The Complete Guide to Social Listening

A busy office with a laptop showing social listening software

Sha Gadson Sha Gadson

It’s no secret that a business needs to learn as much as possible about its audience. Market research has been around for a long time, well before social media and the internet. Today, however, as more and more people spend time on sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, it has become extremely important to track the multitude of conversations that take place on these platforms. Social listening has become one of the most important ways to track and engage with your audience.

What is Social Media Listening?
In earlier times, people often congregated and gossiped in town centers and marketplaces. While this type of socializing still takes place, today many people express their thoughts and opinions on Facebook and other social sites. This is good news for businesses wanting to learn more about their customers. You can’t realistically listen to more than a handful of live conversations. However, monitoring social media channels can be done using various automated tools.

Because people spend so much time conversing on social media, it’s advantageous for any business to monitor conversations and identify opinions, trends and preferences. The main challenge is that most of what’s posted every day is noise rather than useful information. Actively listening requires you to filter out what’s not relevant and zero in on data and discussions that are actually relevant to your brand.

Why Listen to Social Media?
In a broad sense, almost everyone today listens to at least dozens of conversations on social media daily. There are important benefits, however, to taking a more focused and strategic approach to monitoring social media sites. These include:

  • Learn what your customers are saying about your business.
  • Track the results of a specific social media campaign.
  • Find out what people are saying about your competitors.
  • Keep track of the latest news and trends about your industry.
  • Get ideas for new products and services to offer.

In this article, we’ll be exploring how to gain these and other advantages with the right social listening strategy.

Track Conversations About Your Brand
Large companies are extremely concerned about the public perception of their brands. For example, people are constantly posting about companies such as Amazon, Apple, Walmart, McDonald’s and others. This is a mixed blessing, as the comments are not always positive.

Smaller brands are not in the same position as there aren’t nearly as many conversations about them. This doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t have to pay attention. More people may be talking about you than you realize. Additionally, when there are fewer comments and discussions, each one takes on greater importance. Here are some insights you can gain about your brand by listening to social media.

  • Which social media sites do your customers use most frequently? This guides you in knowing where to concentrate your efforts.
  • What are customers saying about specific products or services you offer? Learning this is important for planning your strategy. You may need to change or discontinue certain products while doing more to promote popular ones.
  • What type of content is most popular? Which topics and formats such as photos, videos, infographics or memes do your followers share the most?

Monitor the Competition
What people say about your competitors can be just as insightful as what they say about you. Newer and smaller businesses may not be able to find many discussions about their brands. By tracking more established competitors, they can learn about what their audience likes and doesn’t like. For example, a local coffee shop can gain insights by noticing how Starbucks’ customers react to new beverages.

Identify channels where your competitors are getting lots of engagement. For example, if you see that a competitor is doing well on Snapchat, you may want to establish your own presence there. It’s also worthwhile to observe reactions to your competitors’ products. This can help you plan your own strategy and provide clues about what to do and what to avoid.

Consider anyone who follows your competitors as a potential follower or customer. Neil Patel describes ways to steal your competitors’ social media followers. One tactic is to follow people who follow your competitors on sites such as Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Industry Trends
While a large part of monitoring social media involves tracking discussions about specific products or brands, there’s also value in monitoring wider topics. Everything people say about your niche or industry has an impact on your business and can help to inform your marketing strategy. It’s worthwhile to keep track of anything that influences the behavior of your customers and potential customers, such as:

  • New products and technology. Today, more than ever, technological advances can quickly disrupt an industry. You don’t want to be caught off guard when this happens.
  • Prices. Economic conditions can influence what people are willing to spend in certain areas. New products and practices may change the perception of pricing.
  • Delivery methods. E-commerce has transformed the way customers order and access products. If you notice that your audience prefers the convenience of ordering online, you may be motivated to start your own online store. Another is the popularity of online apps that customers use to order products such as Grubhub and Groupon. If you see people in your demographic using such apps, you may consider participating.

Don’t Overlook Indirect Competitors
Understand that your potential customers include people who patronize indirect competitors. For example, if you have a fast-food restaurant that specializes in pizza, your indirect competitors include places that sell burgers, fried chicken, and burritos, to name just a few. Thus, it makes sense to monitor conversations relating to fast food in general. This may include new popular dishes, food trucks, prices, delivery services and more.

