• Social media monitoring and social listening are different concepts; monitoring tells you what, while listening tells you why.
  • Brands benefit from social listening by translating conversations into better content, revenue and actionable business insights.
  • Social listening helps with brand health assessment, industry insights, competitive analysis, campaign analysis and event monitoring.
  • To get started with social listening, businesses should choose a tool, set goals, select relevant data sources, build listening topics, gather data and measure results.
  • Sprout Social offers a comprehensive platform for social media listening you can learn more about here.

Consumer conversations are more transparent than ever in the age of social media. From call-outs to shout-outs, there are endless opportunities to learn about your audience. This includes:

  • Topics and trends that your customer base is passionate about
  • Ways for your company to outshine your competitors
  • Emerging pain points and challenges your customers face
  • Which types of marketing messages really resonate

The problem? Brands are often guessing and not listening.

Through strategic social listening, brands can analyze customer conversations at scale. The end result is a more meaningful and effective social media marketing strategy.

If you want more confident answers to the questions above, social listening can help.

What is social media listening?

Social listening is a marketing methodology that involves collecting and analyzing conversations in the marketplace. Through social media channels, you tune into the discussions happening around your brand and industry to obtain actionable insights. This information then guides you towards making better marketing and product development decisions.

Social media listening offers unparalleled insights and data about your target audience, including

  • Who your audience is
  • What your audience wants
  • When your audience is engaging with you
  • Where your audience is active and engaged
  • Why your audience wants to talk about you
  • How you can better serve your audience

Being confident about the questions above is invaluable for marketers. These answers can inform your messaging and improve your content strategy. Not to mention uncover opportunities to find influencers and brand partners.

Social monitoring vs. social listening

While these two concepts might seem identical, they’re far from the same.

Monitoring tells you what. Listening tells you why.

social listening spectrum example

The food industry is a prime example of how both concepts work and why they matter. For example, restaurants need to know what customers are buzzing about. This might mean their favorite dishes or a new menu announcement.

But the "why" is arguably more important. For example, why are customers reaching out in the first place? Is it a customer service issue? Are customers piling on praise or complaints? These mentions speak to bigger issues that go beyond a single interaction.

Social media monitoring

Monitoring involves tracking and responding to messages received about your brand. Here’s an example from CAVA.

CAVA social listening example

The above example illustrates a brand taking the time to engage with a customer. That initial interaction could have been a complaint or shout-out. Through monitoring and engaging, the entire interaction was positive regardless.

Social listening

CAVA could also use interactions to draw conclusions about first-time customers. They could gain a high-level perspective on how new store locations are doing, too.

Tracking and aggregating these one-off social messages through monitoring would be one approach. The better approach? Using social listening to aggregate that data.

sprout social listening location report

Listening is about understanding the bigger picture. Both social listening and social media monitoring are critical for brands, though. It’s not a matter of either-or. Think of listening and monitoring as a sort of spectrum (see below).

The value of social listening

Brands big and small can benefit from listening data.

Done right, you can translate social conversations into better content and more revenue.

Imagine you work for a company like Netflix. In this scenario, you’re a creative director.

Chances are you have access to tons of data to inspire the direction of your next series. This includes viewership rates, popular genres and most-watched actors.

But let’s say you don’t have all of that data at your fingertips.

Or maybe there are some missing details holding you back from a confident decision.

That’s when you can turn to social media listening to fill in the gaps. Think about how much the average consumer loves to sound off about, well, anything. Granted you know where (and how!) to look.

Social listening provides awesome opportunities to translate these conversations into actionable business insights. Here at Sprout, we’ve narrowed down five key use cases that our customers use listening for:

  • Brand health: gauging public perception of your brand or products
  • Industry insights: analyzing discussions or hashtags within an industry
  • Competitive analysis: analyzing a competing brand or product.
  • Campaign analysis: reporting on how a campaign is performing
  • Event monitoring: monitor audience response to a conference or event

A social listening example from a restaurant chain

Chances are your company could leverage many of the above strategies.

Let’s illustrate how with a simple social listening example. Imagine you’re responsible for marketing a franchise restaurant undergoing a brand overhaul. New menu, new branding, the works.

Your current focus is understanding which dishes your customers can’t get enough of. Second-guessing or going off gut feelings isn’t an option here.

So you create a social listening topic that monitors social mentions of your brand. Then, you start dig through the themes and looking for common threads. Below is a sample report pulled from Sprout’s social listening tools.

