Episode 3 of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast: Setting up as a freelance writer: Website, social media and brand management best practice. Part 2.
Episode 3 of the freelance writing podcast which I co-host with Lorrie Hartshorn is now available to listen to!
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Edited to Add: We now have a transcript of the show!
Philippa: Hi and welcome to the third episode of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast. In this episode, we will continue to discuss the issues we began talking about last week around your online presence, your social media management and managing your brand identity when you’re setting up as a freelance writer.
Do make sure you subscribe to the podcast so that you don’t miss each episode when it comes out. Visit alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com to find out how to subscribe by RSS feed, on iTunes and on Stitcher smart radio, and also for links to the A Little Bird Told Me Facebook page, as well as all the places you can find myself – that’s Philippa Willitts – and my co-host, Lorrie Hartshorn online. You’ll find links to our website, Twitter feeds, Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and more.
You join us now just as we start to discuss how much time spent on social media is work, and at what stage it crosses over into play and time-wasting. We go on to talk about how to stay professional, how to cope with a PR disaster and whether you should ever delete tweets, amongst other things…
While social media is important – it’s important to engage with potential clients, and other writers for a sense of community – don’t go kidding yourself that spending eight hours in a row on Twitter is ‘working’. It’s not. It’s playing. It’s important to go on perhaps twice a day, maybe not even that often, and post a little update, reply to a few things. Some people do it twice a week – it’s fine, whatever works for you, but if you’re spending an hour, two hours, three hours, that’s fine but it’s not work.
Lorrie: Yeah, I wouldn’t 100% – shock horror, we’re not just one person! – I’m a bit of a chaotic internet user, I have about 20 tabs open at a time, you know, and I keep a few plates spinning at the same time, so I tend to be on there all day, every day. That being said, it’s not the only thing I do, it’s just open.
Philippa: Yes, I do the same – I have TweetDeck open a lot of the time. I think, what I was thinking of is just doing solid Twitter for six hours. Like you say, I know both of us are quite ‘pop in, pop out’ on it – it can be a nice little break. But yeah, if you’re doing six hours on it and nothing else, that’s fine…
Lorrie: …but you’re doing it wrong!
Philippa: You’re not working! Hahaha! As well as looking at how you behave on social media, in terms of whether you’re doing very personal updates or very professional updates, there’s also – like we said earlier – it’s social media, you need to be sociable, talking to people and being interactive, but you do have to be careful to stay professional even when you’re being fun and friendly.
Lorrie: Definitely, and I know that you manage a lot of social media feeds, Pip, and I’ve worked as a marketing person before, so I’ve done the same for a number of companies. People don’t want dry tweets – I think the key thing I found is that you can be fun and friendly, but keep it clean and non-controversial. Steer away from ideology, politics, anything a bit risqué because you don’t know how you’re going to offend.
Philippa: And that’s exactly why we have separate personal accounts, because both of us do have strong political views: we’re both feminists, we’re both quite opinionated and that’s at least partly for me – and probably for you – why I knew I had to have a separate account for work. Because I am opinionated.
Lorrie: Definitely. This is it. There are certain things I find completely unacceptable when I’m just thinking as ‘me’. When you’re thinking ‘as a business’, you have to let them go like water off a duck’s back. You have to ignore silly comments, and you can’t engage with people in the same way because people are watching you. Your time isn’t your own when you’re on the clock, is what I’m trying to say.
Philippa: Yes. Something that’s important to consider is what to do if you have some kind of PR disaster. These days, because nearly all companies are on social networks of one kind or another, if a PR disaster looks like it’s raising its head, the media and individuals go straight to Facebook and Twitter feeds to see what the company’s saying about it. And although it might be less likely that you, as an individual freelancer, will cause a massive uproar, you never know what’s going to happen, so it’s important to consider how you might handle it if something you do gets taken the wrong way and blows up in your face. There was a case, Lorrie, that you wanted to talk about, wasn’t there?
Lorrie: Yes, I picked up on something within the last months, and it was a company called BittyLab – which is, to my mind, a really unfortunate name…
Philippa: It is an odd one, isn’t it?
