Want to sell your idea at scale? Then it's time to listen at scale

Social media has created some perfect crowd-think tools. But are people really listen to the conversations?

Michael Slaby: Over the last decade or so I think the biggest shift we've seen is sort of the final breakdown of the traditional channel-based structure, the way we tend to think about communications as paid media, earned media, owned media, this sort of traditional silo-ed approach to communications that we still hear a lot from marketing textbooks in business school and that kind of thing.

I think what has happened is: the process of the 20 years preceding the last decade was about fragmentation, new types of channels, satellite TV and mobile networks, and just this incredible proliferation of types of content and channels within the silos that left people feeling like they had infinite choice but left communicators feeling like it was impossible to reach an audience.

What social media has done, particularly Facebook and Twitter, have created a glue to knit all these fragments back together into something that feels like one big graph, one big network of content moving between channels in unpredictable ways of engaging with people in ways that we can't necessarily predict, of creating more two directional conversational dialogues and communication between individuals and the people that we're trying to reach and inspire, which is new behavior for us.

It requires marketers and communicators and publishers to develop new skills like listening that we didn't used to have to do, we just picked the channel and we picked the right message and we said something to an audience that was mostly pretty passive, and I think this is the big shift in thinking and the real challenge for a lot of organizations is we are now part of a graph with the people that we're trying to inspire rather than them being a stable audience that we're trying to reach and us being in a stable position as inspirer or publisher, we now have to participate in this system.

People create content, we create content, they share content, we share content and that means that we have to think differently about how we communicate, how we tell stories, how much content we have to create. We can't reliably predict where that content is going to get consumed so it's really easy to get into a situation where if we're not really clear about our values and our identity and who we are and what we're trying to achieve where sort of our values and mission sit as an organization it can become really easy to sound schizophrenic to the communities that we're trying to engage.

And I think a lot of organizations are still really struggling with this transition. It still feels really unsettling to folks because it means whole scale changing of the way we think about content and communication and publishing, it even means different org charts rethinking how we shape the organizations and design and staff and how teams work together and how people collaborate are all different than they used to be in, and that's still a change process that I think a lot of us in a lot of organizations are still working their way through.

So when we think about politics and we think about what's changed in communications, one of the most important changes to the communication landscape is the shift in the necessity of being able to listen effectively at scale, the necessity of seeing the people that we're engaging as relationships we're trying to create, and the necessity of empathy and listening as part of starting relationships is fundamental to communication—now rather than either orthogonal or accidental or a nice to have, this is the fundamental nature of many of the communication mechanisms are bidirectional now and that means our habits have to change.

I think one of the great advantages of digital technologies is the capacity to listen at scale, the phrase to use even in the question is something that wasn't possible before digital tools. The ability to use data, to use smart sort of tools and listening tools, things like Radian6 and Crimson Hexagon, there are a lot of these platforms out of there for you see them mostly in sort of the enterprise marketing spaces, but work really well in politics and social good and these other places to get a sense for what people believe and think in social conversations, because so much of this conversation is happening in public. And so the question about listening is mostly a cultural one. The tools, these tools aren't perfect and some of them are pretty expensive so not necessarily the easiest things to implement, and building skills and hiring people and thinking about this as a skillset that needs to be part of your team as part of this process, but before any of that is a belief that listening is important.

A belief and creating a culture where questioning your own certainty and validating your own certainty and putting the community first in terms of how you want to be able to reach and inspire the people that you're trying to engage, whether that's selling a product or trying to win an election, this is just a function of how the landscape works, this is not particularly partisan, it's not particularly about politics, but it requires a cultural belief in the value of listening, which is not something that all leaders come by naturally.

And I think part of this is a discussion about the value of empathy and the value of really the necessity of understanding the values and beliefs and emotions behind what people value and believe as part of building real relationships with people.

And this is where, again, digital tools make starting relationships with more people easier but maintaining relationships is still work. So this is one of the great challenges of large scale community organizing, which is the things that we were able to do, particularly back in 2008 with the first Obama campaign when we were sort of treading a lot of new ground, just because timing has a lot to do with the success of a rain dance—it created the ability for us to have millions of volunteers, which we could never have recruited without these new platforms, we just couldn't have had that many meetings. We just ran out of hours in the day and time in the campaign and it allowed us to accelerate the recruiting process and the engagement process by creating more doors and more ways into the campaign for more people.

But making sure all of those millions of people felt valuable and heard and respected and part of the process and enabled to do good work that had value that was on-mission is an enormous commitment of work and there are thousands of field organizers in the Obama community who did the work of supporting those relationships. And I think this is one of the big shifts in thinking about from audience to community where speaking at someone and saying the right thing to you at the right time in the right channel is a very linear process. This is traditional micro-targeting and marketing: “I need to figure out what you're listening to or what you're watching so I can show you the right message and you're just going to consume it and it's going to change your mind.” This is a little bit the magic madman idea, like the perfect ad, the perfect sort of great idea—and there is value to that creativity and content is still super central to how we communicate and how we tell stories, but the process is not that linear anymore, and so thinking about how we engage people as a relationship we are building over time rather than just a transaction at a moment in time is I think the starting point to start bringing these other ideas into the conversation about empathy and what you think and believe and feel, and listening to you.

People will tell you what they think if you ask them. People ask, “How do you know what people think?”

And the answer is: in politics we knock on a lot of doors and we have a lot of conversations, hundreds of millions of them literally conversations where we are asking questions and talking to voters and asking what they think and who they support and we keep all that data. It is a massive listening exercise.

It's a massive exercise in is our view and vision for the future compelling and is it getting through? Are we making sense? Are we reaching people and connecting with people in a way that is relevant to them or are we missing something? And people will tell you if you ask them. It's not actually that complicated.

It's just—it's hard to do at scale. And this is something that has to be staffed for.

And the piece of this that I think if the first part is about culture, or the last part is about adjusting to, there is a misconception that you can just start publishing, and just create a page no one charges you anything you just start doing stuff. Creating content isn't free, responding to comments isn't free.

Being careful about the ladder of engagement you're creating with people and inspiring them and engaging with them and answering their questions isn't free. That requires teams, talent, and energy, and commitment to creativity that you've got to pay for.

And that's a place that staffing changes, and the way this changes the way we think about communications departments is pretty profound.

Social media upended traditional media by cutting out the middle man. No longer were "gatekeepers" needed to vet popular opinion: now, any Tom, Dick, or Harrietta can go online and write what they think. But traditional media—and some could argue, certain political parties that rhyme with Schmemocrat—seemed to have stopped listening to what their their potential readers are saying, creating a gap between the two. Michael Slaby worked with Obama on two election campaigns to figure out what groups of people are thinking. It's not easy work. But he posits that with the right kind of ears, some publications and brands (and, yes, even politicians) could one day make themselves 'of the people' once more.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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