I earn my living helping charities and small businesses get better returns from their marketing and communications ideas. That means I spend a lot of time encouraging people to try and think and feel what their target audiences think and feel. Put themselves in their audiences’ shoes, if you will. Sometimes we can do this intuitively or based on experience and sometimes we have to use research or some other means of gathering feedback.
The tidal wave of digital media, especially social media, has given our target audiences more voices and more ways to state what they think about our organisations than ever before. A good thing. But listening doesn’t mean taking everything you hear on board and acting without thinking. Sometimes your supporters or customers are not always right (well at least not just because they are the most vociferous).
Think about the last ‘panic’ in your organisation caused by some negative publicity or perhaps just one or two complaint letters. Have you ever posted an online poll on your website and acted solely on the findings? The trouble with tools like Facebook is that a complaint can now become public property and have many more voices attached to it. So before you leap into the (usually very appropriate) cycle of “listen, make a change, check the change, roll-out, listen again…” take a moment to overlay some perspective.
- Where is the noise coming from?
- If it’s a public statement in the national media by your largest high value donor – IT’S IMPORTANT! Act accordingly.
- If it’s a complaint letter from just two supporters or a new ‘we hate you’ Facebook page, pay attention and investigate the issue professionally. But then ACT COMMENSURATELY.
- Don’t call the fire brigade if you aren’t actually on fire.
- To help decide what is important or not, compare any current issue with previous issues and see how you reacted then and what the actual impact was.
- Is it going to impact on your strategy? Is it going to cost you a lot of time and money to respond to / rectify? (if so, make doubly sure it is important before you act)
- Will it stop you from achieving something else important down the line? If so, it might be better to mobilise now even if it seems like a smaller issue in the present.
- If the issue is research-based, is the sample size valid and representative? Are findings specific or general (specific are easier to act upon)?
- Is your position defensible? Be honest. If your audiences rail against your activities, or omission of action, do they have a point?
Irrespective of how important the issue is (or not) always investigate professionally before acting. How else will you know what a commensurate response is or indeed if anything other than polite acknowledgement is required?
I offer the following examples as lessons we can all learn from…
- The recent re-brand of Parkinson’s UK saw an outbreak of negative reaction on its own web forum which could have suggested they had made a mistake with the change. Chief Executive Steve Ford explained (in Third Sector) that it was actually “a handful of people realising that the charity had a new strategy and wanting to be more involved.” It required engagement, not panic and a major overhaul.
- The idea for the Sony Walkman bombed in focus group research.
- As a charity you have overheads to pay, irrespective of whether donors want to give to support them – its a simple reality (that should be well-managed, by the way).
- I haven’t seen any evidence that the twitter campaign against Habitat (following an intern misusing twitter and then being sacked) resulted in a drop in sales. It was very ‘loud’ with thousands of people joining in. But what impact has it had? Happy to revise my opinion if anyone does have any evidence.
- Thousands of individuals around the world vocally supported the fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses”. His publishers did not respond to their requests.
- Up until last week, there was a Facebook page devoted to the memory of Raoul Moat. The authors withdrew it voluntarily but not until it had generated more than 30,000 contributions. Facebook’s adherence to freedom of speech principles in allowing it to remain up for so long suggests they did not fully understand their broader audience.
I’m not suggesting for a second that our donors, supporters and customers shouldn’t be listened to or that social media campaigns against us should be ignored as ‘fads and crazes’. Exactly the opposite in fact. Let’s just act appropriately once we’re clear on the circumstances and potential impact.