Listen Learn Adapt

BY Beth Kanter @ Beth’s Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media


Listening is knowing what is being said online about your organization and your field.  Listening is the first step, but you do it before, during, and after the project.  In other words, you never take your listening ears off.  It becomes part of your organization’s culture.

It can be hard to retool an organization’s culture to do listening as a daily part of the work flow, particularly if it isn’t valued or there are concerns about negatives.

The Red Cross has overcome these hurdles.   They use social media to achieve goals of increased transparency and increased donations of blood, time, and money.  In that order.   Listening is an important piece of the strategy.  This was over two years ago.

As Wendy Harman, Red Cross Social Media Manager, observes, “When Katrina hit, we knew people are talking but we’re not listening to conversation. First, it felt like we were going to do battle.  But now, the process of listening has changed concerns into strong interest about what people have to say.”

The first project was to listen to what was being said on blogs about the Red Cross.  As the chief listener for the organization, Wendy honed her listening literacy skills using free tools like google alerts, technorati, RSS reader, and delicious.  She would listen, aggregate, analyze, and distribute to key subject matter experts within the organization on a consistent basis.

Listening leads to engagement.  Wendy documented many different stories and shared these internally. The examples would show how engaging with people changed them from complainers to fans.  Here’s but one example from a blogger:

“I took an American Red Cross class I thought was less than satisfactory. […] Someone found my blog post and told the local chapter director. He called me to talk about it honestly. […] They care about me and they’re willing to go the extra mile. […] This gives the American Red Cross HUGE points. I am now significantly more likely to take another class than I was before.”

They’ve had months and months to hone their work flow and the Red Cross Social Media Team has it down to a science.  They determine what comments need action, whether to say thank you and build a relationship, repair a customer service issue, or ignore.   They spend time reading other posts by the blogger to help make this decision.  They now use this approach with other channels, like Twitter, for example.

Because of the volume and using free tools, Wendy had to do a lot of heavy cut and paste to analyze, summarize, and distribute the information. With a better understanding on the value that continuous listening provides the organization, they are now investing in professional tools, like Radian 6.

Key points:

  • Relationship building lays groundwork for future campaigns to raise time, money, and blood
  • Identifies influencers
  • Documentation creates internal value
  • Listening skills and tools upgraded
  • What works used for future campaigns


“If you don’t launch, you don’t learn.”   David Armano

Learning is using experiments with metrics and the right questions at the right point to understand what works, what doesn’t.  This is where the pavement hits the road.  You won’t be able to reap the full potential of social media unless you begin and get past any social media stalemate.

What does learning actually mean?  You have to think like a scientist, documenting your experiments at the beginning, middle, and end.  You also need to observe like a primatologist, like Jane Goodall. Perhaps that a bad analogy – certainly your donors aren’t primates.  Armano describes this as digital anthropologists sifting through qualitative data and metrics to reap insights.

I’ll share my process and I understand that I’m probably a crazy person.  I also know there is some resistance to document while you’re doing, but I think it is essential to learning – especially at the practitioner level.    Here’s what I do:

1.  Document on the fly

I don’t wait until the end of the project.  I grab a little something everyday.   It could be as simple as opening up a google document and dropping in a few bullet points or cutting and pasting a comment.  The point is – you need to steal five or ten minutes from the doing to reflect in action.  Since I’m a visual person, I also use flickr as a documentation tool – I do a lot of screen shots with snagit and annotate. I also bookmark posts that reference the project using a unique project tag.  If I’m working with a team versus solo, I’ll also share some summaries of the most important learnings.  I also tweaking as I go – mostly messaging and mostly clarifying.

2. Pick the right hard data points

I know from experience what the most important metrics are to track for different types of projects.  They are different depending on the audience and goals.   Here is where more is less is really important.

3.  Harvest your insights

At the end of the project, I do a wrap up with all the bites and pieces I’ve collected.  I do a “by the numbers” summary,  I look patterns and trends in the comments or visuals, and look at what other nonprofits are doing in the space.  The important piece is to ask questions, not just look at numbers.