Lorrie: It’s a weird name, because it’s a company that sells formula bottles for babies and obviously I’m not a fan of…whatever that comedy show is called, but ‘bitty’ in England at least, is a bit of a tacky name for breast milk. But BittyLab, anyway, had gone all over Twitter and posted repeat tweets about how men could “reclaim” their partners’ or wives’ breasts from the needy new-borns. And to do this, they should stop their partners/wives from breast-feeding and buy them a BittyLab bottle! Which is just the worst idea I’ve ever seen!
Philippa: Hahaha! As marketing plans go…
Lorrie: Yeah, someone very silly signed that one off! It was terrible – there were things about ‘reclaiming your wife’s boobs’, ‘are you sick of the new-born?’, ‘feel like you’re not getting a look-in? Then buy your wife a bottle then she can stop breastfeeding!” So, it got the feminists angry, it got breast-feeders angry, it got the formula-feeders angry because that’s not why they formula feed…
Philippa: And, it got the dads angry!
Lorrie: It did!
Philippa: They were saying, “We’ve just had a baby, I’m in love with the baby, it’s incredibly hard work, I’m incredibly proud of my partner – why on Earth do you think that my priority at this stage would be reclaiming her breasts, as if I’d ever owned them in the first place!” So even the target audience [of the tweets] was quite offended that someone should think so badly of them!
Lorrie: Massively offended. It was an absolute nightmare. You’d think, with something like that, you’d delete the tweets, you’d then apologise, you’d say to people ‘we’re going to do better’, you’d take some time out and re-emerge having learnt from your mistakes.
Philippa: I do want to add there that deleting tweets is a difficult one because it’s a bit ‘damned if you do’ and ‘damned if you don’t’. If you don’t delete them, people will say ‘I can’t believe that’s still up on your feed’. If you do delete them, people will say you’re trying to cover up.
Lorrie: I think the thing to do is to acknowledge that you’re deleting them. Say, ‘We’ve deleted the tweets in question, we realise they were offensive, and we’re sorry – we’ll do better in future’. Don’t just quietly delete them.
Philippa: Yes! I agree absolutely. If you decide to delete them, if they’re really wrong to have up, then acknowledge what you’re doing. Don’t just make them disappear in the middle of the night! Because people really appreciate a real apology. I write for a feminist website and, a couple of months ago, a post went up on the blog that, for a few reasons, wasn’t up to the standards that we’d like and was actually quite offensive in slightly subtle ways, which is why it hadn’t been spotted, but in ways that were actually unacceptable to us. And we wrung our hands about it and had many discussions in a short space of time. In the end, we deleted the post with a very clear explanation about what we’d done and why, and we apologised unreservedly. What was really quite nice was that the response was incredibly positive – people were saying, ‘Wow, a proper apology! It’s not a ‘fauxpology’ (oh, we’re sorry if you were offended!)’. We very clearly said, ‘We made a mistake, it shouldn’t have happened, we’re looking at the system to make sure it doesn’t happen again – We. Are. Sorry.’ And the response was overwhelmingly positive – people were saying, ‘that’s how you should do an apology!’. As long as you’re open and clear, people know that everyone makes mistakes sometimes and if you handle it openly and say, ‘I don’t know what happened, we messed up, we’ll sort it out.’ People appreciate that a lot more
Lorrie: Definitely – that’s an example of how to do it. When it came to BittyLab, they really should have taken a leaf out of that book because what they did instead was to accuse, firstly, the readers of being ‘dirty-minded’, as they put it, and making everything about sex. They then didn’t delete the tweets or respond to anyone. To be fair, they posted an apology on Facebook but, again, it was a “You’ve taken it the wrong way” sort of apology – you know, “We don’t know why you’re offended.”
Philippa: Yes, we’re sorry if you’re offended, but, really, you’re overreacting if you are.
Lorrie: Well, this is it. Things got a bit fraught, then, because when you get on social media, it can be a feeding frenzy. If people are offended by what you’ve got to say, they will let you know.
Philippa: It can blow up fast.
Lorrie: It can! By the time a real apology came out, people were so enraged by the fauxpology that they weren’t ready to accept it. And then, to make matters worse – it was the cherry on top of a particularly hideous cake – BittyLab had apologised but then went around ‘liking’ the comments from people ridiculing those who’d been offended! And it was just the worst PR disaster I’d seen in ages because this – I know we’re saying it doesn’t really happen if you’re a freelancer – this is a one or two person company that was doing extremely well. The product looked amazing.
