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How To Grow a Digital Marketing Agency Using Social Listening


If you’re wondering how to grow a digital marketing agency, you’re in the right place at the right time. In 2021, US agencies saw the fastest growth in revenue since 2000. But this new growth comes with new challenges brought on by the pandemic. Between workforce shortages and 44% of CMOs planning to move marketing in-house, including Coca-Cola recently, agencies face fresh competition—from each other, and from brands.

So how do you out-pace “the other guys?” The answer may lie in your tech stack. More agencies are leaning on automation to cushion the effects of the lighter workforce. And with 82% of agencies predicting clients will demand more specialized services, having the right tools can help grow your agency by offering new ways to grow your clients.

This is where social listening comes in.

Social listening involves using a tool to analyze conversations and trends happening around a brand, industry and more. It’s most often used for competitive analysis, content strategy, finding influencers and monitoring brand health. For agencies, social listening can provide new value to existing clients and offer powerful insights to attract new ones.

So where does social listening fit into your strategy? We asked three digital marketing agencies how they’re using social listening to build their business, support their clients and stay one step ahead.

Use Sprout Social to start offering social listening to your clients today.

Keeping up with new technologies and new ways to help your clients grow is essential if you want to attract, and maintain, business.

Sprout’s powerful listening tools are easy to use, and easy to add to your strategy.

Request a personalized demo today to see how social listening can help you and your clients grow.

Section 1

Using social listening to level up your agency

Growing your clients and growing your agency go hand-in-hand. The more competitive, powerful tools you can offer your clients, the more appealing your services are.

From elevating your business development efforts to increasing client loyalty, let’s get into how to build a digital marketing agency by offering social listening.

Business development and better informed briefs

Listening is important in all relationships—new and old. And social listening can be as much of a sales tool for winning new clients as it can be a social media tool.

The Scout Agency uses social listening not only to support existing clients, but also to give their prospects a sample of what they can do. They run a quick, high-level social listening analysis that leaves brands wanting more.

As Scout’s Director of Social Media Brittany Fryman said, “Once we demonstrate how much information we can capture in an hour or even 15 minutes of social listening, clients start to see how we could move the needle with a team behind this and constant analysis.”

This preview strategy has been wildly successful. Their business has grown by triple digits year over year—purely from a listening and social media standpoint. And as far as convincing existing clients to add social listening to their package, the tool sells through almost every time.

Stay competitive and keep up with changing needs

The past few years have been a crash course in remaining agile. And as the world has changed, so have the needs of your clients’ audiences.

Social listening enables you to uncover these changing needs proactively. Ingredient, a food marketing agency, used social listening to better serve their clients’ audiences during the pandemic.

As Ingredient’s Vice President of Content and Analytics Emily Tritabaugh said, “Early on in COVID, we had a listening topic set up to see what people were talking about regarding recipes. What kinds of recipes are they making? Were people baking more? Cooking more?”

Sprout Social's query building feature in the listening tool

Using a tool that can help you anticipate the needs of your clients’ audiences early keeps you ahead of the competition. “You don’t want the lack of a specific capability to be the reason a client goes with a different agency,” Emily explained. “For us, social listening completes the full set of services that we can provide.”

Angela Ritchie, strategic account manager at Ingredient added, “Brands are smart, and there’s so much technology out there. If we’re not using these tools to the best of our ability to give clients an edge up, what are we even doing?”

Nurture existing clients by painting a bigger picture

The “customer is always right” mentality can also be applied to online audiences. It’s crucial to listen to what a client’s audience says and feels about them, their products and their industry.

As Emily at Ingredient put it, “It comes down to the customers who are buying your client’s product or goods or service. You really need to be listening and engaging with what they’re saying to increase revenue.”

Ingredient uses social listening to create data-backed, audience-informed social strategies, and to gauge whether they—and their clients—are on the right track.

“We believe as marketers that it’s important to listen, and listen first. Not to just make assumptions,” said Emily. “We love data. And social listening gives you that extra piece of information that can tell you when you’re doing something right. But it can also show you what you’re doing wrong and how to shift.”

They also use social listening to understand where their clients can improve their brand health. “It’s a good reminder for our clients to step out of what they think,” Emily explained. “When you work for a brand, you think everyone loves it as much as you do. Maybe they do and they show that love. But it’s also important to know about what things you can be working on.”

Section 2

Using social listening to diversify and expand your capabilities 

We’ve mentioned that keeping your tech stack fresh is crucial if you want to get ahead. In fact, 86% of agencies say they’ve added a new offering in the past 12 months.