4.  Hit the Pause Button

I usually write something up that anwers the question – “If I were to do this again next step, what would I do differently?”   I don’t wait until the day before I’m going to do something similar again.   You best insights come right after you’ve completed the project and had a day or two of distance.   Then you have captured those thoughts and when you begin planning for the next iteration – you have not lost those valuable insights.

A few points about social media metrics. While some of the measurement concepts for social media remain the same as traditional Web analytics, there are some new ideas to embrace.  Steve Rubel wrote about this in a post called “Page Views Are Officially Dead” two years ago.  Page views may not be dead, but you need to use engagement metrics. I’ve written about this as it relates to blogging quite a bit.  Again, it isn’t the numbers in isolation.  It is the time that you spend looking at metrics in the context of your strategy and asking questions.

Yesterday, I interviewed Jake Brewer who is the Internet Manager at the Energy Action Coalition about how they use metrics to generate insights about their YouTube Channel.

“We don’t really care about views as much as we care about comments.  If we get 1,000 video views that is good.   The comments are a focus group with our influencers.  If they like it, they’ll spread it and that helps get to our objectives.”

Rachel Happe has a great list of social media metrics and it is a good starting point.   If you’re a metrics geek and want to go deeper, visit my personal learning space for Social Media Metrics.  But do me a favor, please.  Please don’t get so obsessed with metrics that you loose site of how you’re going to use them!  And remember,

  • Objective, audience, strategy and link to your metric
  • Pick the right ones!
  • Numbers alone are meaningless
  • Combine with other measures and qualitative data
  • Harvest insights


The definition of adapt is using insights to make corrections to improve results the next time around.  You have to be nimble and that can be hard.

I’ve watched the Carrie Lewis at the Humane Society do a fantastic job of adapting the organization’s social media projects.   In 2007, the Human Society implemented its first photo petition campaign to protest Wendy’s treatment of animals . They tracked the number of photo submissions they got, but they also listened carefully to the responses they got from participants.

As Carrie Lewis mentions in the comments in the blog post , “Since this was our first run at a photo petition, it was difficult to get across exactly what we wanted people to do without writing a book. So every person that wrote in and needed help was answered personally. This gave us a good idea of how to more clearly explain ourselves next time.” This particular photo campaign had many technical glitches and ultimately the number of submissions was less than impressive. Did HSUS proclaim that photo competitions were a waste of time?


The next iteration of a photo contest, LOL Seals , made it as easy as possible for people to participate. That’s what they had learned from the first campaign. The first contest, they asked people to upload their photos and tag it themselves, which meant they had to create a Flickr account and know what “tagging” was. The second contest, they used the Flickr API which made everything automatic — from tagging and uploading without the user having to even touch Flickr. They had about 3,000 submissions and captured about 2,000 new email addresses.

They’ve recently implemented an online photo contest that combines wisdom of the crowds with person to person fundraising.  There is a web and Facebook version.   It looks, from the outside, like a great success so far and this would not have happened with out these earlier versions.

It’s much easier to adapt your social media project than to change other things in your organization that social media might shine a light on – customer service, programs, and services.   And to make changes on those areas, it may require thinking staffing, work flow, and of course, involving leadership and others in your organization.

Armano has a some excellent organizational culture questions:

  • Are you launching initiatives that can be easily updated? Are you enabling a “culture of rapid response?”
  • Are you building a culture in which “failure” is acceptable?
  • Are you allowing your teams to create “pilots” prior to scrutinizing them through traditional ROI exercises?
  • Are you planning initiatives that will help your organization learn prior to backing major marketing campaigns?


  • Don’t take off your listening ears
  • Think like a scientist, observe like primatologist
  • Evolution is a good thing

Listening Literacy Skills by Beth Kanter
How Listening Returns Value for Nonprofits by Beth Kanter
Nonprofits Need Different I and R Words by Beth Kanter
How o harvest insights by Beth Kanter

Now, it’s your turn.  What are some of your organization’s social media adaption stories?

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