search function, then I can specify if I want to search for results with both terms or one without the other.

If we search on google for references to “sex work”we want to think about using either of those two terms depending on the what stakeholders we want to learn more about.

Are there surprises or challenges to our assumptions? Who are the loudest voices of support or opposition? Any new stakeholders that we should consider?

When other terms or issues are people using when they talk about “sex workers”? How about when they use “prostitute”? How can we incorporate those terms and issues into our messaging to be a greater part of the conversations already happening online?

In this example, if we look at both “sex worker”and prostitute – we get a huge number of results. If we wanted to find results for “sex worker”but without any use of “prostitution”that number is far lower. And if we look for “prostitute”without “sex worker”the number is way bigger. So clearly there’s a lot more work to be done on getting people to respect sex work as work, but this gives us a picture of how often the language is used on the internet.

As you learn words that your stakeholders use you can use and adjust the Campaign Listening Template to keep track of them.

Who? What? Now? Where?

The other side of the coin is to keep track of where these discussions are happening and where stakeholders are actually talking about your issue. Once you have identified who they are in the half-wheel and pyramid exercise you can look to see where they are online.

So if you have identified new stakeholders, you’ll want to do more detective work about where they are online, and again look to see:

  • Do they have a twitter feed?
  • Are they a facebook user?
  • Do they use blogs or online forums?

It’s also helpful to think about who influences your stakeholders and who they follow online.

  • Where do they get their news and information from?
  • Who’s information are they sharing?
  • What #hashtags are they using and responding to?

Update your tracking documents by keeping track of their online presence. Writing things like each groups’ twitter username down now will save you time later when from you are using different tools to listen online.

By first identifying your key stakeholders, then identifying the vocabulary they are using online to talk about your issues you are better able to keep up with the conversations that you need to be a part of. All of this better informs your ability to influence the dialog and encourage allies to engage deeper with your cause and neutral parties to become supporters. It may even inform your tactics and strategies of neutralising the influence of people in opposition to your cause.

If you’re not sure how to use the information you are learning after you’ve started listening, try some of the tips to engage in conversations online from “I’m Monitoring Social Media… Now what?” and “Pain, Passion, Fame, Fun

Where from here?


Check out Part II of the Listening Cycle, containing key tools and resources you can use to make ‘listening’ easier.

We’d also love to here how listening online has helped you learn and engage your stakeholders more effectively.

Also see:

FabRiders’ Big List of Social Media Resources