A couple months ago I had the privilege of speaking to a class of communications students at Northwestern University, having been invited to do so by a friend who used to work at a PR firm and now is pursuing some higher education goals.

The conversation was ostensibly about best practices for participation in conversations by brands and individuals – how to find them, how to measure them and how to have a meaningful role in that conversation while being respectful to those who started it – but of course it wound up being a bit more wide-ranging than that.

One question particularly resonated with me because it’s something that I ask myself fairly regularly:

When is the best time to know about a new tool that could be of use in a communications program?

The specific answer to that question, of course, is a moving target and depends on what sort of programs a practitioner is helping to manage for their clients along with other things. But the general answer is pretty obvious and is more or less always applicable: Before your clients ask you about it.

We don’t always need to have specific tactical plans for a new tool or service that has debuted recently when a client comes asking about it. But we need to have our hands around what it does, what it’s potential upsides and downsides are and what our opinion of it is.

Generations of marketing and communications professionals have gone before us with only one new tool – the fax machine, the television, the internet – to evaluate at a time. Now, though, these core platforms, particularly the internet, have splintered to an extent that new sites, apps, tools and such are popping up all the time. If it’s not this new messaging service it’s that new reputation tracking system or another check-in tool.

Some are going to be useful. Some won’t. But it’s important to make sure that these debuts are met not with either disinterest or wild enthusiasm that has more to do with an individual’s early adoption than anything else. Thoughtful consideration based on listening to others and playing around with it yourself is essential to giving measured, useful guidance to those we work with and work for.