Philippa: Yes, they really could have done well. It did look to be a good quality product, a good idea and something parents might need. But, I don’t know whether they’ve done well, but certainly that marketing campaign blew up in their faces. Even if someone in there went, ‘I know, let’s get attention by being controversial’, even that failed in the end, I would say.
Lorrie: It really did. I had a look at the Facebook page – I don’t have children, so it’s not a product I’d want to buy for myself – but there were a lot of people on there saying, ‘I would have bought this product’ or ‘I would have recommended this product to my formula/breast-feeding group, but now I’m not going to.’
The CEO of that company is very visible – she’s a part of the brand – and people joined her with the brand, and they weren’t ready to forgive her so it didn’t matter how good the product was – they just didn’t want it any more.
Philippa: If you do want to get attention by being controversial – and I don’t think that’s a good way to go about doing your marketing – don’t alienate your target audience. That’s just common sense 101, I think.
Lorrie: Definitely. There are laddish brands out there and I don’t appreciate their marketing – I find it sexist, or risqué or whatever, and I don’t think it’s the best thing to do – but at least it’s aimed at the target audience, so you can’t say fairer than that.
Philippa: There are some examples of companies who handle PR disasters really quite well by social media, and it can be worth looking at those who do it well as well as those who do it badly. Recently, in the UK, a massive mobile phone company called O2…well, it just broke!
Lorrie: Haha, there isn’t any other way to put it!
Philippa: And for a good few days, there was just no O2 network. And so people were really angry – we can’t do without our mobile phone networks – and so it was easy for people to get on Twitter and leave angry, and frankly abusive, messages to O2.
I’ve sent angry tweets to companies before and sometimes they handle it really well. I complained about a product I bought recently and I named the company I bought it from. I didn’t ‘@’ them but they clearly do a search for their own name and, within half an hour, they got back to me, said ‘If you send us your order number, we’ll take a look’ and they arranged a return there and then on Twitter. Now, what O2 did, is they were getting a load of abuse, most of which I won’t…
Lorrie: No, best not!
Philippa: …read out, but what’s interesting – and I’ll put a link in the show notes – is that they responded really well. One person tweeted, “Not going to lie, can’t wait to leave O2!”, to which O2 responded, “But we still love you!”
Philippa: And others…they’re mostly not-read-out-able on air, but they responded with humour and personality and humanity to these understandably angry tweets. I’m not saying the abuse was understandable but the anger was, and someone in their PR department had clearly said, ‘This is how we’re going to deal with it.’ and it worked.
Lorrie: It did. It went all across the media – Guardian, Independent and all the tabloids – because it was fun but they didn’t try and absolve themselves of any responsibility. They knew people were angry – rather than just being repeatedly really apologetic, they injected a bit of humour, admitted there was nothing they could do about it at the time, they were really sorry and they took a few of the most controversial tweets and responded in a witty, self-deprecating way. It just got everyone on side, really.
Philippa: Yep. So if you do get criticism via social media, it’s quite public. If…and God, this would be awful…if a client was really unhappy with your work and went to Twitter or your Facebook page and said, “Such-and-such is a dreadful copywriter”, how, Lorrie, would you think that should be handled?
Lorrie: Oh, duck and cover! Go under the duvet for three days and don’t come out. No, you can’t do that. You need to establish who’s in the right for something like that. There isn’t always a right or wrong for things like that – it’s not always black and white. Firstly, I’d apologise that the person’s not happy with the service you’ve rendered to them. I’d try and establish exactly what the problem was. Invite them to contact you, probably for a phone call but at least get them on email. Above all, do not delete what they’ve put.
Philippa: So important!
Lorrie: Yes, it can look like you’re trying to censor things or, worse, that you’re trying to doctor people’s impressions of you.
