Social Listening: What Is It and How To Be Successful

a laid down smartphone with sound-waves above it: social listening

In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1987 graphic novel Watchmen, the character Adrian Veidt is the smartest man in the world. He watches dozens of television channels at once, allowing him to instantly grasp the full picture of the current social climate, anticipate future events, and plan accordingly. Today, this is essentially the job of a social media analyst: processing information from multiple data streams and synthesizing it into actionable insights. This type of analysis is known as social listening.

Social listening can help businesses of all sizes optimize marketing and business strategies. 

Here’s more about social listening and how you can get started doing it.

What is social listening?

Social listening (or social media listening) is the process of monitoring and analyzing social media channels relevant to your business. For example, you might track mentions of your brand, mentions of competitor brands, and specific keywords related to your products, services, or industry. 

A social listening strategy can provide you with insights into consumer behavior, audience preferences, industry trends, and competitor activities. Businesses can then use this information to build relationships with current and potential customers, increase brand loyalty, optimize marketing campaigns, and align their products and services with market needs.

You can engage in social listening on any social media platform, but because social listening relies on social media user comments and posts, businesses tend to start with platforms where their target audiences are active and highly engaged.

How does social listening work?

Social listening involves monitoring social media channels for information and analyzing social listening data. The results of this analysis allow you to assess how consumers feel about your brand, revealing opportunities for improvement. 

Social listening tools like Hootsuite and Talkwalker Alerts help you to categorize mentions or comments by brand sentiment. This process is known as sentiment analysis (or opinion mining), and it can help you determine whether consumers perceive your brand in a positive, negative, or neutral light.

For example, a company might analyze all mentions of its brand, determine what share of customers are unhappy with its products, and identify any themes or similarities in complaints. If one common complaint is that its products break easily, the company might consider launching a more durable model or offering a warranty. 

Social listening metrics 

Businesses gather social listening data using social listening metrics. Here are key metrics to track:

  • Reach. The number of people who see a social media post that contains a tracked keyword.
  • Engagements. The number of likes, comments, clicks, and shares on an individual post with a tracked keyword.
  • Engagement rate. The percentage of users reached who engage with that post, or engagement rate = post engagement / post reach x 100.
  • Mentions. The number of times social media users mention a brand or another tracked keyword.
  • Share of social voice (SoSV). The percentage of conversations that mention a brand compared to those that mention competing brands, or SoSV = [number of mentions of your brand / (number of mentions of competitor brands + number of mentions of your brand)] x 100
  • Social sentiment. The distribution of neutral, positive, and negative sentiments expressed for a particular keyword, or social sentiment = (total number of positive mentions - total number of negative mentions) / total number of mentions.

What’s the difference between social listening and social monitoring?

Both social listening and social media monitoring involve monitoring online conversations and tracking mentions of your brand (known as brand monitoring), but they’re not the same thing. They differ in some key ways, including:

  • What they tell you. Essentially, social monitoring tells you what people are saying about your business or industry, while social listening involves analysis about why they are saying it. 
  • The purpose. The main purpose of social monitoring is to track marketing campaign performance and allow you to protect your brand reputation. Social listening allows a company to dig deeper into the context of an online conversation by analyzing aggregate data about consumer perceptions of a given market.
  • The timeline of impact. A social monitoring strategy often focuses on immediate responses to negative comments on social media. Social listening, on the other hand, aims to provide actionable insights that businesses can use to inform long-term strategic choices about marketing and business strategy.

4 benefits of social listening

  1. Improve customer service
  2. Improve products or services
  3. Uncover industry and market trends
  4. Optimize marketing campaigns

Here are some of the ways that social listening can help a brand. 

1. Improve customer service

Social listening can help you understand your current customer experience. You can use this information to make adjustments and improve customer satisfaction, including to alert your customer service team of potential problems.

For example, a company might monitor social media channels for comments that address customer service issues, perform a customer service sentiment analysis, and use themes in customer comments to identify areas for improvement. The company might also use a social listening tool to identify other companies with stellar customer service programs, figure out why they are so successful, and adopt those tactics for its business. 

2. Improve products or services 

Analyzing social data can provide you with information about unmet market needs and consumer insights into product strengths and weaknesses. That, in turn, can help you improve your products or services.

For example, if a company that sells ice skates notices customers are complaining on social channels about laces breaking, it might decide to test new lace vendors and select stronger laces. If it monitors conversations about skating and skating gear and learns people with flat, wide feet struggle to find high-quality skates that fit, it might decide to launch a best-selling model in extended sizes and arch profiles to meet this need. 