Let’s dive into how agencies are using social listening to expand what they can do for their clients and stand apart from the competition.

Uncover deeper audience insights to enhance product marketing strategy

From moving financial markets to the #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt trend, what happens in the social world has very real-world effects. The same goes for digital insights about your clients, and the impact they can have on business and marketing strategies.

Scout uses social listening for deep dives into the digital behavior of their clients’ audience.

When their client, Martell Cognac, wanted to understand the behavior of cognac drinkers in Georgia, a listening insight led to a wildly successful campaign.

As Brittany Fryman explained, “We found that Martell drinkers were mixing cognac with sweet tea. This was completely new information to our client, and it came through social listening. We also found that Martell drinkers love the Falcons here in Atlanta.”

Combining these insights, Scout recommended that the client introduce a Martell and sweet tea cocktail to be sold at games. A special drink that blended Martell cognac, sweet tea and peaches was created and offered at Mercedes-Benz Stadium where the Falcons play.

The result? The drink was the number one selling cognac cocktail at the stadium.

By better understanding what your client’s audience loves, you can better meet their needs and create real impact.

Create content that resonates

Even if your agency specializes in a specific industry, you know each client has a unique audience requiring unique content. Getting this right is crucial—51% of consumers will unfollow a brand for irrelevant content.

Social listening zooms out to capture conversations your target audience is having across the digital space—not just on your clients’ owned channels. By understanding the trends they follow, hashtags they use, their pain points and how they talk about a brand, you better understand an audience.

Agency Elev8 New Media uses the Sprout Smart Inbox to track mentions of their clients—and relevant client keywords—to guide content strategy.

Sprout Social's Smart Inbox enables better social monitoring.

“We want our clients’ audiences to feel like they’re being heard,” Director of Social Media and Content at Elev8 Amber Vaatate told us. “In social media, it’s important to make sure you’re not just posting to post content—especially for corporate companies with a diverse following and stakeholders. Make sure it’s meaningful, educational, insightful and provides value to the brand or company you’re representing.”

Elev8 also keeps their finger on the PR pulse by identifying when other brands or companies join conversations about their clients, comment on news about their clients and more.

Campaign development and performance tracking

With more agencies seeing a rise in project-based work, crafting and reporting on well-informed campaigns is key. But social data like engagements and post impressions only tell part of the story. Social listening shows you how far your campaigns made it across the digital space, conversation and more.

Social listening made it possible for Ingredient to track the results of their client Dinner Bell Creamery’s #NationalButterDay campaign.

Dinner Bell Creamery's kickoff post for their wildly successful national butter day campaign in 2021.

The campaign was a monumental success: #NationalButterDay received 28 million potential impressions, 70,000 engagements and a spotlight on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and BTS.

Reporting on such a massive campaign was tricky. As Angela put it, “The reach was so broad, and it wasn’t necessarily about the client—it was about the day itself. The numbers might not have told a story about the brand when Jimmy Fallon was posting about it.”

A word cloud created in Sprout Social's listening tool featuring keywords used most during the campaign

In other words, to report on the campaign, they had to look outside of Dinner Bell’s channels.

Social listening made it possible to track the success of the campaign’s mentions and impact across the internet. “Without that tool, we literally wouldn’t know those numbers,” Emily said.

Having data from the campaign was a key way to prove return on investment—both for their client, as well as the agency. “It helps our client go back to their leadership to get more money for creative projects in the future,” Angela told us. And on the Ingredient side, Emily added: “Not only are we using it for the client to report back—we’re also using the data in new business opportunities as well.”

Section 3

Using social listening to stay one step ahead

The digital world is the epitome of “here today, gone tomorrow.” The key is to stay one step ahead.

From product innovation to identifying—and avoiding—potential crises, let’s dive into how to grow a digital marketing agency by using social listening to stay ahead of the competition, industry and conversation.

Identify market trends early

It pays to be a trend spotter versus a trend adopter. When you have the power to spot a trend before your competitors do, you give your business an edge.

Social listening empowered Scout to keep their frozen food clients’ products one step ahead when a new trend started gaining traction in the pre-holiday market: air fryers.

Brittany explained, “Four years ago air fryers were the new thing—people didn’t have them on their kitchen counters like they do now. They were coming up in all of our listening for our frozen food clients and as the number one holiday gift.”