Philippa: I hear so often that someone on Twitter has left a criticism on Company X’s Facebook page, took a screen shot and it’s now disappeared. People these days – or, at least the people I know! – take screenshots all the time. If you send a dodgy tweet, someone will screenshot it. If you delete someone’s criticism on Facebook, someone will have screenshot it. It makes you look bad, it makes you look evasive. It’s not nice to be criticised in public – it’s not nice to be criticised, really – but certainly not in public, it can feel embarrassing. And it’s not to say that you can’t defend yourself, or that you have to lie down and take it, especially if you really haven’t done anything wrong. But approach it carefully. Like Lorrie said, you can say, “I’m really sorry you’re so unhappy – can we take this to email so we can establish properly what’s happened and what I can do to fix it. Be open – it’s very unpleasant, but more unpleasant is what other people’s impressions would be if you tried to ‘shush’ it all.
Lorrie: And it never works – that person will then go away and spread the fact that you’ve shushed it. Like you say, you look evasive, you look like you have something to hide. One thing I would add is that, when you have resolved the issue, be open about having resolved it as well.
Lorrie: If it wasn’t your fault, don’t slate the other person because for whatever reason they’re cross with you, but it’s perfectly proper to say, ‘Really glad this was resolved, going to be careful in future to make sure there are no further problems, apologies to anyone who’s been inconvenienced’ Tailor it, be open about it.
Philippa: The final thing we wanted to cover about Twitter was how much self-promotion you should do. Now, especially if you have a Twitter account specifically for your professional life, obviously that will be – to varying degrees – to market yourself and the work you do. But there’s quite a careful balance that needs to be made in terms of how much self-promotion you do. Nobody’s saying ‘Do none’ because you’re running a business and need to market yourself. But, no one wants to follow that guy whose every tweet is “Check out my website [URL]” or replies to people, going, “That’s interesting! Check out my website [URL]!” Nobody wants to follow you because it’s dull, there’s no incentive to click because you have no relationship with that person.
Lorrie: This is it, if you treat people like a pot to shout things into, they’re not going to appreciate it. They’re not there to listen to you, you’re there to respond to them and attract them, and persuade them that you’re offering something they want.
Philippa: Yup. I’ve read different thresholds – I’ve read that no more than one in ten of your tweets should be self-promotional, and I’ve read that no more than one in twenty should be, so I imagine somewhere between the two is a good guideline to use. I am aware that I don’t do enough self-promotion on my Twitter account – I do a lot more posting interesting articles and responding to people, and I don’t do enough “By the way, you can hire me to write!”. But on balance, I’d much rather do that than be that annoying guy who does nothing but tell people to hire him.
Lorrie: Definitely. I think it’s fair to say I do more self-promotional tweets than you, and that’s an awkward thing to say – I feel really bad about it now! Haha!
Philippa: Well that’s it – we do! Especially British people as well, I think a lot of Americans don’t have the same hang-up about it. As Brits, we’re very awkward and embarrassed about self-promotion. And I don’t feel badly of you for doing more of it than me, I’ll say that now – I don’t think you’re a horrible person! – but it does feel awkward, which is partly why I do so little of it!
Lorrie: It definitely does. One way I tend to get around that – and I would say I do more than one in ten, simply because it’s difficult to get the balance promoting yourself enough, not promoting yourself too much and not spending longer on Twitter than you need to – so what I tend to do is make sure I tie in my promotion to responses to other people. So, it’s 100% ‘Come and look at me and my website’ but I’ll check if people are looking for a copywriter or editor on Twitter, and I’ll respond to them. Sometimes directly, with ‘Have a look at this service I offer’, but sometimes not – it’s nice to just be helpful because they’ll remember you for it.
Philippa: Definitely. Something I do, when I remember, is schedule promotional tweets in advance. So, if I write a promotional tweet that says, “Do you want your website copy proof-reading? Contact me here!” – but obviously better than that! – if I do write a tweet that seems to work, what I’ll do through TweetDeck or HootSuite is schedule for that tweet to appear in a month’s time, and then in another month’s time. Then, a few days later, I’ll do another one and schedule it for another six weeks, or eight weeks, so I don’t always have to remember to do it. There are things popping up saying ‘this is what I do, I can help you’.
Lorrie: Definitely – I agree with Pip on that one. It’s quite handy for a number of reasons. As a freelancer, you’re sometimes not in during the day and you catch up on your work during non-working hours but you don’t want to leave your tweet-feed looking like nothing’s happening and you want to target people while they’re having a sneaky Twitter break during the middle of the day, and that’s a good way to schedule your tweets.
