Listening (to the right stuff)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Upwell, one of the most important and inspiring around these days.

Upwell works for the ocean. They do that with “Big Listening” (more on that later) to track the global conversation about oceans. They do it with minimum viable campaigns – lean tests of what works (and doesn’t) to change and direct the ocean conversations.

And they do it by sharing everything they learn with advocates, organizations, media, scientists and everyone else that cares about oceans (which should be each of you because, you know, the world’s surface is over 70% water and that gives oceans a big leg up on the global power chart).

Clyde listens

Tracking the global conversation about oceans (or climate change or voting rights or organic agriculture or anything you can imagine) has never been more important. The information each of us gets (or can easily find) is no longer controlled by a community (or national) newspaper or TV station and its editorial board.

I won’t get into a discussion of network theory except to say that the Internet’s ability to democratize publishing AND surface the resulting analysis of what’s published through online conversation has pushed information outward. The last word on any subject isn’t embedded in any particular authority.

But pushing information out and making conversation more public doesn’t necessarily grow the power of activists, changemakers or even corporate brands. Networks have power. Individuals (and organizations) can’t rely on hierarchical positions. The President, a congressional leader, an Army general, a school principal all have authority but their power to create change and lead is limited by their ability to collaborate with networks.

Big Listening Builds Power

Big Listening, as Upwell calls it, uses a variety of technical tools (Radian6, TweetDeck, Topsy, the list goes on) to track online conversations and then mixes that with human feedback — talking to colleagues and other real people to be sure they’re asking the right questions and drawing the proper conclusions.
Once you get your hands dirty in big listening you may find that listening to and analyzing network information means two very important things:

  • Knowing what people are saying about your issues (and brands) is important. Directing the conversation is powerful. It’s valuable to know who’s doing the talking, how many others are hearing them, and how they’re engaged in those conversations. We need to know the who, what, why and how of the network. Big listening tactics and tools give you the pick axes (and chisels and brushes) to hack away at mountains of conversation in search of gold.
  • It’s easy to be fooled into believing you know what’s happening. Big listening is not foolproof. Each of us has beliefs, principles, values and knowledge of the world based on our unique education and experience. We all enter conversations with a personal understanding of the world. Further, the Internet (particularly social media) has enabled us to gather and view information based on our personal beliefs. It’s easy, as Eli Pariser explains when speaking of filter bubbles, to interact with those who share our beliefs.
  • Big listening can bring big filters. Tools that find and track conversations are only as good as the biases, insights and openness that we bring to them. We can uncover conversations, their frequency and influence but it remains easy to hone in the people on “our side.” This may run counter to understanding the true “state of the conversation” (as Upwell calls it).

Let’s circle back. Building power to make lasting change means talking with a lot of people. It also means talking with the right people. Power is increasingly distributed across networks. Individual leaders, organizations and media outlets remain important not because they’re centers of power but because they have networks.

Big listening hones us in, rather quickly, on what network is thinking and doing. It helps identify the parts of the network that matter most — those that have power, those that don’t, and those that are ebbing or rising.

But what makes big listening valuable is not the tools but the team. Radian6 and all the rest make it easy to find noise and focus on the wrong conversations, the people that are loud but not influential. A smart team constantly questions what’s being heard, puts it in perspective and asks questions. It’s a lesson that applies to working with any technology in a human-centered endeavor — the answers tech helps discover are only as good as the questions people ask.

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