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Published June 1st 2022

The Complete Social Listening Guide

Want to learn about social listening and how to get started? We explain who can benefit, how to do so, and advice on getting it right.

The number of social media conversations happening at any given time is massive. They ebb and flow with the news and cover any and all topics. From grandparents sharing local, old photos on Facebook groups to endless pop culture debates on Reddit.

Social listening, or social media listening, gives you the ability to take all these conversations and get meaningful insights and data out of them. This guide will take you through all aspects of social listening and how it could be of use to you.

But first things first.

What is social listening?

Social listening is the process of monitoring online conversations and collecting data from social platforms and forums on a chosen topic. This could be a brand, an industry, or anything at all.

The collected data is then analyzed to find trends and useful insights to help brands understand the consumer mindset, evaluate the brand’s presence online, and further clarify its place within the market. These insights then get fed into product development, business operations, marketing, advertising, and many other areas of the business. 

It’s not an entirely new approach. Brands have been trying to gauge the opinions of the public and their customers with surveys since forever. But with the right technology, discovering and analyzing unprompted and, unlike many traditional research methods, non-incentivized consumer opinions becomes a lot more efficient and cost-affective.

We’ll get into more depth shortly, but first, we’ll use a quick example to show how important social listening is.

Ice cream on a cold night

You’re Ben & Jerry’s, and you’ve got a big social media ad budget to get people buying your products. Following common sense, you put more money in during the summer, and you also keep an eye on the forecast. When it’s going to be sunny and hot, you give your ads another boost and fine-tune your messaging.

All very sensible and a tactic that likely works very well. But then you notice something. A snow storm that was talked about all week in the local press hits New York. In anticipation, you leave your ad budget for the city unchanged, or even lower it, assuming the last thing people want during cold weather is a cold dessert.

Instead, upon checking your ad’s performance in New York over the weekend, you see click-through-rates have jumped up. When the sales figures come through for that weekend, you see they’re up as well.

What happened?

Using a social listening tool, you could easily find out. And this is pretty much what Ben & Jerry’s really did. (We love this story, and it was included in our guide 7 Mistakes Marketers Make and How to Avoid Them.)

They looked at mentions around their products on sites like Twitter and Instagram and noticed there was an uptick during poor weather, particularly when it was rainy. By combining two data sources (weather and social), they found a massively valuable insight (this is one of the big benefits of digital consumer intelligence).

It turned out that when rain forced people to stay in watching films, TV, or Netflix, they wanted ice cream to go with it. In other words, lots of social media posts like this:

This opened up a whole new area for Ben & Jerry’s to target. Now they would look for rain in the forecasts, as well as sun, and adjust their marketing plans accordingly.

They even went a step further and created a flavor just for this purpose: Netflix & Chill’d.

This was all achieved with a very simple social listening approach, and its worked wonders for Ben & Jerry’s. When you consider you can conduct brand management, track PR issues, and influence product design too, it becomes clear just how powerful and invaluable social listening is. 

What’s the difference between social listening, analytics, and intelligence?

You may have heard these other terms and thought they’re the same thing. There is a lot of crossover between these terms, but there are differences. We’ve already defined social listening, so let’s go through the other two.

Social media analytics

Social media analytics is the process of actually analyzing that data, again often with a tool like ours. It might also be called social media analysis.

The analytics part is finding insight from the data – what are people saying about your brand online, who are the influencers pioneering these conversations, how’s the industry changing, and where in the world the most conversations take place. That involves tools and features such as author analysis, page type analysis, topic and sentiment analysis.

The term is often used to mean social media monitoring, or social listening, as generally, you don’t listen or monitor without doing the analytics part, and usually use the same tool for both stages.

Social media intelligence

Social media intelligence – or sometimes social intelligence – means the knowledge or insights gained from analyzing social media data.

That could be, say, the knowledge that your customers hate a feature of your product so that you can then inform your product development team. (In one of our recent case studies, Fetch Rewards shared about how with the help of Brandwatch Consumer Research, the Fetch team was able to quickly discover negative sentiment around its newly released app feature and inform the leadership team.)

Social intelligence could also be the knowledge that your target audience really love rap music right now, so that’d be a good thing to capitalize on in your marketing.

They’re the kind of insights that our clients have detailed in these case studies about their use of Brandwatch.

Social media intelligence is ultimately about helping make business decisions based on social media analysis and data. It’s often also called social business intelligence, for this reason.

Who can use social listening?

People talk about everything online. That means there’s scope for pretty much any company or organization to use social listening. As long as it’s done properly, there’s something to be learned.

B2C

If you’re a B2C company, then it’s a great way to hear what your customers are saying about your brand. Do they speak highly of you or, as Chipotle found out, speak negatively? You can see which products get discussed the most, collect feedback, and learn more about their demographics.

Not only that, you can use it to build research for business strategy. Maybe you’re looking to branch out into a new product area. You could see what people are saying about it already, and even see if your existing customers would be interested in the new product too.

B2B

For a B2B company, social listening can be great for competitive benchmarking as well. You can look at who out of your competitors has the largest share of voice, or keep an eye on latest developments. That’s on top of learning more about potential customers.

For example, while you sell to businesses, you still need to connect with people to make that happen. You could work out your target decision makers, such as CEOs or CTOs, and use social listening to see what they’re interested in, their demographics, and how to interact with them.

Charities

From fighting cancer to the local museum, charities can also use social listening. Looking at conversations around certain topics can give great insight into the work you do. That’s not to mention brand monitoring, so you can be aware of anything negative being said about your organization.

Social listening could even feed into your next campaign, helping you identify and attract new audiences, and potentially donors. 

