Begin by listening

on November 10, 2008

Chris Brogan by Daniel Alexander/Framesmedia.comSocial media consultant Chris Brogan is one of the top 200 bloggers and considered one of the top 50 men in social media.

Summary (Chris Brogan):

  • Large companies know that their marketing dollars aren’t cutting it like they use to.
  • While not everyone is ready to publish in social media, everyone can agree to begin a listening campaign.
  • When you listen, don’t just look for your company name, but think how the consumer would write about issues related to your product.
  • Begin building relationships now with influencers. It’ll be a lot easier to talk with them down the line when you have positive and negative news.
  • Brogan purposely doesn’t finish his blog posts and that invites lots of comments. People love to give their opinion and he wants readers to feel welcome to do that.
  • Transparency is a misused term. Not all companies can be transparent, but everyone can disclose a relationship where others may perceive a conflict if it wasn’t disclosed.
  • Being part of the conversation means actually learning the language and being more of an appropriate immigrant to this new digital community.
  • Don’t assume social media doesn’t exist until you arrive.

Full article:

Chris Brogan is in the trenches of social media. He’s a top tier blogger, a social media consultant, and one of the founders of the new media conference, Podcamp.

I spoke to Brogan about how he conducts his business as a social media consultant. Brogan talks with a lot of large corporations about incorporating social media into their marketing mix. What I was eager to find out from Brogan was how he got these large corporations to take the social media plunge. For years I’ve dealt with companies that only can think like a traditional marketer (e.g. make sure you hit all your message points). I asked Brogan, how do you get companies to shift from marketing-type thinking and more into the storytelling and informational nature that’s required of social and new media communications.

Recognizing you can’t build Rome in a day, Brogan doesn’t immediately recommend companies start going into full blown social media production mode. He first tries to get a level of agreement with potential clients that marketing has changed for their business. That they’re getting less and less uptake for the number of dollars they’re putting into traditional marketing. They usually agree to that. In fact, they probably agreed to that before he walked through the door. There’s a reason they asked him to come.

What’s different today about these social media marketing meetings, said Brogan, is that now he’s meeting with senior level people. In the past, he would talk to kids in the organization who were chomping at the bit to get something done. Things have definitely changed. You’ve got CMOs and VP’s of Marketing realizing that they’re slow out of the gate, but they know they want to do this. And Brogan feels that this trend shows that the market is evolving. Companies are taking social media seriously as a place they actually want to place their dollars.

Commitment to listening

I asked Brogan how committed these companies are on the long haul and he said what they are committed to is listening, not necessarily exposing their voice online. “They’re almost always willing to commit to a listening program. Because I can almost always find either dirt or really interesting competitive information for free on the Web every single day,” said Brogan.

Brogan describes one company (could not mention name) that was doing some listening, via Google alerts, but only around their company name. They didn’t actually do any listening around what their product was and how people would actually talk about it (e.g. “My ____ service sucks”). “They weren’t putting in things that would get into the mindset of what the customer would write about this,” said Brogan, “They were doing it from their brand.”

To help the company, Brogan started putting in search terms as to what a customer would say if they were having a good or bad experience with the company. What they discovered is there was a lot more being said about them positive and negative. Brogan used Google blog search, Twitter search, and Technorati to see where those conversations were happening.

For hearing what people are saying about your company, products, and services, Brogan started plugging a company Radian6 that delivers as their CEO describes, “Listening at the point of need.” Radian6 is a dashboard tool that you can tweak and listen across multiple social applications, the Web, discussion boards, and communications services. Radian6 has many competitors like BuzzLogic, Nielsen BuzzMetrics, and Visible Technologies. Brogan argues that these services are too expensive, charging upwards of $50,000. Radian6 has some solutions that are as low as $500/month. The big difference, said Brogan, is with Radian6 you get the toolset, not just a report at the end of the month that tells you what’s happening. Other services may charge you for every requested change. Radian6 lets you change the terms and tweak until you see what you need to see.

Brogan said large companies respond well to the listening and that’s simply because listening is an easier sell than trying to push a big campaign that gets the company fully embedded in social media. Although Brogan admits not all companies can listen. “A couple of pharmaceutical companies I worked with had to decline because it turns out that if somebody says something gripey, anecdotal, or negative about their product, they have reporting requirements that say they have to hand it in to some federal [monitoring] groups,” said Brogan. In other words, pharmaceutical companies can’t afford to listen. Especially if boneheads are typing in random symptoms connected with some pharmaceutical company’s product.

