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Michael Slaby is a global leader in digital and social media strategy, technology and data analytics, and explores how together they can elevate mission-driven organizations. For Michael, it is not[…]

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.

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.