Once you have a social strategy in place, the heart of good social networking is in refining that strategy to be sure you’re making the best possible use of your social resources. The trouble is that there’s no easy answer to how to boost your social prowess: the exact steps you should take will vary depending on your business needs and the interests of your social fanbase. But no matter what that answer is, you can find it by doing more social listening.

You might think of social media listening as simply watching your mentions and comments to keep up with what your fans are saying directly to you. However, listening can go well beyond that to look at mentions of your brand or products that aren’t directly addressing you, discussions about the industry your brand is a part of, and discussions about your brand’s competitors.

Though this can involve collecting and analyzing a great deal of social data, the insights you glean can be valuable to your entire company — and if you’re looking to take your social networking plan to the next level, taking your social listening beyond brand mentions can help you get there.

Perfecting Your Social Strategy With Listening

What your customers (and potential customers) are talking about on social will help you hone your social plan in several ways, by tapping into relevant conversations they’re already having. Knowing about these conversations can help you provide relevant social or other marketing content — which gives you the opportunity to address common questions or concerns before you’ve even been asked.

If you already have the right content or product available to address the needs of your followers, adding that information to the social conversation can help convert potential customers to actual customers.

Jumping into a conversation that wasn’t directly about your brand — say, for example, an individual making a general request for advice on a purchase — can help build brand awareness with individuals who might not have previously heard about you, establishing your brand’s social identity with potential customers and driving conversions in the process.

But however useful adding your name to the conversation might be, you’ll want to take care to do it appropriately to avoid annoying those same potential customers. When responding to unrelated content, you should be careful that you aren’t shoehorning your brand into a conversation that doesn’t have an obvious link to your brand. While you could make a sales pitch to anyone talking about your industry, you want to be sure you’re doing the listening part of social listening — consider what’s being discussed and how your brand might be able to offer assistance. Trying to help these potential customers will give a much better brand impression than strong-arming them into a sale, which could drive potential customers right to your competitors.

Where your competition is concerned, it’s important to keep an eye on the social conversation as it relates to them, too. Are your fans or customers talking about a competitor’s products? Whether the discussion is positive or negative, you have a chance to glean insights on what your competition is doing right or wrong. If your competition has made a mistake, you can learn from it to make your own products and services better — while skipping the social fallout associated with your competitor’s missteps.

Good social listening can also let you jump on board trends related to your brand while they’re still fresh, whether it’s industry news you should respond to, trending topics or hashtags you can comment on, or viral content that has a relation to your brand. If you’re actively listening on social channels, you’ll be able to share and participate in those conversations, helping to grow your social footprint.

What Social Listening Brings to the Rest of Your Business

Beyond improving your social presence, social listening insights can be helpful for the entire business. Customer service can do quick social problem-solving and prevent socially-savvy users from venting their frustration with the brand online — as well as finding and addressing problems before they become social PR disasters.

Careful listening also offers a window into which your customer service department can see common problems and complaints — even those that might not have typically generated a customer support ticket — which can be useful in creating online help documentation. If you don’t yet have a dedicated social customer service department, improved social listening can open the door for it — and if you do have a social customer service department, improving your social listening will help improve its effectiveness.

For your product department, social networks make for an extra large focus group: social listening can let you know what they like about your product, what they dislike about your product, and any pain points they’re encountering. While online feedback won’t always be constructive criticism, it can give you an impression of what your customers are experiencing when they use your product — and allow you to make adjustments in future versions to help improve that experience.

Be Sure You Have the Tools to Improve Social Listening

Though you can make plenty of headway on social listening without any special tools — even the smallest social department can keep an eye on mentions, trending topics, and search for industry or competitor conversations — having the right tools and sufficient staff makes things easier. Social listening without any special tools is a manual, labor-intensive process that can take up a lot of your social team’s time. By using the right tools — like Sprout Social — you can spend less time chasing down useful data and more time making that data work for your business.

When you’re looking to expand social listening, you also want to be sure you have sufficient staff to meet your social goals. While collecting social insights can be streamlined with social listening tools, you’re potentially collecting a lot of actionable data which could create a strain on your resources. Before jumping into an expanded social listening plan, it’s best to set clear goals that specify exactly what you intend to do — if you simply want to better tailor your social content to your audience, that’s a different goal than addressing customer complaints, though you’re likely to find information on both with more social listening. Having a plan of attack will help you decide just what you need insofar as tools and staff to make your social listening strategy live up to its full potential.