3. Uncover industry and market trends 

Social listening can help businesses stay up to date with industry trends. For example, a company that makes athletic apparel might monitor social media sites for fitness and wellness trends, notice an uptick in discussions of circus arts and aerial fitness, and conclude aerial fitness will become increasingly popular with its target audiences. To capitalize on this emerging trend, it could design a series of ads featuring models practicing aerial silks and trapeze, add an “aerial arts” category to the activities section of its online store, or even roll out a new line of products designed for aerial fitness. 

4. Optimize marketing campaigns

Businesses can use social listening to gain insights into audience demographics, pain points, decision drivers, and media consumption habits and use this information to support their marketing efforts. 

For example, a healthy meal kits company that monitors customer conversations might observe many customers identify its products as kid-friendly and good for picky eaters. This effectively provides the brand with a new market-tested product benefit and target audience. To capitalize on this perception, the company might launch a social media campaign highlighting the fact that its meals are kid-friendly, expand its content strategy to include information about how to get young kids to eat a healthy diet, and approach social media influencers in the parenting and wellness spaces about paid brand partnerships. 

Social media strategy and planning templates

Ready to get started with your social media strategy? These free, customizable templates give you tools to plan and execute a strategy that connects you with your target audience while keeping your content calendar organized.

4 tips for successful social listening as an ecommerce brand

  1. Define your goals
  2. Choose relevant keywords
  3. Follow your audience
  4. Use social listening tools

Social listening is a powerful marketing tool. Follow these four social listening tips to make the most of your social listening efforts. 

1. Define your goals

Social listening can provide massive amounts of data, but if you don’t set parameters, it’s easy to get off track. While it might be interesting that 25% of your customers own tabby cats, for example, it’s not necessarily helpful information for most non-pet-related business types. 

Start by reviewing your business goals and determine what type of information will help you reach them. For example, if one of your goals is to increase sales of a new product, your social listening goals might involve gathering the following information: 

  • How often people mention your product
  • What other products fill this same market niche
  • How often people mention competing products
  • Why people purchase products like yours
  • The characteristics of people who purchase this type of product
  • Whether users approve or disapprove of your product
  • Why users approve or disapprove of your product
  • The perceived strengths and weaknesses of your product

You can then adjust your product, product positioning, or marketing strategy based on what you find. 

2. Choose relevant keywords

Relevant keywords are tailored to your company, industry, and the types of information you are hoping to find. Here are five common keyword types and some ways a company might use them. 

  1. Your company name. This includes your company name, nicknames, and any common misspellings. For example, Apple might select “Apple,” “Macintosh,” and “Mac.”
  2. Branded product names. This category of keywords includes specific product names, like “MacBook Pro” or “iPhone.”
  3. Product types. Keywords in this category include the names of general product types, like “laptop” or “smartphone.”
  4. Competitor brand names and product names. Competing companies and products, such as “Chromebook” and “Dell,” fall into this category.
  5. Industry buzzwords. To get a sense of the conversation around trending topics, track keywords related to industry trends that are relevant to your business niche.In the example of Apple, these might be terms like “5G,” “generative AI,” and “mobile payments.”

3. Follow your audience

Businesses use target audience demographics to select social media platforms for their social listening strategies. Platforms publish information about user demographics, which you can cross-reference with your target audience information to identify platforms where your target audiences are active and engaged.

Monitoring target audience conversations that aren’t directly related to your brand or industry can also provide audience insights. You can follow brands popular with your target audience that aren’t your direct competitors; this allows you to stay on top of broad trends that impact the people most likely to buy your products.

4. Use social listening tools

Social media listening software helps businesses track keywords, analyze social media data, and generate reports. Some can also help you identify trends or conversations you should track based on information about your company and industry. 

The right social media listening tools depend on your social listening goals. For example, if you plan to track brand sentiment, you’ll need a tool like Brandwatch that uses text analytics to determine sentiment. Reputology is designed specifically to monitor customer comments on review sites like Google and Yelp. Hootsuite is an industry mainstay that works with nearly all social media platforms. If you’re just getting started, you may be able to use your social media management software’s built-in alerts system (if applicable) or a free tool like Google Alerts or TweetDeck.

Social listening FAQ

Can social listening help me find leads?

Yes. Social listening can help businesses identify and market to audiences (and even individual social media users) who are likely to be interested in their products.

What metrics should I focus on when beginning a social listening strategy?

Social listening efforts frequently track the following metrics:

  • Post reach
  • Post engagements
  • Post engagement rate
  • Brand or keyword mentions
  • Brand or keyword share of social voice (SoSV)
  • Brand or keyword social sentiment

Is it important for my brand to respond to social media comments?

Yes, especially negative ones. Responding to social media comments can protect your brand’s reputation by showing that you care about customers and potential customers.