By now businesses know social media isn’t just a broadcast platform. A successful strategy is built around reaching the right people at the best time with the most insightful content. In order to achieve this, you need to sharpen your social listening abilities in addition to your verbal communication skills.

There’s often some confusion around what is social media listening and it often gets mixed up with social media monitoring. While they are somewhat similar and work best together, the two shouldn’t be used interchangeably. Social listening goes beyond monitoring and replying to incoming questions or comments about your brand. It’s about extracting key insights from social conversations that you can apply to your overall strategy.

If you’ve been confused about social listening or how your brand can successfully utilize it, we’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know about the art and science of social media listening:

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What Is Social Listening?

Social listening is the process of tracking conversations around specific phrases, words or brands, and then leveraging them to discover opportunities or create content for those audiences. It’s more than watching @mentions and comments pour in via your social profiles, mobile apps or blogs. If you’re only paying attention to notifications, you’re missing a huge group of people that are talking about you, your brand and your product.

social listening

So how does social listening differ from social monitoring? Dan Neely, CEO of Networked Insights, described it perfectly:

“Monitoring sees trees; listening sees the forest.”

Monitoring collects every social mention and action, while listening requires analysis and reflection. With the latter, you can:

  • Track overall brand health
  • Create content your audience craves
  • Generate ideas for marketing campaigns
  • Improve your customer experience
  • Drive strategic product decisions

Don’t worry–we’ll go into detail on each of these a little later. But for now, it’s important to have a thorough grasp of how social listening and monitoring differ.

The key difference is with monitoring, you’re compiling a list of social media engagement instances with the intention of taking an immediate action—reply, like or route the message to sales or support. With listening, you analyze the bigger picture behind all the conversations and integrate your learnings into your social strategy.

Why Is Social Listening Important?

Tracking mentions and notifications is key to an effective engagement strategy. However, analyzing the context and larger trends around those conversations through social listening can give you valuable insight to better speak to and serve your target audience. But you may ask: what social conversations should I listen to?

Let’s take a look at Twitter. Over 25 billion social interactions take place on Twitter each day, so it offers a breadth of consumer, industry and cultural insights unlike anything else. With that type of volume, most companies don’t have the ability to go through every Tweet about their brand or industry. Plus, looking at these Tweets individually makes it difficult to see larger trends or themes.

That’s where listening comes into play. With social listening, you don’t treat every Tweet like a task. You look at the aggregate of a collection of social media messages. Here’s a simple way to think about it.

social media analytics banner

A Social Listening Example

Let’s say you own a smoothie shop and you source your fruits from a couple different vendors. A customer comes in on Monday and orders a peach mango smoothie. After tasting it, they complain that it’s bitter. You apologize and give them a refund. Friday, someone else comes in and orders a peach mango smoothie and tells you it’s amazing.

Next Monday, another customer comes in and orders a peach mango smoothie. They complain that it’s not sweet enough so you give them a refund like the customer from the previous week. A similar trend continues on for about a month.

If you were to look at these situations on a case-by-case basis, it’d be easy to write them off as one time issues. You quickly become aware of the problem and solve it on the spot. That’s monitoring.

But after a month, when you realize all the complaints are coming in on Mondays, you can see a trend developing and conclude there’s probably something wrong with the fruits coming in on Mondays. With that knowledge, you can go to the vendor and let them know there’s a problem with the fruits. From there, they can diagnose the issue and get it resolved so you can stop losing money on refunds. That’s social listening.

Social media listening allows you to see things at a bird’s eye view. As social media marketers, it’s easy to get consumed with responding to incoming messages one by one. This is particularly true if you deal with hundreds or thousands of questions and comments per day. While monitoring and responding to social messages is important, you also need to use social listening to see the bigger picture of what’s going on with your brand on social.

What Can You Do With Social Listening?

Now that you have a better understanding of social listening and why your brand needs it, let’s take a look at the ways you can actually put it to use.

Track Overall Brand Health

One of the biggest benefits of social listening is sentiment analysis. According to our research, social media is people’s top choice for customer care.

peoples top choice for customer care

If you want to get the general consensus for your brand or a specific campaign, social media is the place to go. But it only works if you actively pay attention to what people say. Both social media monitoring and listening come into play here, but in different ways.

With monitoring, you see feedback in real time and can immediately act on it. When you just want to get a general feel for how well received a new product, announcement or other update is, social media monitoring can give you a great overview. For instance, if you notice a surge of negative Tweets about a product, it’s a good indicator something went wrong.

Through effective social listening, you go beyond the basics of only seeing unhappy people or those upset with your brand. Based on the aggregated data, you start to see how negative or positive sentiment impacts your brand overall, particularly on social media.