Taking it slow with big corporations

“When I talk to a large corporation I look for a comfort level first,” said Brogan, “They all say the same thing, ‘We feel like we’re a little slow to get on this. We feel like we’re behind everyone else. We’re really not sure.’ And they’ll cite one of the bigger social media blunder stories of the universe (e.g. Wal-Mart’s RV bloggers).” Once he understands where their comfort level is, then he gets into a discussion about commenting and what it’s like to comment on a blog, or what news outlets and blogs they should read that have anything to do with the company’s vertical.

“If you’ve already got a blog out there in the space and you’ve already started to build small relationships, then if some kind of big news hits or if something sweeps out across the social media space, having a blog in place and having even a small amount of relationships in place certainly is a lot easier,” said Brogan. You don’t want to have to launch as soon as there is a problem, said Brogan. “Having a platform (e.g. a blog) is a nice step, it’s just never my first step,” Brogan continued. Brogan suggests listening and then commenting to get yourself acclimated.

How to get tons of comments

On Brogan’s blog, he can have some posts that get north of 85 comments. He says his norm is between 30 to 60 comments per post. Yet, there are some of his posts that will only get zero to two comments. Of the posts that get few to no comments, Brogan is pushing the reader off to another location to either read another article or to see a video. For the posts that get tons of comments, Brogan purposefully doesn’t finish what he’s writing. Leaving lots of issues unanswered is an invitation to readers to add their thoughts.

“I usually write my blog posts so that they’re not entirely finished. I leave a lot of open space for you to add your opinion. And the reason I do that is because I want you to feel like there’s some contribution and some give or take to the experience. I’m not writing thesis and essay and editorials. I’m writing things where I have something in my mind and I want to share it and get your ideas too,” said Brogan. He’s constantly asking questions in his posts to elicit answers. He asks lots of questions. It’s very strategic for him. People love to give their opinion.

Biggest misunderstandings about social media

“Join the conversation” and “transparency” are buzzwords Brogan can do without. They’re the terms that are constantly demanded as requirements if you want to get into social media. But Brogan realizes that businesses can’t be completely transparent because private company information is a competitive advantage. You don’t want to be giving away trade secrets. It’s more of an issue as to “what” should be transparent. You don’t put your company strategy on the Web.

What most people mean by transparent is let’s not have “Wal-marting across America” again. That was the case where bloggers traveled across America in their RVs staying at Wal-Mart, never revealing they were hired by Wal-Mart. There wasn’t any disclosure and there should have been. “Transparency would be better said as disclosure and that’s where people get it wrong all the time,” said Brogan, “What we’re really saying with transparency is, is be open and honest about situations where there might be a prior relationship that would cause you something of an upsetting nature to happen should someone reveal that information.”

I referenced what Chris Shipley said in an interview (select the video) with me about not being able to control people’s opinions. You can only disclose and people will form their own opinions as to what that means. So if you say you’re working with some company, some will think it’s great that you’re getting inside information, and others will think you’re a shill for the company and that’s why you’re writing about them. Brogan referenced Robert Scoble when he was working at Microsoft as being a great example of the former way of thinking in that he was very open about who he worked for, but had no problem talking about the company positively or negatively.

I asked Brogan how somebody pulls off what Scoble did. Work for a company yet still talk negatively about them in a public forum. In Brogan’s upcoming book in May called “Trust Agents” co-written with Julian Smith, he talks about how to be open and honest on the Web. In the Scoble case, he wasn’t being negative strategically about the company, but rather he was “being one of us.” He was saying what many of us were thinking, but he said it with more authority because it was coming from someone within the company. He may have received plenty of internal heat for comments like that, but he got tons of props from the community at large.

Scoble could get away with his pro and con opinions about Microsoft because he had an audience, and that audience has value. “If he’s got an audience, then Microsoft wants to know what that audience thinks, and that’s better than paying some girl in a mall with a clipboard to get your opinion as you walk by,” Brogan said.

For companies looking to offer up the same freedom Robert Scoble had at Microsoft to its employees, yet not let them go over the line, Brogan suggests first opening up your company’s email policies. Ninety percent of blogging policies mirror a company’s email policies. The additional part is to add information about not being disloyal to the organization. You could say you want products to be a certain way. Brogan gives an example of how Robert Scoble might talk about how he prefers Firefox over IE. “There’s a big difference between Robert saying, ‘I wish IE would take some hints from Firefox’ than him saying, ‘IE will never be good. I can’t believe this company is bothering. I think we should drop this browser line entirely,'” explained Brogan.

With all that advice, Brogan still admits it’s not a science and company blogging is a live and learn situation.