Themes Scorecard Sprout

Here are a handful of insights and action items if you were marketing for the restaurant above:

  • Notice how burritos are a hot item that customers love to discuss. However, it’s notable that a good chunk of those burrito mentions has a negative sentiment. It would make sense to dig deeper into this data to understand what folks like and don’t like.
  • Quesadillas don’t get a lot of love. They're mentioned infrequently and also have the highest percentage of negative mentions. As a result, quesadillas might be a candidate to be cut from your new menu.
  • On the flip side, your customers love nachos. Although they don’t get the most mentions, they earn the most positive shout-outs. An awareness campaign focused on nachos would make sense.

Social listening strategies

Have a question about your product, customers or competition?

From granular data to big-picture insights, social listening can uncover answers. Sprout has built-in social listening templates to help brands build their strategies faster.

sprout social listening templates

Need inspiration and examples of how to leverage listening in the real world?  We've got you covered!

Like we said, most brands focus on five key goals. Below we've broken them down in detail.

Strategy #1: Brand health

Pop quiz: how do people feel about your brand?

Public perception matters. Paying attention to positive and negative sentiments around your brand is crucial. This can clue you in on what people love about you and where you can improve.

In fact, listening data challenges you to rethink assumptions about your brand. That's a good thing, too!

You might think your brand is untouchable when it comes to quality or service. But do your customers and industry really feel the same?

It's easy to get stuck in a bubble when it comes to your brand and sentiment.  Social listening provides the truth straight from the mouths of your target audience. Embracing these insights can help you fine-tune your messaging, product strategy and more.

Answers that listening can uncover about your brand health include:

  • How do customers feel about my brand or product?
  • Is perception trending up or down?
  • Which types of content do people share about my brand?
  • Does my social audience align with other channels?
  • Frequent social listening provides a pulse on common customer questions, comments and complaints. Not to mention demographics and general sentiment around your brand.

Zenni social listening example

Absorbing all of this at once can be overwhelming. Our suggestion? Once you've gathered your conversational data, it's time to brainstorm your next steps. Here are examples of actions you can take right away:

  • Find your most frequently asked questions. Then, create a FAQ document or knowledge base to answer these questions at scale.
  • Find your customers’ most common issues. Then, figure out streamlined solutions or create talk tracks to respond quickly.
  • Figure out what your customers love about you. Then, incorporate that information into your campaigns and content strategy.
  • Identify your key social media customers. Then, figure out how you can utilize their traits to target new social audiences.

Read between the lines of positive and negative comments. If sentiment skews negative, don't panic. Determine if the problem is with your social presence or your company at large. For example, a social content strategy can be revamped ASAP. Issues like a poor perception of products or your service team run deeper.

Here's the big question when it comes to brand health, though:

Are your customers happy?

If your answer isn't a resounding "yes," then you have work to do. Listening reports provide a gut-check on your brand health.

Sprout Listening

And sure, sometimes sentiment is hurt by factors outside of our control.

From shipping issues to service outages, sentiment can nosedive for many reasons. The key is to understand the cause for negative comments and prep for the future.

If you have slowdowns during your product updates, maybe there's an issue with your tech stack. If your service team is bogged down with shipping complaints, find the root cause. Then, you can move towards the next steps to prevent all of the above from happening again.

It's critical for brands to not silo social listening data related to brand health. If anything, this is the data that's most valuable to the rest of your organization.

Listening data provides firsthand insight into what makes your audience happy (or unhappy). This includes main themes, keywords, audiences and locations.  These details could lead outside teams like product or fulfillment to a major “aha” moment.

Strategy #2: Industry insights

Done right, social listening identifies industry trends before they even become trends.

Industry hashtags and discussions are invaluable for brands in this department.

There's a lot of noise to sift through, sure. Close listening to the right conversations can clue you on ways to pivot or get ahead of industry trends.

This can likewise influence your messaging and content strategy. Adapting to industry trends can give you a serious competitive advantage.

Here as some ways to use listening for industry insights:

  • Keep an eye on disruptions to your space (think: new tech, competitors or legislation)
  • Track political and social issues to weigh in on if they’re relevant to your brand.
  • Find gaps in the industry that a new product, solution or workflow could solve
  • Look for frequently asked questions to create content your audience needs.

The current discourse over AI content is a great example. From marketers to artists and consumers, the impact is wide-reaching. Some are concerned, others are supportive and many are uncertain. There are plenty of hot takes and game-changing claims, too. Tech brands will monitor the implications for their own products and customers.