Let’s take Chipotle for instance. As you probably know, the restaurant chain has had a few major setbacks due to a string of customers getting sick after eating at their restaurants. With each outbreak, customers took to social media with less than favorable comments.

chipotle ecoli tweets

At that point, Chipotle didn’t need a report to tell them the sentiment around their brand on social was negative. What they could do, however, was use social listening to see just how impactful the hit was to their social media presence every time an incident occurred. If they were to monitor the change in sentiment before, during and after the outbreak, they’d have some major insight and data into how much they potentially lost as a result.

Key takeaways

  • Learn how sentiment impacts your brand: Use social listening to uncover the larger implications negative and positive sentiment have on your brand.
  • Listening is always on: Don’t wait for a crisis to happen. Start using social listening right now. This provides historical data on how people feel about your brand over time. Then it allows you to account for seasonality, product releases and other trends.
  • Understand the why: When you see sudden shifts in how people feel about your brand, dig into why it’s happening. Does it correlate with a new product release? Was your website down for a period of time? Or maybe a news story broke about your brand. The more you understand, the easier it is to fix negative sentiment or capitalize on the positive.

Create Content Your Audience Craves

Content is the most important part of any social media strategy. If you’re not sharing content your audience wants to see, then it’s nearly impossible to get them to stay engaged or convert into leads.

Often times, the quest for finding the best content to share is the result of trial and error. The strategy for many brands, particularly in the beginning, is to post a variety of articles, photos and videos and see what sticks. But with social listening, you identify topics your audience cares about without having to guess. Here’s how.

Use an analytics tool like our Trends to see which hashtags, topics or keywords people use when speaking to your brand. This will give you a great understanding of how your target audience talks as well as the phrases they associate with your brand.

social listening report

Use this data to craft personalized social media content that uses the type of language your audience is familiar with. You can also use your analysis for other areas of marketing such as in landing pages, ad copy or blog posts. For instance, based on the screenshot above, the coffee shop might craft a Tweet or Instagram caption like “Craving a Hot & Delicious Cup of Coffee? Try Our New Flavorful #sproutblend to Power Up Your Morning!”

sample social media post

Another way this data comes in handy is for optimizing your social media posts for search. All of the major social networks use algorithms to determine which posts to surface for different search queries. Using the right combination of related hashtags and keywords could increase your chances of showing up when your target audience is searching for content related to your industry.

Key takeaways:

  • Look for content trends: Social listening gives you an aerial view of the conversations your audience has about your brand and industry. In order to use this to your advantage, look for trends in what they’re talking about and build content around it.
  • Listen for pain points: The best converting content is the type that attacks a particular pain point of your target audience. With social media listening, you can uncover some of the most common pain points your audience experiences and create content that directly addresses it.
  • Find related phrases: Rather than looking at the keywords and hashtags mentioned with your brand individually, look at related phrases to understand how to better speak to your audience.

Generate Ideas for New Marketing Campaigns

Successful social media campaigns start with identifying opportunities in the marketplace. Is there a void between what your customers want to see on social versus what’s being offered by competitors? Social listening helps find those opportunities. Let’s take a look at how a large retailer put this strategy to use.

In 2016, Marshalls launched its Pin Pal campaign on Pinterest and YouTube. They started with analyzing the boards of its Pinterest followers. Then Marshalls recruited social media influencers to hand-deliver boxes containing products to select followers inspired by their own Pinterest boards.

Marshalls shared the moments and boxes on its social channels as well as its the influencers and winners.

Key takeaways:

  • Look for trends in the content your audience shares: Marshalls noticed a trend of its followers pinning images of sought-after decor and fashion items. The brand determined there was enough interest around the theme to build an entire campaign. Instead of looking at your audience’s social media posts individually, look at them as a whole and try to find common themes you can turn into a campaign.
  • Capitalize on UGC: Have your social team tag any social media posts from customers that promote your brand as user-generated content. Monitor the rate that UGC is being shared by your audience over time. If there’s a significant amount, it might be worth creating a new campaign that encourages or rewards followers for promoting your brand.
  • Stay on top of trending topics: Social listening goes beyond tracking trends and conversations related to your brand. You also need to be on top of what’s going on in your industry and around the world. For instance, our social team uses the Sprout Social Twitter Listening Report to create our annual hashtag holidays calendar. By analyzing the volume of messages containing specific holiday-related hashtags, they identify which non-traditional holidays marketers need to pay attention to the most.
twitter listening report

Improve Your Customer Experience

As your company grows, social listening will become increasingly important. Growth creates a new set of obstacles that can potentially impact your customer experience. The challenge is differentiating problems that only affect one or two customers from larger issues that could completely halt your growth.

