Outside Inspiration: Listening Post New Orleans

Outside Inspiration: Listening Post New Orleans

This is my second stab at doing a bi-weekly "outside inspiration" post - a longer look at an idea from outside higher education that can have big implications for people working in social media at colleges. If you like this, check out my article on "placemaking."

And a quick reminder that you can follow this blog on Facebook and me on Twitter.

One of the things I’ve been thinking and learning about in my grad program is the power – and necessity – of doing more listening.

Of course this is good advice for personal and professional relationships, but it’s perhaps even more important for people who work in social media and (ostensibly, anyway) act as the public face of a brand or institution.

Listening Post New Orleans is a project that I have become fascinated with in recent months. It began as an art project – creating elaborate sculptures with microphones in them, placing them in public places, and inviting people to tell their stories and answer question prompts – and has evolved into an innovative community listening and news project utilizing an exciting texting service called Groundsource. (More on that later.) Listening Post New Orleans also partners with WWNO radio – here are some of the stories they have produced together. And similar projects worth checking out include Curious City in Chicago and Listening Post Macon.

Working in social media marketing, there’s real risk in getting too caught up in messaging calendars and the buzzword miasma – data-driven publishing, snackable content, native advertising, storytelling, newsjacking, gamification – and forgetting to get out into the real world and actually listen to the people that make up the community or brand you are representing.

Yes, I really do mean get out into the real world and not just doing “social listening” or “monitoring” or whatever it is you call it when you tally up if tweets and comments are positive, neutral, or negative. Yes, that is difficult, time-consuming, anecdotal work. Yes, it’s important and worth it.

Why? Among many other reasons, as Listening Post New Orleans founder Jesse Hardman writes: “A lot of people are connected, even arguably over-connected to information networks, but many communities are still left out of the conversation.”

This concept rings particularly true for people working in higher ed, as on campuses nationwide groups of students that have long felt left out of the conversation are advocating for change – in policy, in hiring practices, in student services, etc. There has never been a more critical time to listen to students and what their true needs and interests are. Crucially, we have to actively reach out to everyone, even those that might choose not to participate in the traditional means of panel discussions or open forums or whatever else is a more typical response from college administrators to these types of issues.

Much easier said than done, I know, but Hardman has written a fantastic playbook on how to go about launching a listening project of your own. I highly recommend you check it out.

And while listening is worthwhile and important in its own right, marketers should never overlook the power it has in revealing stories and sources. Feel like you’ve been telling the same types of stories over and over? Feel like things have gotten a bit to rote with your messaging? Worried that the school portrayed on your website and social media doesn’t actually reflect reality? Maybe it’s time to expand your net and empower people that have felt left out.

There are a lot of elements that go into making Listening Post New Orleans, but what I’ve become most interested in is their use of Groundsource – a tool that allows for mass text messaging and the collection of responses. We all know that students (and, really, everyone else) are on their phones constantly, and that social messaging is seen as the next frontier in digital marketing. Case in point: the four largest messaging apps are used more than the four largest social media apps. But social messaging can be really tricky for brands – it’s very difficult to be “authentic” and welcomed in that space, particularly when many users (especially high school- and college-aged) like these apps for the privacy they offer compared to larger social media sites. Not to mention this is always a risk for brands:

Every week, Listening Post New Orleans texts a question out to the community, and the answers they receive help shape what they do with the stories they produce for radio and how those topics are covered in the media. Questions can vary from basic human-level things (What did you have for dinner last night?) to complex topics like how people are impacted by the prison system. Groundsource can work as a quick poll to take the pulse of your community, or it can act as a lead generator for identifying compelling, interesting, and (often) untold stories. And they also post all the responses they get on their website - a nice touch of transparency and a way to encourage others to find stories and ideas within the responses.

To get people to sign up to Groundsource, Hardman has put in the legwork – attending countless community events, getting buy-in from leaders and influencers, putting up signs all over the city inviting people to text in, telling people he meets at the grocery store… every person matters. And he makes a point of connecting with neighborhoods and communities that are underserved and often ignored – both by the media and policy makers.

In many ways, a listening project like this has the potential to be very effective in a contained community like a college campus as opposed to a whole city – there’s a lot less physical space to cover, and there are many built-in networks that would be easy to connect with. If you are clear with students from the outset about what the goals behind this project are (a simple “we want to hear directly from students about the issues and topics they actually care about” should suffice) and you promise not to spam them, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get them to send in a text and opt in.

I would recommend you to be clear with students when you create a story or share responses via social media that they are the true source of what you have produced. That they played a role in shaping how it came about. In theory, this will give them some ownership of whatever you produce and encourage them to both participate in the future and to share it with their own networks.

And whatever you do, resist the temptation to use it as a marketing tool to promote events or anything like that – just this once, do the listening and not the talking.

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