AI social listening tweet

The power of social listening for industries goes beyond trends, too. Many brands use listening tools to identify relevant influencers. The boom of the creator economy speaks for itself.

With so many creators, finding a good fit requires some serious digging. Listening to specific terms or conversations can help you find influencers faster. This beats sifting through social bios or countless pieces of content.

  • Find your current top influencers and empower them to advocate for you
  • Find all of the influencers in your industry and create a list of people to collaborate with
  • Find your competitor’s top influencers and attempt to win them over.
  • Figure out the best networks for your strategy (ex: TikTok versus Instagram)

Strategy #3: Competitive analysis

Social media is fiercely competitive. That isn't going to change.

And so many of our most popular listening reports are about competitive analysis.

New companies are constantly popping up in both B2B and B2C. Keeping up with your direct competitors is hard enough. Not to mention indirect competitors fighting for your audience's attention.

Through listening, you can monitor conversations related to your competitors. This includes:

  • Determining your share of voice. This includes your volume of mentions and messages versus your competitors.
  • Understanding your competitors' shortcomings. This could be related to their product, service or messaging. Then, brainstorm how you can create a better experience.
  • Finding competitive content that outperforms your own. Then, analyze why it resonates with your shared audience.
  • Quickly identifying new products or solutions. Determine how people feel about new offerings in your space. Then, consider how you can pivot or reposition yourself to outshine them.

Sprout listening pie chart

Competitive shortcomings aren't always obvious. A thoughtful social listening strategy can help you hone in on them. This is especially valuable if you're taking on a bigger competitor. Positioning is key when you can't outspend or brute force your way into greater awareness.

The skincare space best illustrates this phenomenon.

There are more brands and competitors than we can count. That said, there are specific terms relevant to specific audiences and their needs. This might include "acne-prone", "k-beauty" or "retinol."

Likewise, brands are constantly being pitted against each other by consumers and influencers. "Versus" and "this or that" posts are particularly popular. Brand advocates tend to pop off in the comment sections of these posts, too.

social listening for the skincare industry on instagram Paying attention to these conversations can be eye-opening. This is especially true regarding your competitors' advantages and shortcomings.

Strategy #4: Campaign analysis

Brands spend so much energy on fresh campaign ideas.

But how can you say with confidence whether or not a campaign succeeded?

You can't repeat your positive results if you don't know what's working. On the flip side, you don't want to rely on strategies that underperform.

Listening tactics boost your campaign success dramatically. Think through the following capabilities for your next campaign.

  • Track the impressions and engagements around your campaign posts.
  • Quickly gather general sentiment around specific campaigns.
  • Identify the top influencers discussing your campaigns.
  • Understand which of your audience demographics the campaign resonates with.
  • Figure out the key themes behind your campaigns
  • Track collaborative campaigns from a single source of truth.

Social listening can finally prove to you the value of your marketing campaigns. Start by crafting listening topics to capture the conversations around your campaign. Analyzing hashtags or handles can uncover countless metrics to clue you in.

Sprout Social listening metrics

You can then break down all of these insights by:

  • Network
  • Content type
  • Message type
  • Sentiment

Strategy #5: Event monitoring

Events and conferences are prime sources of valuable listening data.

Because in-person sentiment and conversations are difficult to track at scale. The good news is that most of those conversations are simultaneously happening online.

Listening by title or terms associated with sessions and speakers is a start. Consider also how listening can open your eyes to:

  • Your attendees' favorite events, speakers and sessions
  • Opportunities to improve the event experience
  • Whether your event led to meaningful business opportunities

Why use social listening for events

Want to know whether your audience is pleased and received your message?

Gathering feedback is a must-do given the legwork required to put on an event. You want to make sure your investment of time and energy is worth the effort.

From recruiting events and conferences to performances and beyond, listening is fair game. Gauging audience reactions is a common use of listening analysis. It's an effective one, too.

Event monitoring: Predicting the Oscars with social sentiment

Sprout worked with Inc. to predict outcomes during the 2018 Oscars. We looked at three categories: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role.

We pulled data on each individual nominee to find their total social mentions. Then, we analyzed total positive mentions against total negative mentions. Each nominee’s net Positive Mentions were then used to predict winners.

Sprout Social oscars analysis

Pretty cool, right? This is a prime example of the potential of harnessing user sentiment online.