To use another example, suppose you own a fitness center. Your direct competition would be other gyms and fitness centers in your area. Your indirect competitors include companies selling home workout equipment as well as those marketing popular diets and supplements. If you notice a certain diet is trending, you publish content that emphasizes the need to work out in addition to dieting.

Engage with Your Followers
When you think of listening or monitoring social media, it may sound like a one-way process. Your followers speak and you listen. For best results, however, you need to engage with your audience when appropriate. You can’t always do this, of course, as when you’re studying general trends in your industry. Yet there are many instances when it is advantageous to listen and then connect.

If someone is directly talking about your business or products, it’s always good to enter the discussion. If someone is praising you, thank them. If they have a criticism, you can explain your position or promise to do better. Some large companies that do this effectively include Taco Bell, Dominoes and Coca Cola.

We already mentioned the advantage of monitoring your competitors on social media.
You can directly engage with their customers at certain times, such as when you see someone complaining about an issue that you can solve.

Manage Problems
While social media provides businesses with efficient tools to engage with customers, this is a double-edged sword. We’ve seen numerous examples of companies that have gotten into trouble with ill-conceived tweets and other posts. Likewise, when a business blunders in any manner, customers can cause them serious problems by publicizing the mistake.

One reason to monitor social media is to identify any problems early so you can respond. A negative post on Facebook or Twitter can harm a small business at least as much as a national chain. For example, suppose you have a salon that offers a variety of services including hairstyling. You only opened recently so you don’t have many reviews and not very many people talking about you online. Then someone writes on your Facebook page “This is the worst haircut I’ve ever had. The place was dirty and the service rude.” Whether this is true or not, it can seriously impact the perception of your business.

The above example suggests that someone complains directly on your social media page. You also need to monitor social media more widely as well as review sites for any mentions of your business.

Social Media Listening Tools and Strategies
Monitoring social media channels is essential for a business that wants to connect with today’s consumers. The strategies you employ will depend on factors such as the type and size of your business and the demographics of your audience. The following are some guidelines to keep in mind.

  • Set Google Alerts for the name of your business as well as any branded products you sell. You might also set Alerts for the names of your main competitors.
  • In addition to social media platforms, monitor any review sites where your business is listed such as Yelp, Angie’s List, Trip Advisor, etc.
  • Consider using a social listening platform, like Meltwater Social, that integrates all of these data sources in a single application, saving you time and enabling you to analyze the data in much more sophisticated ways.
  • When people follow you on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, follow them back. This is a good practice in itself as it shows you’re willing to engage with your followers. For very large brands this may not be practical but it’s recommended for small and mid-sized businesses. This also makes it easier to see your followers’ posts.
  • Always engage with customers and followers in a level-headed and professional manner. If you find a negative comment, try to resolve the issue. You might offer the customer a coupon and suggest they contact you directly. If you think it might be a fake complaint, such as from a competitor, you might ask them to specify when they made a purchase, who served them and such. Never get involved in a heated argument at this will just damage your reputation.
  • Identify influencers and brand advocates. While influencers are mainly focused on building their own following, brand advocates are true enthusiasts of your business. Both categories of fans can help grow your business. When you identify anyone who is discussing your brand, reach out to them and build a relationship. You can offer them free samples to review, invite them to submit content or invite an influencer to do a takeover of your Instagram page or YouTube channel.

Use What You Learn
Monitoring social media channels can help you improve many aspects of your business. It’s important to turn your insights into action whenever possible.

  • Identify common questions about your products and business. You might create a FAQ or have a chatbot on your website to address these issues.
  • Let followers’ opinions inform your decisions to discontinue products, introduce new products, improve customer service or change unpopular policies.
  • Learn to optimize your social media efforts. Listening can help you decide which platforms are most popular with your audience. You can also observe what type of content your audience prefers and shares most often. In addition to identifying broad topics, you can pinpoint specific keywords and hashtags that are popular with your audience.
  • Use what you learn to determine your social media and overall marketing strategy. For example, create content on topics that your customers are already talking about.

Grow Your Business With Social Listening
Paying close attention to what your customers and prospects are saying on social media makes a big difference to your business strategy. The key isn’t to listen to everything but to narrow down your focus to those discussions that are most relevant. Social media lets you keep track of the very latest opinions and trends at both the micro and macro levels. You can listen to what people are saying about you, your products and your competitors. Just as importantly, you can track wider attitudes about your audience and industry. Social media listening is an essential activity for any business that wants to understand and better serve its customers.