Introducing “Cave Man Listening”: a guide to low-tech “listening” for small non-profits

Some large non-profit organizations have both staff and technology to support an increasingly important activity:  listening to what’s being said over the Internet about one’s organization, cause and category.  If large and sophisticated non-profits are already in the Space Age by virtue of the technological tools they’re using, it’s still the Stone Age for small, resource-strained ones.  Hence, this is my first stab at a “how to” guide to social media listening, especially for small non-profits.


If, after reading this, you conclude that even “Cave Man Listening” is beyond the reach of your organization, at least encourage your staff and volunteers to establish LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter accounts and tell you when they come across conversations of interest to your cause or organization.  And get out there and comment!


1.                  Get your objective(s) straight


Think about your organization’s situation and strategy.  What are its most important aims?  To raise awareness of an issue?  To recruit volunteers?  To attract friends and donors?  As a starting point, choose your MOST IMPORTANT need and focus on that.  You can broaden out your listening efforts once you’ve figured out a basic approach that works for you.


2.                  Google your organization, your competitors, and the best keywords you can think of for your cause.  As a place to begin, include your geographic identifier, e.g. Sacramento.  (Experimenting with keywords and noting the number of Google results will tell you something about the most popular keywords.)


You’re not doing one search.  You’re doing several that relate to your organization and your cause.


3.                  Dig through the results – really dig, down to the 20th page or so.


The deeper you dig, the more you will begin to uncover the informal networks of people who are involved in your cause in some way.  You may find individuals who are blogging about events they’re sponsoring for a competitor.  You may find favorable, or not so favorable, comments about your services on yelp.  You may find people who are talking about your cause in more general terms, who may not know who you are and what you do.


If you can’t spend that much time – don’t worry about it.  Do what you can do, even if that’s just the 6th page of results.


Notice where the conversations are happening.  Are they on yelp?  Community boards?  Blogs?  Twitter?  LinkedIn?


As a place to begin, pick three venues that you want to track more regularly.


4.                  Recruit helpers if you can.  (If you can’t, skip to #6)


Once you’ve identified the priority “places” to listen, divide and conquer.  Who can help?  How about a new Board member who’s eager to get involved, especially one who is younger and uses social networking already?   A volunteer who’s a communications professional and wants to stay current with social networking trends?  Remember that they should participate as individuals, with (at least) an avatar to differentiate themselves from individuals and organizations that shamelessly use the ‘net for self-promotion; ideally, your helpers will feel comfortable identifying themselves with a screen name and potentially a photo.


5.                  Establish a goal and (softly) an accountability.


If the work is being divided, it needs to come back together.  And if you’re reading this “Cave Man Listening”, tag, you’re probably “it”.  Ask the helpers to experiment with listening for one month.  Ask them to “listen” at least once a week, and copy and capture what they learn in an email to you.  Very likely they’re helping out of the goodness of their hearts, so don’t make it a command.  Let them know that what they’re doing can really help the cause.


If you’re not pushing your luck, create a list of what to capture so that you can analyze the results later (see “Analyze” below).


6.                  Add just a little technology; at least sign up for Google Alerts.  As Google Alert Help explains:  Google Alerts are emails automatically sent to you when there are new Google results for your search terms. You can also choose to have your alerts delivered via feed to the feedreader of your choice (e.g., Google Reader or add the feed to your iGoogle page). We currently offer alerts with results from News, Web, Blogs, Video and Groups.  Go for the “comprehensive” option if you want alerts re: news, websites and blogs aggregated into a single email.  Amy Sample Ward has a great slideshow she’s posted online that walks you through what Google Alert and other online tools like Technorati and Google Blog Search look like, and how she uses them.  As Amy notes, if you start following certain blogs, you’re quickly going to want a way to aggregate the postings.  Google Reader ranks among the best RSS readers and it’s easy to subscribe.  Remember, if you don’t read posts when they hit your reader, you can always search/scan later… so don’t panic when you start to feel buried by all of the information coming at you.


7.                  When you turn up discussions about your cause or organization, carefully consider opportunities for response.


Each “hit” is an opportunity, but sometimes no response is the right response.  If the post/message is already favorable about your organization, you may be able to comment with encouragement and let the individual know about your organization’s recent success stories or upcoming opportunities to get more involved.  If the post/message is negative, first consider whether you are likely to get “flamed” by commenting; don’t take the bait if bloggers are into bashing, degrading, satirizing or ranting.  For other negatively leaning posts, follow the rules of good public relations:  acknowledge the individual’s concern/experience, respectfully provide correct information if you think that’s appropriate, and follow-up if needed.  Tone is important and so is taking action to investigate, at the very least.  Network for Good is just one organization that says they have successfully converted nay-sayers into some of their biggest advocates.  If the post/message is just about the cause/issue, and not your organization, offer information about your organization as a way to get involved and make a difference.


8.                  Analyze:  what do the results “say”?


In a more resourced world, you’d be able to analyze the data several ways with a tool:  according to key words, active individuals, sources (websites, blogs, etc.) and so on.  At the most low-tech end of the spectrum, print out or review the emails you’ve received.  What’s the gestalt?  Do you detect a pattern about where/how groups and individuals are communicating about issues or organizations related to your cause?


If you’ve got the time, .xls isn’t a bad way to create a database of entries, with columns for key factors such as:


Key words (look for core key words like “hunger” and “hungry” as well as phrases like “feed the hungry” or “fight hunger” – and don’t forget more general key words like “charity” or “volunteer”)


Favorable/unfavorable/neutral (overall opinion being expressed)


Individual names (e.g. the blogger’s “handle”)


Individual organizations (e.g. the organization the individual is promoting or referencing, including information groups or coalitions)


Individual or organization blogs, posts etc. at… (many profiles and comments allow individuals to specify whether they have a blog or website)


Source (URL if you’ve got it)


Mentions of other organizations or collaborators


“Ask” (what is the individual asking readers/followers to do?)


“Tell” (what critical bits – facts or ideas – is the individual sharing?  This includes complaints, warnings and suggestions.)


9.                  Refine.


Based on the results, prioritize the best “places” on the Internet for you to continue to listen.  Re-up your volunteer helpers if you can.  Based on results, you may eventually find that acquiring a more sophisticated tool, like Radian6, would be of use to your organization.



1 Comment

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One response to “Introducing “Cave Man Listening”: a guide to low-tech “listening” for small non-profits

  1. Hi Betsy,

    Wow, what a comprehensive article! As someone who worked in the nonprofit arena for several years, I can completely appreciate the challenges of being time and resource constrained. And as a communications or fundraising person, you’re wondering how in tarnation you’re going to layer this onto things you’re already tasked with doing.

    I often tell folks that 15 minutes a day can lend amazing insights. Putting your finger to the pulse of the online community is really key. Chris Brogan had a super helpful post today called “Grow Bigger Ears in 10 minutes” that also outlines some how-tos of setting up listening outposts.

    The most important step is to start, so I’m really glad you’re keeping this discussion going. We appreciate the mention, too, and are always happy to provide free trials of the platform for orgs that might like to take a peek and see if it can help them.

    Amber Naslund
    Director of Community | Radian6
    @AmberCadabra on Twitter