Can You Hear Me Now?

Can You Hear Me Now?Almost daily, I hear about the power of the web tool for listening to the all-important key audiences.  And thinking about all the online tools available for listening, hearing and collecting data, one might easily be amazed that any organization would have trouble understanding their members and contributors intimiately.  With access to scads of valuable information, we all should know who what services to offer, which partnerships are the most effective, and what matters most to those we serve.

But tools are no substitute for answers, and insights usually require some thought.  For many organizations, the key challenge is not how to listen, but what to listen for.  For example, we might want to know whether our stakeholders, customers or members are happy with what we provide.  But phrasing that as a question is not always so easy.  Sometimes it is difficult to know what to ask because we are actually unclear about we need to know.  What aspect of the relationship between audience and organization makes sense to focus upon?  Individuals in key audiences may be unclear about what they want or need.  "I will know it when I see it," you might hear them say.  In addition, a variation in the needs and wants of target audiences requires careful consideration of which questions might be most important to ask.

Even with a sense about which question to ask, successful communicators will want to know how best to ask it. Sometimes important insights come from the Groundswell, as writer and former Neilson analyst Charlene Li suggests.  The rage in social media and online communities indeed deliver passive listening approaches that can lead to unexpected and immensely valuable understandings.  But for all the hype, listening to the groundswell does not always answer our most pressing concerns.  Sometimes you just have to ask a specific question to tease out targeted insights. 

So what questions lead to insight?  Perhaps an open-ended conversation-starter helps get the ball rolling.  From there, you can drill down for greater understanding.  Traditional approaches, like focus groups and interviews, have long been recognized as power tools that support this approach.  Social media, micro-blogs, online communities and the like, can also provide a forum for exploring interests and needs of stakeholders.   Quantitative tools,  like web analytics (think Google Analytics), enable you to get beyond what key audiences explicitly say to a clearer sense about what they think or do.

As 21st century communicators, we thrive on a wealth of tools for collecting and analyzing data.  But contrary to popular misconception, questions are more powerful for finding insights and answers than advanced tachnology, data and tools.  Determining first what we might like to learn makes it much easer to figure out how to listen.