In an earlier Sitegeist post I commented on the struggles some businesses face when attempting to position their companies within various social media spaces. I noted that, for many companies, the whole idea of using social media to actually engage in conversations with their fans and customers is implicitly foreign. Social media phenomena, at their core, flip the traditional model of businesses promoting themselves because — rather than talking at your customers — all social media platforms are intended to allow two-way engagement. In this week’s post, I thought I’d talk about two ways that businesses are using social media and point out that, fundamentally, social media really is one part promotion and one part good ol’ fashioned listening and responding. As I look at many Facebook Fan Pages for both large and small businesses, it seems that most posts fall into one of two categories, either the “talking at the customer” type or the “customers talking back” type. Falling into the first category, for instance, are the announcements many businesses post to their fan pages. A local gym I follow, for instance, uses their fan page to announce weekend fitness events, classes, etc. The second sort of “talking at” wall posts they feature are regularly posted nuggets of fitness and nutrition advice. It seems that they’re figuring out how to use their fan page to convey exciting, topical “stuff” going on at their chain of gyms. And the regular doses of workout and nutrition advice they’re giving create motivation for their members and give them a reason to visit the page regularly. This is clearly an example of using the fan page for combined information and promotional purposes. The other, sometimes more infamous, manner in which Facebook fan pages tend to get used is as an opportunity for fans to talk to the brands they’re following. I’m not really trying to sound like an alarmist when I talk about this phenomenon because — its important to remember — the vast majority of remarks your fans are likely to leave will be positive, conversational expressions of brand faith. But every once in awhile, something your company has done is going to generate some negative hype and fans might take issue. Here’s where the larger opportunity for a real corporate commitment to listening and responding exists. I’m going to digress for just a moment. A few weeks back, I had the chance to attend a “proposal writing boot camp” sponsored by the New York Chapter of the Society for Marketing Professional Services. The boot camp featured several twenty minute sessions, all of which were intended to provide pointers on responding to RFPs. One of the seminar leaders was Maxinne Leighton, the Director of Marketing for Beyer Blinder Belle, a good-sized New York architecture firm. Maxinne’s presentation was impressive. Throughout her brief talk with us, she demonstrated techniques which revealed, in their totality, a complete commitment to listening. The type of RFPs she was talking about were large public, quasi-public or institutional RFPs and she shared many insights into developing successful responses to these. Many of her points boiled down to meticulously reading the RFP and making sure every bullet-pointed request was addressed. An overall message seemed to be mindful to all the larger and finer points and requests made in the proposal. If a team needed to be assembled, make sure the necessary due diligence takes place to ensure all the proposed team members are appropriate and none have strikes against them with the reviewing authority. This “commitment to listening” became completely evident when she shared what she noted — in this increasingly competitive marketing landscape — has become a larger part of her job lately. If an RFP has been awarded, and her firm has not been successful landing the work, Maxinne takes it upon herself to interview the issuing authority to find out why the firm lost the RFP and how or if they could have done a better job developing their response. That, it seems to me is a complete commitment to listening to what your potential customer is looking for. I relate this anecdote because, it seems to me, a “culture of listening” can go a long way towards successful social media strategies for businesses large and small. And, I would note, it doesn’t always involve newfangled techniques. For instance — getting back to Facebook — one phenomena I’ve noticed on fan pages is that, under adverse circumstances, companies persist in “talking at” their customers in a state of crisis, rather than listening. The recent Nestle controversy is good example of this. In a scenario where your Facebook fan page is getting flamed regularly, by a small, dedicated group of detractors, maybe a good response might be something pretty old school. Maybe you should get those fans phone numbers and call them up. Take the conversation offline, see if there’s a way to settle them down, hear their objections and respond in kind. I guess my larger point here is that social media really isn’t about the technology which empowers it, but rather about the attitudes behind the brands using it. If your brand is dedicated to listening, its use of social media will be successful. And, just because the conversations start online doesn’t mean they only have to take place online. When disaster strikes, maybe it’s best to take the conversation offline, where real people can engage other real people with their legitimate concerns.