Another good point is that, as a freelance writer, your work often involves not only copywriting, but also – for myself – literary editing, copy-editing, proof-reading, academic translations. It’s good to make sure you get a little bit of everything in, and I know that Pip has a very good way of dealing with this…
Philippa: Have I?
Lorrie: Hahaha! Yes! You do, you were saying that you focus on different lists.
Philippa: Ohhh, yes! What I’ve started doing is creating Twitter lists. I’ve always used them on my personal account but never in a very structured way. But, what I’ve been doing is adding people to mainly private Twitter lists, so they don’t know they’re on them. I do have some public ones, like Tweeters in Sheffield, and writers – but then I have private ones as well, like social media people because one of my specialisms is writing about social media, and another for media contacts, and another for copy-writers, editors and so on. There are quite a lot and, again, TweetDeck helps me manage these a lot.
And so, if I want to focus my marketing on a particular area, say I want to spend the next two weeks really focusing on social media writing, as well as focusing on my general feed, I can make a real effort to just follow the tweets from my social media list, which has influential people, great contacts in social media. So I can spend time specifically talking to, interacting with and learning from those people, which is very important especially with something like social media writing where the game changes every day. You need to stay on top of all the latest news, and it’s a great way to do it.
Lorrie: I definitely agree. I don’t do so much in the way of social media work, but what I do do is literary editing, as you know. And I have an extremely long couple of lists, one of which is literary journals and publications so I know when deadlines are coming up for things like that. The other is for self-proclaimed fiction writers, who could potentially need some help making sure their submissions are word-perfect coming up to those deadlines.
Philippa: Yes. That’s it, and if you are specialised in some way – and something like literary editing is quite specialised – sending out general tweets about literary editing isn’t very targeted. And so, it’s good to have a specific area where you can be aware of who tweets a lot, who has a lot of followers, who interacts a lot – that kind of thing is very important to get the hang of.
Lorrie: Definitely. And this feeds into a point that you just made: you do need to know the movers and shakers. As you pointed out, you can learn from people and, on Twitter, you can specifically learn which influential hash-tags people are using. I find that, in literary circles, there’s flash fiction, or short stories, or nano-fiction, or micro-fiction – there are all different types of niche fiction, and there are different movers and shakers for each of these hash tags. You start to get a feel for those, if you follow lists. So, it’s something I’ve learnt from Pip, and it’s something I’d definitely recommend. If you have a look on Google, there are some really good tools – I use TwitListManager and Tweepi, and that helps me to not only manage my lists, but to follow people back who are following me, or it’ll help me flush out people who haven’t been active for a while. Very, very handy tools.
Philippa: The other good tool you can use on Twitter…Twitter searches have improved a lot over the last 12 months or so. You can do a search and save it. And for a while, I had a search running for the phrase ‘call for submissions’, and another for ‘call for contributions’, and they were brilliant. I got loads of leads about places that were looking for specific things. I ended up dropping them, just because they were vast. There were loads of tweets all the time on those, which is great, but it made it quite difficult to manage. So I occasionally re-do that search and have a look. But, if you’re looking for something like that, saving a search can be a really good way of keeping your eyes open.
Lorrie: I think if you combine a saved search with your favourites…because no one really seems to know what favourites are for on Twitter. On my personal account, they’re kind of like ‘liking’ someone’s post on Facebook – it’s like, ‘Yes, I’ve seen it, I think it’s good but I have nothing further to contribute!” Haha, it’s polite, isn’t it?
Philippa: The way I use it, and I know a few other people who use it like this: if I’m out and about, or if I’m busy, I’ll favourite a tweet to tell myself to look at it later. And that’s quite unfortunate because of the association with Facebook likes because someone might post, “Check this link out for a horrific story of a gory murder!” and you’re like, “Yes, I’ll favourite this!”
Lorrie: Oh God, yes, I hadn’t thought about it like that!
Philippa: So quite often, I’ll favourite and then reply to the person, saying, “That’s a ‘check this later!’ favourite, not a ‘brilliant story!’ favourite.” And often, I get a reply going, “I do the same, don’t worry!”
Lorrie: I hadn’t even really thought about it like that, and I’m both really glad and really sad to know that. Obviously, on my personal account, I will have favourited pretty traumatic articles about politics, murder, rape, what have you, for the feminist stuff, and it’s good to know I’ve been favourited it all! Really nice!
