Most people will tell you that learning how to effectively monitor (or listen to) what’s being said on the web is the beginning of social media success. You may agree with this or not, but I think it’s safe to say that the skill of listening online is one that all nonprofits should learn – it’s essential for anyone who wants to harness the power of the social web in their online strategy. The increasing popularity of social networking, blogs and social media on the web validates this point nicely – People are talking about you, but is your nonprofit listening to them? 3tyuxpqbwg khgf89n3cu

Are You Listening?At the most basic level listening on the web is just like listening in the real world. In day to day life we listen for mentions of our name, topics we’re interested in, hobbies we participate in, our company or industry, and friends or family. By listening for these things we give ourselves the opportunity to take action. We can respond, participate in a conversation, build relationships with others, debunk a rumor or correct misinformation, help someone out, and much more.

With the evolution of the social web and the tools available today you’re able to listen much like you can with your ears in real life. You can listen for mentions of your organization, products you sell, your executive director or a figurehead’s name, special events you are running, causes you support, campaigns you are managing, and so on.

This is a necessary skill in today’s fast paced online world (Great piece to further drive this point home: The Influencer’s Dilemma: The Battle For Mindshare Amid Media Turmoil by Louis Gray). Failure is imminent if you don’t learn how to master this skill. I don’t say that to scare you, but to motivate you. Learning takes time, but it’s something that you can start to pick up very quickly and with daily or weekly work you’ll become effective in no time at all.

Here are some steps to get you started listening … 30 minutes or less, I promise.

Step One: Determine what you should be listening for

Here are a few ideas for you:

  • Keywords you use on your website or in your analytics
  • Mentions of your organization
  • Products you sell
  • Your executive director or a figurehead’s name
  • Special events you’re running
  • Causes you support
  • Campaigns you’re managing
  • Competition or others in your industry

Step Two: Configure the tools

There are more tools out there than you can possibly make use of so I thought I’d make it easy and give you a jump start. These should be at the core of all your listening. You can always add more, but start here and learn to master them for your needs.

  1. Twitter search is your best friend for finding out what’s going on in the real time conversation world of microblogging
  2. Get the Social Media Fire Hose (using Yahoo Pipes). It’s a great catch all that monitors numerous social sites. Just enter your keyword and subscribe via RSS or email
  3. Get set up on Google Alerts to monitor the web at large. If it’s out there Google will probably find it
  4. Have a Google Blog Search and Technorati Blog Search running at all times to see what the Blogosphere has to say
  5. Monitor what’s being bubbled up about you on Digg. The internet’s popularity contest at your fingertips.

RSS Sample LinkEach of the above will let you search for a word or phrase and then get the RSS feed for that search. You’ll want to grab the RSS feed for each of the searches you performed before you move on to the next step in the process(setting up an iGoogle Listening Dashboard). To get the RSS feed URL you’ll want to look for something that looks like what you see to the left. It won’t look the same on every site, but you will see something very similar. The little orange image is a good indicator. Click on the image and/or link then grab the URL from your browser address bar.

A few extras to try out once you have been successfully using the above for some time:

  1. Google Reader will allow you to subscribe to blogs around the web via RSS.
  2. FriendFeed Search is probably one of the most powerful searches you’ll find out there.
  3. SocialMention is an all-in-one social search tool. Lot’s of options here.
  4. TweetBeep is a good backup to capture mentions of your brand on Twitter
  5. Backtype allows you to watch what’s being said in blog comments around the web
  6. BoardTracker searches forums and bulletin boards

Step Three: Bring it all together with an iGoogle all in one Dashboard

Having an easy to access web dashboard is a must. This way you can share it with others internally, access it on the go and get to it no matter what computer you’re using. Once you have RSS feeds for each of the above searches it’s simple to create a listening dashboard. For our purposes we’re going to setup an iGoogle Listening Dashboard. Why? It’s free, web-based and simple to use.

Step one: Go to and login or set up a new account. Once you have an account and are logged-in make sure you’re viewing the iGoogle version (not the classic version).

iGoogle Add This ButtonStep two: When you get to the iGoogle landing page for the first time it should be blank. Click on the “Add stuff button” found in the upper right of the iGoogle landing page (see image to left). This will take you to a new page.

Step three: On the next page look in the lower left. You should see a link for “Add feed or gadget” (look for little orange image). Click on that link. You will then get a little popup where you can enter each of your RSS URL’s. Take the RSS URL’s you got when configuring the various listening tools and add them one by one.

iGoogle Back ButtonStep four: Once you are done with step three click on the “Back to iGoogle Home” link found in the top left above the iGoogle logo (see image to left).

Finish: Now that you have added all your RSS feeds to the listening dashboard you are ready to play with your landing page. iGoogle lets you drag each box around on the page. Just hover over the title on any of the boxes, click (hold) and drag around. You can also click on the little down arrow in the title bar of any of the boxes to “edit settings”. This will let you display more items for easy viewing.

[ See a sample Listening Dashboard here ]

That’s it. Pretty simple eh? You may have some questions. Please start asking in the comments below. I’ll respond to everything as will some of the great readers here. We’ll talk about what to do once you have your social media listening dashboard set up in an upcoming post.

Listening 101 – A few more useful resources:

What questions do you have about effective online listening? What tips can you share with us about your listening techniques? Have I left anything out?

Photo Credit: Customers Rock


Frank Barry, director of digital marketing at Blackbaud and blogger at npENGAGE, helps nonprofits use the Internet for digital communication, social media, and fundraising so they can focus changing the world. He’s worked with a diverse group of organizations including LIVESTRONG, United Methodist Church, American Heart Association, Big Brothers Big Sisters, ChildFund Int’l, InTouch Ministries, Heifer Int’l, University of Notre Dame and University of Richmond. Along with writing for industry publications like Mashable and Social Media Today, Frank facilitates discussions, presents solo sessions and organizes panels for industry conferences such as NTC, SXSW, BBCon and numerous others. When he’s out and about he enjoys talking to interesting people about how they are changing the world – check out his interviews. Say Hi on Twitter – @franswaa or Google+

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