This is where social listening comes in handy because it’s less concerned with the one-off issues. Instead, the focus is around spotting larger trends that need to be addressed. Let’s look at a real-life example to really paint the picture.

At the end of 2016, a Tesla customer sent a Tweet about how one of the superchargers (the stations where people recharge their Tesla vehicles) was always full from people leaving their cars charging for hours. The founder of Tesla, Elon Musk quickly replied.

The reply from Musk is an example of social media monitoring. He saw a negative Tweet and responded. But take note of his response, specifically the first sentence.

You’re right, this is becoming an issue.

This clearly wasn’t the first time Tesla had heard of this issue. A quick Twitter search reveals several Tweets before and after the one from Loic with people experiencing the same issue.

By monitoring a combination of keywords like “Tesla” and “supercharger,” the company can easily see trends in the number of people Tweeting about this issue. This screenshot is from our Twitter listening report, which you can check out with our Enterprise plan.

twitter listening keyword search

And here’s the best part about this story. Six days after the Tweet from Musk, Tesla published this blog post.

We designed the Supercharger network to enable a seamless, enjoyable road trip experience. Therefore, we understand that it can be frustrating to arrive at a station only to discover fully charged Tesla cars occupying all the spots. To create a better experience for all owners, we’re introducing a fleet-wide idle fee that aims to increase Supercharger availability.

Had Tesla ignored the trend of customers complaining about this issue, it would’ve been easy to write it off as an isolated incident. While we can’t be sure if social listening was a part of Tesla’s strategy, it’s clear that someone was paying attention to the growing demand from customers, which is exactly how social listening is supposed to work.

Key takeaways:

  • Listen for new opportunities: Tesla received consistent feedback about a specific issue. Rather than defaulting to a generic apology, the company used it as an opportunity to improve the customer experience. Your brand can use social listening to do the same thing. Look for trends in complaints or issues from customers and think of ways to resolve it with new features or policies.
  • Monitor and listen: While social listening and monitoring are different, they work best in tangent. As you start to notice trends from your social listening, use it in your monitoring efforts. For instance, in Musk’s Tweet he lets the customer know the company noticed a multiple customers were having the same issue, and he had plans to resolve it.
  • The need for listening grows as your brand expands: In the early stages of Tesla when there weren’t as many of their cars on the road, the lack of spaces at the superchargers likely wasn’t as big of an issue. But as the vehicles became more affordable and widely used, a new challenge presented itself and was vocalized on social. Follow Tesla’s example and prioritize listening as your customer base and business grow. Use developing trends from listening to help inform changes your company needs to make as it expands.
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Drive Strategic Product Decisions

Producing innovative ideas for new products or marketing strategies requires quite a bit of research. In addition to your current R&D process, mix in social listening to see how your customers feel about current or past products. Through social listening, you can answer questions such as:

  • What features did they like or dislike the most?
  • Why did certain products outsell others?
  • What new products does your audience want to see?

After releasing the book Troublemaker by Leah Remini, the marketing team at Random House used social listening to help understand why the book was so successful. The goal was to understand how they could use the information to attract more readers. They also wanted to apply their learnings to future releases.

Social listening revealed that beyond the controversial topic of the book, Scientology, readers were more enticed with Leah. They resonated with the honesty and authenticity she used to tell her personal story.

Based on this knowledge, the Random House team setup Q&As and chats through Goodreads for Leah to answer questions from readers, because data showed readers wanted to hear more from her.

Thanks to social listening, they were able to pivot away from marketing the book as a Scientology tell-all piece, to a story about Leah and her experiences.

Key takeaways:

  • Look for the not-so-obvious trends: Random House didn’t go into the social listening campaign expecting to find that users were primarily intrigued with Leah rather than the topic of the book. With your brand’s listening campaigns, don’t get tied down to strictly monitoring obvious trends. Look beyond the surface and find the hidden gems.
  • Go beyond brand name: In addition to your brand name, incorporate product names, public figures related to your company and other keywords and phrases that can give you more focused and specific insights.
  • Use the data: Once Random House uncovered why people loved the book, they took action. Follow their footsteps and outline actionable steps your brand can take to put the data to use on current and future efforts.

Perfect Your Strategy With Social Listening

With the help of social media listening tools, you can see benefits at nearly every aspect of your business. Your sales team can gain insights into what customers like the most about your products and services. Your marketing team can get ideas for content and marketing materials based on trends in your customers’ behavior. Your R&D team can easily access feedback on what your target audience thinks about your products as well as those of competitors.

And similar to the Tesla example, when customers see your brand actively listens, they become more comfortable sharing honest feedback and recommendations. Those suggestions could help your brand experience faster growth and more satisfied customers.

And once you start building social listening into your strategy, be sure to employ a social media management tool like Sprout Social to make the process as efficient as possible.