The Three Bears of Social Media Marketing: Part 2 (Papa Bear)


By Sonia Simone

OK, the Mama Bear of social media marketing is the customer conversation model. It's about connection, warm fuzzies, community, all that good stuff.

The Papa Bear model isn't quite so fuzzy. I call it Papa Bear because it's the model that makes the most sense for gigantic organizations, but it can also be an important social media strategy for individuals or smaller companies. It has a common sense side and a potentially creepy side. So let's get into it.

Their eyes and ears are everywhere

Let's say there's a gigantic packaged food company. Now let's say the gigantic company has a program to listen in on public blogs and forum discussions, and learns about a novel use for one of its products. Maybe they make a chewing gum that's particularly good at clearing dust from your throat. That might not be a feature anyone in the marketing department has ever promoted, but customers have noticed it on their own.

Maybe, then, people are chatting in forums and military support blogs about sending that gum to their family members fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, to alleviate the choking dust that soldiers are facing there. The idea turns into a modest craze, with earnest volunteers coordinating sending cases of the stuff to soldiers deployed overseas.

Armed with the knowledge of this interesting new use of their product, the gigantic company now has all kinds of options. They can create ads around this particular feature, to reinforce the conversation that's already taking place. They can put special displays in supermarkets, saying that for every package of gum sold, the company will send a package to the military. Or the company could get their PR agency busy pitching the story, maybe coordinated with making a massive donation of the gum to the troops.

None of these has the gigantic company actually sending a representative to the online forum and chatting with the folks there. But it is still communication. The customers talk, the company listens and responds. It responds with action rather than literal conversation, but does that make it less meaningful?

Remember that adage, you have two ears and one mouth? You should therefore . . .

Listen twice as much as you talk

Papa Bear knows how to keep his mouth shut. He listens to what's going on. He finds out where his customers are hanging out. If he's really big, he might engage a company like Collective Intellect to analyze what's most significant about the conversation. (Subscribing to Sonia Simone in Google Alerts is pretty darned manageable to follow. Subscribing to "Coke" or "Mercedes" or "iPod" is not.)

Papa Bear watches the conversation and looks for themes. What are people upset about? What do they get really jazzed about? What's bugging them? What problems aren't getting solved? What great stuff are people saying about Papa Bear's competitors? Are Papa Bear's support people doing the right thing by customers, or are they prompting near-AOL level rants?

If Papa Bear isn't a multinational conglomerate (or possibly even if he is), he might be able to morph into Mama Bear and enter the conversation on a human level. But it's a good idea to spend at least some of your time in Papa Bear mode. People will always speak a little more freely about you if they don't realize you're in the room.

Is it too sneaky?

Online media have an unappealing word for this behavior: lurking. It conjures up a picture of some creepy guy hiding in the bushes outside your window.

So what do you think of Papa Bear? Is it sneaky and deceptive to listen quietly on the public conversation? Should we always step out of the shadows and make our presence known?

And is listening (and following up with action) "real" communication, or just eavesdropping?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Next in the series, of course, is Baby Bear. He's adorable, cuddly, and . . . not actually a bear at all. Subscribe in a reader or by email so you don't miss him!

Flickr Creative Commons image by thelearnr


  1. Jon says:

    Papa bear is almost forced to keep his mouth shut by his very size. Like you said, ‘People will always speak a little more freely about you if they don’t realize you’re in the room.’

    Sometimes, Papa can do more. I can’t remember the guy’s name (Frank?) over at Dell, but he’s making some serious headway. Then again, Papa might have just sent “Mama” in to handle the kids. Lots of Papas do that.

  2. Raphael says:

    Being a big guy 6’6″ I realize the nuances of being a pappa bear and yes I do know when and where to speak and I also realize how to as well. I notice that some don’t like to be talked down to even if they are short.

  3. Rudy Kehler says:

    I don’t see this as a conversation. When papa-bear responds to the market, he’s not listening for the purpose of engaging, he’s listening for the purpose of _capitalizing_ on what he perceives. He is all about self interest while the nattering he monitors via polls, blogs, w.h.y., is true discourse. People processing their experience.
    I think this is why ‘lurking’ sounds so creepy. It is. When we are unaware of the listener’s motivation or intention, which would be revealed if the-lurk would participate, we are legitimately cautious.

  4. Lurking is such a loaded word. I see it more as observing. I don’t mind Papa Bear observing me, especially if it leads to me getting more of what I want or like or leads to Papa Bear making the world a better place in some small way. If he benefits from it too, alright with me.

  5. Jean Gogolin says:

    I’ve always been curious about why listening and observing — two things intelligent people and companies do all the time without ill intent — got to be called “lurking” in the blogosphere. Hiding under the windowsill or in the bushes is lurking. Listening and observing in order to learn are not.

  6. Steve Dodd says:

    Very interesting perspective. There are a bunch of companies doing social media analysis that don’t need big money to use. Some of this technology is really cool. Check out,, for starters. Like with social media in general, Papa Bear has lots of choices!

  7. Sonia Simone says:

    Yeah, Steve, that’s what sort of spurred this post–I think some of the technology is very interesting. And like it or not, it’s here, so we might as well get used to it.

    Jean/Phyllis/Rudy, I suspect it makes us uncomfortable because we’re not conscious of the listening. Sort of like when you get halfway through that hilarious story about a co-worker, than realize she’s standing behind you. It might not have been an unkind story at all, but it’s still a little unsettling.

  8. Sonia Simone says:

    Oh, p.s., Jon, I love “Papa might have just sent “Mama” in to handle the kids. Lots of Papas do that.” Fabulous.

  9. Judy Dunn says:

    I definitely do not think Papa Bear’s behavior makes him creepy. I myself listen in a lot with the intention of learning what the solopreneur’s issues are so I can address them better. Sometimes I chime in like Mama Bear and sometimes I don’t.

    And many, many more people read my blog than comment but I don’t consider them lurkers, either.

    I think no matter who we are (and what size) , we all have the right to look, listen and learn.

  10. This has to sink in for awhile with me. I think it’s smart to watch, observe, use both ears. Makes sense.
    Market responsiveness, how can that be bad?
    There is that slight creepiness factor if someone had ill intent.
    Or now that you all have me thinking, would I want someone to hear the things I say in conversation? Would we self censor more knowing a Papa Bear is in the room?

  11. Evan says:

    I’d never have time for an active conversation with all the blogs I read. I still think it’s communication though.

    My major way of listening is the blogs I subscribe to – so I guess this isn’t sneaky.

  12. Kelly says:


    JetBlue does it, then gets involved, too. TypePad used to lurk and get involved, though I’m pretty convinced from my own experiences that they’ve pulled away from that. Zappos does it. I have a couple of corporations watching me regularly (as opposed to hunting for mentions of their own name), though I don’t quite know what they’re looking for.

    I don’t think Papa’s sneaky at all, I think he’s savvy. I also think that getting Mama involved when it’s called for is brilliant, for making an individual happy and for spreading word-of-mouth. Why can’t a big company sincerely want to help you and sincerely want helping you, to help them? Isn’t that what every small business owner wants? If I love golf and open a pro shop, I’m glad to share my knowledge but I also want to make sales, right? Why is that slimy as part of a corporate plan?

    I’d like to see more of that small-biz sincerity infiltrate big biz, rather than having people misunderstand it as something conniving or unattractive.

    Yes, I think getting your gum to the troops because of what you read online is communication. It’s not a conversation, but it is communication. You talked, we heard, we talk to a wider group about what we heard.

    (I can’t set an alert for my name. Apparently, I’m sharing it with a rather popular chick.)

    Looking forward to Baby Bear.