A Google Trends search tracking the search volume of air fryers from 2018 to 2022

Scout brought this trend discovery to their clients before air fryers were mainstream. To prepare for this appliance to take off, their clients started testing their products to ensure they held up when prepared in an air fryer.

The result?

“We added air fryer instructions to our clients’ product packaging before any of our competitors were able to do that. We were able to do this so much quicker because of social listening.”

Monitor brand sentiment and potential crises

Being proactive can mean the difference between a social media crisis and a close call.

Scout uses social listening to monitor brand sentiment for their clients. When they see negative shifts, they proactively craft messaging that has the power to alleviate or curb the situation.

As Brittany put it, “We have a response matrix that we use from a crisis management standpoint. We’re able to address a lot of those issues before an actual crisis occurs because we catch it early with social listening and sentiment analysis. But it also gives you an opportunity to speak to your current customers or fans on social and change the narrative.”

Social listening can also identify when to pause content to avoid being insensitive toward your audience. In Elev8’s case, most of their clients are publicly-traded and in a variety of highly visible industries. Before Elev8 publishes planned content, they monitor the markets, the media and get a pulse on the conversations in their respective clients’ industries to decide whether to post or pause.

“We draft content, depending on what the day is like and what the markets are like, and then we shift our strategy around that, as well,” Amber told us. “If certain markets are down, we will rethink what posts clients have going out, like CEO spotlight posts that we use to highlight the executive management team, because we don’t want to be insensitive to followers.”

Help clients stay ahead of the competition

One of the most powerful ways to use social listening is for competitive analysis. Understanding where consumers feel negative sentiment around your competitors can empower you to stand out where they fall flat.

“Where there’s negative sentiment, there’s opportunity to shift it,” said Brittany from Scout. “We look at competitors through the lens of, ‘Where is there opportunity to gain market share and change negative sentiment from someone else’s customer base into positive sentiment for us?’”

Sometimes the insights that carry the biggest opportunities for your clients come from outside their brand. Social listening can uncover industry and competitor insights that can lead to improving your client’s sentiment, brand and more.

As Brittany put it, “Too often brands look just at themselves when it comes to sentiment analysis and they leave the actual opportunity on the table.”

Section 4

Advice on how to grow a digital marketing agency with social listening

The examples we’ve looked at today are just the beginning. There are dozens of creative ways to use social listening to grow your business, and your clients.

Now that we’ve gotten into why agencies use social listening, let’s get into the how. Here are a few pieces of advice from the three agencies we spoke with to follow as you get started:

  • Listen regularly, and be willing to fall down rabbit holes: Regularly tracking sentiment, trends and brand health for clients helps you find their baseline, as well as patterns and anomalies. As far as which anomalies you choose to follow while listening, it’s not always obvious.“You have to be willing to jump down a rabbit hole and go deep. Sometimes, the sample size is small and an insight comes from one or two mentions,” said Brittany from Scout.
  • Prepare clients to open their minds: Not all brands will be comfortable hearing new ideas, insights and feedback. “You have to train your clients to be willing to hear that sort of feedback,” said Brittany from Scout. “A lot of clients are so set in their ways, it becomes difficult for them to think outside of themselves. True innovation normally happens on the outskirts of where your brand actually lives. Get inspiration from different categories, different brands, different verticals.”
  • When it comes to keywords and queries, start simple: You might not find a brand-busting insight on your first try. That’s why, when it comes to searching for keywords via social listening, Emily at Ingredient suggests starting small.“Look at how people are talking about your brand so you can make sure to capture the words they’re using while listening. If you have a really long brand name, are they dropping off part of the name when they talk about it? Are they putting an extra space in?” And be sure to exclude keywords that may be similar to your brand, but not the same.
  • Practice transparency with clients: Transparency matters at every level of the client-agency relationship. For example, if you’re reporting on potential impressions, be sure to clarify that the number is potential—not certain. The same goes for reporting feedback and comments regularly. As Social Media and Content Manager Jennevieve Fong at Elev8 explained, “Sometimes, comments don’t seem like a major thing to tell your clients about. But what we learned is that it’s important to be straightforward.”

Section 5

To grow a digital marketing agency, start listening

In the agency world, competition is nothing new. But the challenges facing agencies today are. It’s high time to evolve your own long-term strategies with tech that can grow your business, and your clients.

Now that you know how to evolve your digital marketing agency with social listening, all that’s left to do is tune in.

See what social listening can do to grow your business, and the businesses you work for. Start today by using the right tool. Request a personalized demo to try Sprout’s Social Listening tools for yourself.