To just nip back for a second to what I was saying about searches, is that you can just go down the search results, and if there’s anything you want to come back to later, pop a favourite on it and then I transfer everything that I want to refer to later into an Excel file. And yes, it’s time-consuming but you’re skimming off useful information from Twitter and it really works for me.
Philippa: Before I became a full-time freelancer, I’d never used a spreadsheet. Since I became a full-time freelancer, spreadsheets run my life!
Lorrie: It’s a whole new world of joy, isn’t it?
Philippa: I know how I coped without them – it was because I didn’t have to deal with 100 things at once – but spreadsheets still scare me; I still look at them and think, “Oooh, I don’t like that.” But I couldn’t do it without them.
Lorrie: No, I started off with one, which was for invoicing, and now it’s got tab, after tab, after tab. You need to keep data, as we said last time, you need to keep track of your admin, your invoices, your ongoing work…
Philippa:…if you’re doing marketing, you want to keep a note of who you’ve already contacted so you don’t do it again.
Lorrie:…tweets that work, tweets that don’t work, submission dates, publication details, contact details…Yeah, I think it’s something for another podcast!
Philippa: One thing I’ve done is make a spreadsheet with lists of certain things I can do if I have a certain amount of time.
Lorrie: Brilliant, love it.
Philippa: So, the first column is for if I have five to ten minutes, like schedule a few tweets, find a company that looks interesting, that I might want to contact. The next one is 15 minutes, so perhaps reply to an email. Then 30 minutes, then an hour. And, then two hours. If I get overwhelmed, I get a bit like, “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do!” And I can open the spreadsheet and say, ‘Right, I have 15 minutes,’ and just get some ideas. Every day, I’m adding things to the list as I think of them, and it’s really helping. I’m being much more productive in those kind of ten-minutes-before-a-phone-call moments. It’s easy time to waste, but instead I have a whole list of things I can do in ten minutes.
Lorrie: Exactly. You could even break it down further – because I’m totally going to go and do this…
Philippa: Do it, honestly, I’m finding it so helpful!
Lorrie: I think it would be helpful for me to delineate the copy-writing, copy-editing, literary editing, marketing consultancy – have the time slots for all the different services I provide. It could be really, really helpful.
Philippa: And all these things – any ideas we give you – we’re not saying, “Do this in this way!”, we’re saying , “This works for me.” Like, I said that, but Lorrie said, “Oh, that would work for me but I’d do it a bit differently.” And, you might be listening and think, “That might work for me, but not in that way – how could I do it?” We’re not saying you must use TweetDeck and make lots of lists – we’re just giving ideas and inspiration, and techniques that we find really helpful. We’re all learning all the time – however long you’ve been doing this, you’re always learning. And if you hear something that sounds like it might be useful, give it a go and let us know. You might come up with a third kind of spreadsheet, with five minute slots – we want to know, that would be really interesting.
Lorrie: It’s always nice to find out. One of my favourite things on Twitter, just to sum up, really, is when someone tweets you, and you’ve almost forgotten them because you just did a little piece of work for them a while back. I had someone tweet me today and say, “Do you know what, what you did for me was really helpful.”
Philippa: Aww, that’s lovely!
Lorrie: I know, you’re like, “Hi! Hello!” And this person’s actually searched me out on Twitter to let me know.
Philippa: Yeah, because your professional account is reasonably new, isn’t it? So they’d have had to look you up.
Lorrie: Definitely. And I don’t think it’s something that someone would email you to say, just 140 characters of “Really appreciated it, well done, good job.”. What I will say is that you should retweet something like that, too. To sum up, celebrate your achievements. You don’t have to be obnoxious, but you can be happy. Be happy, have a personality and get to know your social media networks.
Philippa: Yep. I agree.
Philippa: Well, thank you, Lorrie!
Lorrie: Thank you, Pippa!
Philippa: And that was the A Little Bird Told Me podcast. We really hope you’ve enjoyed it – come to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and make sure you subscribe in whatever way suits you. Like us on Facebook and, underneath that, I’ll put link to the O2 Twitter info, and I’ll put links to both Lorrie’s and my personal sites and Twitter accounts and all those things you might want. So, come along, find us, say hi, and thank you for listening!