Understanding Sprout's social listening tools

Early we discussed how social listening is a spectrum.

Specifically, a spectrum that spans brand monitoring and marketing insights.

Gathering and analyzing social data seems straightforward. That said, turning that data into "What's next?" is more complicated. Doing so requires context.

Sprout's tools span the listening spectrum to provide those answers and insights. We balance both engagement and analytics use cases for listening.

Now, let’s dive deeper into how each of Sprout’s social listening tools can boost your business. This includes using conversational analytics for providing better service, improving your content strategy and fine-tuning your messaging.

Smart Inbox

Sprout's Smart Inbox tracks every conversation with and about your brand. Think of it as your home base for social listening.

sprout social smart inbox

Our unified Smart Inbox helps businesses engage and build relationships with their audiences. This is done by organizing all of your ongoing customer communication. We empower brands to prioritize their most important messages across channels. Brands can use the Smart Inbox to:

  • Create a one-stop shop for social engagement. Bouncing between platforms and log-in screens is a poor use of your time. The Smart Inbox aggregates your messages in one place.
  • Stay focused and never miss a message. With one inbox, you're less likely to overlook your notifications. You can likewise use the Smart Inbox to track branded keywords. You won't miss notifications for those, either.
  • Maintain engagement as a team. The Smart Inbox was built with team collaboration in mind. Our platform helps brands increase their response time and reduce duplicate conversations.

Brand Keywords

The Brand Keywords feature captures Twitter conversations relevant to your brand, industry and competition.

Not every shout-out or call-out is tagged. Likewise, not every piece of content about your brand is tied to a hashtag.

It's easy to miss out on these messages. Searching for them manually is a massive time sink, though. Catching them all is impossible without some sort of tracking tool.

That's where we come in. Brand Keywords are custom searches that run consistently. These results display in your Smart Inbox.  You can then interact with them like any other message.

sprout social brand keyword tool

The Brand Keywords feature offers strategic opportunities to:

  • Find your most important messages. Add keywords mentioning your company and products. Common misspellings of those, too. You can also uncover conversations that don't @tag you directly.
  • Find new opportunities. A real-time pulse on branded keywords means you can influence people faster. For example, let's say someone tweets for opinions on your brand versus a competitor. You can jump in to recommend your product or explain your company's advantages.

Trends Report

The Trends Report highlights popular topics and hashtags related to your brand.

For example, our Twitter report shows tags and topics trending in your mentions. You can also see the people and brands that engage with your business the most.

sprout social listening trends report

Brands can leverage the Trends Report to:

  • Take the guesswork out of content creation. Quickly filter campaign and demographic data to identify top content. Then, tailor your marketing strategy to create more of it.
  • Identify trending topics to reach new audiences. Spot emerging trends and top content relevant to your brand, competitors or industry.
  • Leverage hashtag listening and reporting. For example, you can perform quantitative and qualitative analyses of keywords and hashtags. Then, you can compare your campaigns' success and your share of voice

Keyword Report

The Keyword Report reveals basic keywords related to your brand, competition and industry.

sprout social keyword report for social listening

The Twitter Keyword report instantly uncovers trends in Twitter traffic for any keyword. This includes hashtags or long-tail search queries across any date range. Consider how the Keyword Report can:

  • Keep tabs on your industry. Track your brand against the competition and trends.
  • Track effectiveness and reach. This applies to your past and current hashtag or marketing campaigns.
  • Discover patterns in keyword usage. Consider how some terms or trends fall out of favor. Then, adjust your marketing efforts to reflect that new language.
  • Track your brand’s products and sentiment. You can measure this against yourself or your competitors.


Insights from Sprout's Listening features are among the most valuable for brands. This includes emerging trends, identifying thought leaders and deep sentiment analysis.

And with Sprout's built-in templates, you can start listening ASAP.

These listening tools are a powerful complement to our extensive social monitoring features. You can get a comprehensive view of keywords, campaigns and brands across platforms. This includes Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube and more.

Social listening offers a window into the unfiltered thoughts of your audience. When these thoughts are front-and-center, trendspotting is so much easier. You can likewise uncover threads and gauge feelings around any given topic.

These insights inform your big-picture business decisions. Meanwhile, your Smart Inbox tracks specific interactions and engagements with your customers. It's the best of both worlds!