Here’s one example of charities leveraging social listening. Last November, in collaboration with Brandwatch, the global youth charity Ditch the Label published a cutting-edge report based on analyzing over 263 million online conversations around hate speech to see how it has changed since the start of the pandemic.

Financial services sector

With the right technology, it couldn’t be easier to gather useful and actionable insights about investment decisions. For example, when it comes to investigating potential investment opportunities or due diligence, traditionally, private equity deals could take months to close because the research process around it is known to be labor-intensive and therefore costly. And digital consumer insights can come in handy to those investors who are looking to gather intelligence at a quick scale, while increasing confidence in their investment recommendations.

Government

Even government departments can get involved with social listening. There’s a vast number of ways from understanding demographics, receiving complaints, and getting feedback on new policies or strategies.

For example, the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism (DCT) works on developing and marketing Abu Dhabi’s tourism industry, and it uses social listening to monitor conversations on social to understand the type of content the audiences wish to see on each channel.

These are just a few examples. You can see some of our full case studies here. They cover plenty of business types and industries.

Social listening: How to do it right

Generally, you’re going to need a dedicated tool or platform to carry out social listening. There’s some basic stuff you could do by tracking mentions of certain terms using something like Google Alerts, but it’s always going to be surface level.

Our Brandwatch Consumer Research platform does everything you’ll need for social listening. You can find out more about and book a free demo here. You can also check out some other social media monitoring tools here. While there are several free options, they’ll only let you scratch the surface. A paid solution, on the other hand, will help you uncover deep insights about your audience and industry. 

Once you’re ready to start, here’re the questions you’ll need to answer in preparation.

What are you trying to measure?

The first thing is to write down your goals. There’s a variety of things you could do with social listening, so it’s easy to get unfocused. From simply seeing who talks about your brand to setting up a crisis alert system, you need to know exactly what you want to achieve from the beginning.

For some people social listening will become part of an ongoing strategy. Others might be looking for the answer to a single question. Sit down and talk with your team and look at what you want to achieve.

Here are a few examples of what you could be doing:

  • Crisis management
  • Customer service
  • Brand health and reputation
  • Content creation
  • Image recognition
  • Campaign performance tracking
  • Trend and demographic insights
  • Agency pitch research

What data will you need?

Once you’ve got clear goals laid out, you can work out what data you’ll need. It’s very important to speak to the people directly involved in this area.

Your customer service team will know the common talking points customers have. Your campaign managers know which metrics are important. Your business development department knows what potential clients like to hear.

Work with them to build a checklist of data points they’d find useful to achieve the stated goal. You then use that to set the parameters for your data collection. This could be looking for all brand mentions to conversations around a specific subject.

How much data will you need?

You also need to decide how much data you’ll need or, in other words, how long you’ll be socially listening for.

For some projects, such as customer service, this will be ongoing. But in other cases you’ll need to get more specific. Do you need a year’s worth of data? Should it come from one country or globally? Do you want to collect data from all social platforms and forums or just one?

What you’re trying to find out will determine all this. Covering a useful amount of time is one of the most important parts. You can’t identify trends in the space of a week. Make sure you’re capturing enough data to make proper insights you can actually use.

Using social listening data

As we’ve said, there’s a whole range of reasons for conducting social listening. That means we can’t cover everything, but here’s some general advice when dealing with data.

We’d also suggest taking some free courses in data science to get you on the right track. There’re loads of free courses online, but places like Coursera and edX are good places to start.

Cleaning data

Social listening data can often be noisy and messy. You’re always going to pick up stuff that’s not relevant to your search criteria. Sometimes this will be negligible, but often it can throw any insights off.

The first thing to do is manually check what you’ve collected. You don’t need to look at every single data point, but if something’s gone wrong, you’ll be able to spot it.

For example, you’ve decided to collect Twitter mentions around the UK soccer team Chelsea. You pick up mentions of ‘Chelsea’, but with it comes a load of stuff about the location, the TV show Made in Chelsea, and people called Chelsea.

That’s not ideal. Luckily, you just need to redefine what data you pick up. Instead, you only pick up mentions where ‘football’ is mentioned within five words of ‘Chelsea’. You might include hashtags relating to the team as well.

After that, your data will be far more focused. The main lesson is not to take your first set of results for granted. You are never going to get it right the first time, and it will always be a process of constant refinement. Check and double-check your results before assuming your data is useful.

Analyzing data

This is where the free courses we mentioned will come in handy. It can be tough to know where to start, especially with a large dataset. The goal of your project will be useful in guiding this process. Meanwhile, making sure there’s enough data is important too.

Advising on how to analyze data is a whole other blog post, but here’re a few common things to look out for that offer some insight:

  • Sudden peaks and troughs in mention volume
  • Seasonal trends
  • Sentiment changes
  • Differences between demographics
  • Related topics
  • Specific product conversation differences
  • Conclusions that go against assumed knowledge

Ongoing monitoring

If you’re going to be collecting data indefinitely, it’s important to get this right as early on as possible. If after six months you realize you’ve been collecting the wrong data or missing important areas, a lot of hard work is going to go to waste.

As we said before, get all of the relevant teams involved. Get continuous feedback to spot any problems quickly. Don’t get lazy. Conversations online evolve rapidly. New words, products, and even memes could end up skewing your data unexpectedly. Always check your results.

You’ll also want to update what you’re tracking for the same reason. If a new competitor appears, or you launch a new product, you need to make sure you’re collecting data to cover these events.

Finally, social listening is hugely powerful – if done right. If you have any more questions or want to learn more about it, just get in touch.

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