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Published October 10th 2017

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 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.

What is social listening?

Social listening is the process of 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. This can influence a wide range of processes including business operations, product updates, and advertising approaches.

It’s not an entirely new approach, it’s just that the technology is different. Brands have been trying to gauge the opinions of the public and their customers with surveys since forever.

What tech means now is that you don’t even need to prompt people anymore. People are talking about anything and everything online, it’s just a matter of finding them.

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

The Heart and Hand Pub

A large, cream coloured cat sat on a pub bar

You run the Heart and Hand pub in the North Laine area of Brighton. It’s a traditional pub with a decent jukebox. Your pub cat is a local legend.

You notice after awhile that Wednesdays get pretty busy for a non-weekend evening. You always prepare for it ensuring there’s two members of staff on-hand and plenty of potato chips to go around. All bases covered, you enjoy the extra takings every week and no one’s left waiting too long at the bar or without said potato chips.

The thing is you still don’t know why there’s extra people on a Wednesday. You could be missing a valuable opportunity.

Instead of just prepping for the extra influx, you also ask the punters what they’ve been up to that evening. After asking about eight of them, you notice something. Three of them have come from a weekly chess club round the corner. The lot of them come to the pub every Wednesday explaining the extra business.

With that information you could offer a discount to members of the club so more of them come. Or you could offer them a bigger table so they can sit together. You could even discover they like to unwind with Settlers of Catan after chess, and so you get a copy of the game for them.

With that, you can ensure they always come to your pub after their chess games. News of a discount could up sales. Plus you might build up some good will meaning they come other nights too. All you needed to do was get some context to a trend.

This is social listening. It’s not simply noticing a trend, it’s digging deeper into it, finding out what people are saying, and then basing decision of those insights.

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 analysing 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 – who is saying what, topics of conversation, where it takes place, authors, and so on. That involves tools and features such as author analysis, page type analysis, topic and sentiment analysis etc.

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 analysing 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.

Or the knowledge that your target audience really love rap music right now, so that’d be a good thing to capitalise 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 organisation to use social listening. As long as it’s done properly, there’s something to be learnt.


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.


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.


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 organisation.

It could even feed into your next campaign. You may identify an audience of regular donors. After analyzing their conversations you can see the vast majority love cats. So in your next promotional video, you involve cats to grab their attention and pull on their heartstrings.


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

For example, you could be the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs and you’ve just released a new campaign all about backing British farming. You could use social listening to see how well the message spread, who it reached, and what they thought of it. All important metrics for assessing a campaign’s success.

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 preparation

Two people looking over a map with a laptop and camera on the table

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 quite thin and superficial.

Our Brandwatch Analytics platform does everything you’ll need for social listening. You can find out more about and book a free demo here. Or you can check out some free tools here. In the end though, a paid solution of some kind is going to be preferable.


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

What are you trying to measure?

The first thing is to write down your aims. 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 off.

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’s 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 know what potential clients like to hear.

Work with them to build a checklist of data points they’d find useful to achieve the stated aim. 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 I want data from all social platforms 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’s 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 you don’t actually want. Sometimes this will be negligible, but often it can throw any insights off.

The firstt thing to do is manually check what you’ve collected. You don’t need to look at every single datapoint, 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. Check and double-check them 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 aim of your project will useful in guiding this process though. Meanwhile making sure there’s enough data is important too.

Advising on how to analyze data is whole other blog post, but here’s 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 collected data indefinitely, it’s important to get this right as early on as possible. If after six months you realise 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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Crimson Hexagon has merged with Brandwatch. You’re in the right place!

From May 8th, all Crimson Hexagon products are now on the Brandwatch website. You’ll find them under ‘Products’ in the navigation. If you’re an existing customer and you want to know more, your account manager will be happy to help.