Here's a snapshot of what Sprout's Listening can do:

  • Empower your organization. Sprout’s listening data takes your team's impact beyond social media. You can offer actionable insights to strengthen other departments. Sales teams and customer service, in particular, can learn a lot from listening data.
  • Cut time to insight and action. Learn and act at the speed of social media. Having your listening data alongside your publishing tools means hopping on trends faster.
  • Organize your social presence in one platform. Streamline your workflow by eliminating jumps from point solution to point solution.
  • Research with intention. We provide filtering options to help you get relevant answers fast. Doing so means cutting through the noise.
  • Create targeted Topics with ease. The Topic Builder makes it simple to set up complex and relevant queries. You can then search and research these topics over and over again.

How to get started with social listening

There are obviously a lot of moving pieces here.

To wrap things up, let’s dive into what it looks like to ease into social listening for the first time as a business.

Choose a social listening tool

A key benefit of social listening is that it takes and makes sense of millions of social messages. Synthesizing all that data requires tools.

So the first question you need to answer is: build them or buy them?

Do you want to build and maintain your own internal social listening tool? Should you look into a third-party provider to do the heavy lifting?

This really depends on your bandwidth and budget.

Determine your initial goals and desired outcomes

Ask yourself: what do you want to get out of social listening?

Goal-setting is key for any marketing initiative and listening is no exception. There's no "right" answer here. That said, goals will guide your strategy.

Here are some of the most common goals and outcomes we see from brands:

  • Run a deep analysis of your brand to understand what customers and prospects think.
  • Monitor your industry or niche to keep a pulse on what’s new and what would make good content.
  • Keep an eye on your competitors’ products, audiences and marketing tactics.
  • Figure out what kind of content to share based on trends and data.
  • Identify your key social media audiences to better inform your targeting strategy.

Choose relevant data sources

Pop quiz: where should you pull your listening data from?

Twitter is the go-to source of data for more social listening tools. That's why we recommend starting with Twitter listening if even if your brand isn’t active there. Listening on Instagram and Facebook is also possible.

sprout social query builder

The trick is trying to manage all of these platforms without a third-party tool. Again, combing through mentions manually is super tedious.

Sprout pulls its social data from a variety of sources. Social apps, the web and more. This approach gives you the most comprehensive sense of where your brand stands.

Build your topics and themes to listen to

Building your actual listening topics is key to a successful strategy.

Brainstorm specific queries relevant to your rand. This includes terms you want to listen for and noise to avoid.

What to query

  • Keywords or phrases
  • Hashtags
  • Cashtags
  • Mentions of user
  • Mentions from user
  • Mentions to user

sprout social listening query builder

And/or logic

Listening is about more than just hashtags and keywords. You can refine the logic of your search even more with additional parameters.

For example, say you want to track sentiment around Chicago-style pizza. Your query may end up looking more like below.

Sprout listening queries

Now all sorts of variations will register:

  • chicago pizza
  • chi-town pizza
  • chicago deep dish
  • chi-town deep dish
  • chicago pie


Consider how "Chicago pie" could mean pizza or baked goods.  This is an example of where exclusions can be helpful. For example, you may add pie flavors to ensure that the scope of your search is limited to pizza.

Crafting Sprout listening queries

Gather data to inform your strategy

After refining your topics, you can start collecting data to inform your strategies.

Let's run with our Chicago-style pizza example. Below is a word cloud of the frequently mentioned keywords based on the query.

word cloud for social listening

You can click on each keyword to get a better sense of what the messages mean. You might notice that a lot of the messages mention cold weather in Chicago. What can you do with this information?

  • Create social posts about whether you’re open when it's freezing out
  • Write a post about how pizza sales are impacted by temperatures
  • Come up with a playful, weather-themed promotion
  • Think altruistically! Think about Chicago shelters or workers that could benefit from a free pizza

Measure the results of your listening efforts relative to your goals

How do you know if your listening strategy is working or not?

Fair question! As always, look at your data. Your priority metrics will depend on the goals of your campaign.

Here are some sample listening metrics to consider:

  • Clicks
  • Reach
  • New followers
  • Profile visits
  • Engagement rates
  • Engagement speed

Sprout profile performance report

Ready to start listening?

The closer you listen, the more meaningful relationships you can form with customers.

That’s why mapping out a social listening strategy matters.

Instead of doing all of the above by hand, consider how a tool like Sprout can streamline the process. Not to mention pull accurate, up-to-date data in real time.

Want to translate your customer conversations into action? Sprout’s tools can tell your team exactly how. Check out a free trial of Sprout Social to test-drive our listening features for yourself.