As for the phrase “join the conversation” Brogan believes there are far too many opportunities to get this wrong. Some companies come in with a bullhorn and start talking. What you need to do is listen first and comment on what’s being said. “Being part of the conversation means actually learning the language and being more of an appropriate immigrant to this new digital community,” Brogan said.

As you begin to comment around the Web, it’s a good idea to take advantage of a commenting tool. Brogan recommends Disqus which allows you to track all your comments all over the Web. I use a service called Cocomment that does much of the same thing.

I asked Brogan is there are any large companies engaging in social media that really impress him. Excluding the way Whole Foods’ CEO, John Mackey, handled himself in the past, Brogan’s impressed with what the company is doing currently. They have a lot of online content, blogs, podcasts, video, and even Twitter. They have a Twitter person of the day where they just find someone who’s doing some good online and they give them recognition and an award which is usually a Whole Foods product. They’ll also talk a lot about community events going on in and near local stores. What he likes most is they’re putting a human face on Whole Foods and also trying to create that local market feel using social media and Twitter.

Don’t assume that social media doesn’t exist until you arrive

Brogan admits he’s made some massive blunders in social media. One case was when he reached out to the New England podcasters’ bulletin board and said he was going to invite all the social media rock stars to come to Boston for Podcamp. Nobody responded to what he thought was a generous offer until he saw a response on the board that said, “There are a lot of rock stars in Boston and it’s kind of offensive you got to import them from other places.” Brogan learned from his mistake. Wherever you go on the Web realize there’s been a history. Don’t assume you know everything and discredit what’s been done before you arrived, Brogan said.

“Social networks allow us to assume familiarity a little too fast,” Brogan said, “We presume by having these two way conversations on the Web that the other person knows and is comfortable with our interactions with them already. And so we sometimes overstep accidentally what we could request or make a joke that isn’t appropriate to that level of interrelationship.”

For the individual businessperson that wants to put their best social media foot forward, Brogan offers this advice, “Make sure you dress up your profile and who you are on the Web and how you’re representing yourself through these platforms appropriate to the space where you are and be human about it, instead of just putting the bare minimums of an account together just so that you can observe and be part of something or try to extract value before you’ve shown yourself there to be a persona.”

Photo credit: Daniel Alexander/

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

David Alston November 10, 2008 at 10:11 pm

Great interview David. It’s really great to see Chris now offering his vast social media knowledge for companies to draw on in his new venture.

Adam Singer November 11, 2008 at 12:32 am

Really found this one useful…thanks for taking the time…

tom martin November 11, 2008 at 12:35 am

thanks for the great post. I just decided to go with Radian6 myself after unknowingly following Brogran’s advice for getting a client into the social media space. Nice to know he approves of the software for the same reason I picked it. Also that he rec’ds the same approach I used.

Ari Herzog November 11, 2008 at 2:14 am

Concise and to-the-point interview, David. Chris Brogan is a rockstar and I think it’s fair to say he’d call you one, too!

steve dodd November 11, 2008 at 11:24 am

Hi David, this is a great interview.

Chris’ perspective is very interesting and shows that there are many options available when a company needs to understand what is happening in the Social Media domain. As we all know though, cost is not the only consideration. Some systems are fairly basic from a “Monitoring” perspective whereas others offer far deeper analytics to help users quickly understand what is being discussed, not just that a “key word” is being mentioned. There are choices that provide automated analysis, manual analyis and a combination of the two.

The choice really comes down to what companies need. When organizations are making decisions relative to their most important assets (Brands), it is very important for them to really understand what their options are and what the impact will be.

We are really quite excited about the activity in this market and are finding that the customer demand for additional information increases rapidly once they get started.

Steve Dodd –

Brent Haeseker November 11, 2008 at 12:33 pm

Great interview, David. Chris is very knowledgeable and your interview gave a lot of insight.

admin November 11, 2008 at 12:38 pm

Hey all. Thanks. What I really liked talking with Chris about was how to deal with large corporations. I’ve been doing this for years and I have so many instances of “told you so,” but that never got me any business. The trick is to find the comfort level, and what Brogan found that comfort level is simply just listening.


Jason Baer November 11, 2008 at 8:09 pm

Great job. I’ve subscribed.

You cannot force companies to embrace social media at the point of a bayonet. Listening is the perfect entry into social media, and really how can any company say that they don’t want to know what their customers and prospects are saying online?

I love Radian6 (and am a customer). But for folks just putting their toe in the water, Techrigy or even the free tools like can work as well.

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