Research in Progress: What do you want—really, really want—when you post on an org’s social media?

July 7, 2020

Sarah Maben and Chris Gearhart

By Sarah Maben and Chris Gearhart, Tarleton State University

While enjoying a juicy hamburger you think, I should grab a pic and post on Instagram. For giggles, you tag the company.

Flying to your favorite conference, your bags have disappeared AGAIN. You post an angry tweet at the airline’s corporate Twitter account.

Something is just not right with the patio scene you’ve constructed based on a sample from your favorite home improvement store. You post your progress and ask “who built it better” with a side-by-side image, tagging the company.

In all of these scenarios, organizational social media accounts are avenues to begin in a dialogue with a stakeholder. Or, they could simply surveille the social media landscape for mentions, collecting data for future marketing. That is not listening.

Research on listening suggests that better listeners use active and empathetic listening; they are considered competent listeners. They are action-oriented and acknowledge feelings. They might use response strategies like ask questions, answer questions, elaborate on a topic, or offer advice. They likely respond in a timely manner, and use nonverbal cues to let you know they are listening. We want to know how competent listening translates in organizational social media.

Listening in social media requires a response as evidence of listening, whether it’s a digital nod in the form of a like or a favorite, a written response, or multimedia feedback such as a gif. On your personal social pages, think about how you know your friends are listening to you in social media; on the flip side, also think about how isolating it feels to receive no response.

Social media research suggests that organizations have been slow to take advantage of the potential dialogue social media sites offer. While companies can converse directly with stakeholders, it’s proving cumbersome for many organizations. Some may not have the trained staff required to continually connect with stakeholders in yet another communication vehicle. For others, the shear amount of social media posts across multiple platforms makes dialogue difficult.

In our previous research, we found that people expect responses in social media that have empathy and are results-oriented. We see social media research is able to help organizations to take advantage of the potential dialog social media sites offer by helping to understand what followers expect for listening

Our project seeks to give organizations more insight into stakeholder expectations for listening, so they can better meet these expectations and improve dialogue and overall communication. We will also look for stakeholder characteristics that influence listening and could inform companies on how best to respond to their stakeholders in social media. Ideally, we will produce a foundation upon which categories of listening expectations can be developed. We want to help organizations find that balance of the right amount of responses, style, and listening for their stakeholders.

We will survey people about their preference for:

  • Responding behaviors (asking questions, answering questions, pertinent response, attention to emotion, response speed, offering advice, elaboration),
  • Nonverbal cues (emojis, exclamation points, capitalization, response length),
  • Format (text-only, gifs, audio and video).

With more information about stakeholders and their listening preferences, organizations can better train their “listening agents” – their social media teams. Adapting and adopting competent listening skills could help bolster manageable two-way communication between organizations and their stakeholders in social media.

So, the next time you direct a message at an organization’s social media account, think about what you really expect in return. Will a “like” suffice? A relevant gif? We’ll be asking the same questions and will report back next year.

For more information on this study, email Maben at or Gearhart at Results from the project will be available next year. This study is a part of the Center's 2020 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grants call for research proposals focusing on organizational listening.