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By Sara Huffman

Most brands and agencies are familiar with social monitoring: checking and responding to comments left by people on their social media accounts. This practice is vital for good customer service and public relations. But there is something else many brands and agencies aren’t doing that could be costing them time, money, potential customers, and goodwill from current customers: social listening.

What is social listening?

Like social monitoring, social listening involves paying attention to what people are saying about your brand or clients online, especially on social media. But social listening goes deeper, examining what people are saying about your brand and what they’re saying about your competitors and relevant industries as a whole.

Why is social listening important?

Imagine you were starting a chain of fast-casual restaurants that served Chinese food. You’ll want to listen to what your customers are saying about your brand, but also what they’re saying about Panda Express, Pick Up Stix, and any other competitors. You’ll also want to stay on top of any Chinese food trends happening on social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok and track how people react to those trends. (It can also keep you out of trouble if the public sentiment around those trends starts to go south.) Learning all this information makes you better able to provide your customers with something they want that, hopefully, your competitors aren’t providing.

Social listening also gives you a better idea of how people truly feel about your brand because you’re listening to them talk to each other instead of talking to you. Generally, consumers don’t express their feelings to a brand unless they’ve had an overly positive or overly negative experience. This black and white type of feedback is valuable, of course, but what about all the shades of grey? Social listening can find those shades of grey for you.

How do you conduct social listening?

Step 1: Track, Track and Track Some More
Tracking hashtags and relevant social media accounts are two of the best ways to get started. The good news is, there are many ways to go about doing this. Tools like Hootsuite, Sprout, Keyhole, or BrandMentions make it easy to track the hashtags, accounts, and any key phrases you’re monitoring for.

Social media platforms themselves also offer ways to track specific hashtags and accounts. On Facebook, you can search out and follow groups, plus use tools like Business Audience Insights and Insights to Go. You can follow hashtags on Instagram and read their Instagram for Business Consumer Insights blog. On Twitter, you can check out the “Trends for You” tab, the “Explore” tab, plus create specialized lists of accounts you want to follow closely.

Once you know how to track, you’ll want to figure out what to track. You’ll want to track direct mentions of your company, your company’s social media, and product names. You’ll also want to track your brand’s hashtags, the names of your campaign, relevant keywords associated with those campaigns, the names of important people in your company, and any topics relating to your brand. And then, you’ll want to track all of that for each one of your competitors.

Step 2: Get Outside Your Bubble
Once you’ve started listening for those specific keywords, you’ll want to start paying attention to conversations about your industry as a whole. What are the trends? How do people feel about them? This type of social listening is an excellent way to see if you should expand your brand’s goods or services. Should you jump on that big trend bandwagon, or should you ride it out and see if it’s worth the time and resources? Are there any holes in the marketplace that your company to fill?

Step 3: Make Meaningful Connections
As opposed to social media monitoring, social listening also enables you the chance to make direct, meaningful connections with your customers. Just as listening to someone in real life helps create a connection with that person, social listening gives you the chance to see who your customers are and what is important. Plus, making meaningful connections with your customers can lead to increased sales. 48% of consumers prefer buying from attentive and responsive brands via social media. That’s more than simply offering promotions or exclusive content. If your customers like your brand, and you acknowledge them, take them seriously, and try to pivot in ways that will make their lives richer, you could end up with customers who love you.

Step 4: Be Consistent
It’s tempting to come out of the gate full speed ahead, replying to every social media mention, crafting witty Tweets to go viral, and looking into making every change your customers suggest. But if you can’t keep up that kind of momentum, you’ll risk looking inauthentic and turning people off. Make sure you can devote some time to social listening, but if you can’t devote a lot of time, don’t make it look like you can. Set realistic expectations for yourself and your business so that you can continue to listen consistently.

Step 5: Don’t Forget to Be Yourself
While it’s crucial to try to make your customers happy, you can’t be everything to everyone. Don’t lose sight of your mission and vision statement, and don’t try to be something you’re not just because you’re trying to make everyone happy. It’s easy to get in too deep; trying to fix every little problem, trying to change too much about your product, and trying to center your brand in every conversation your customers have. You’re not going to win everyone over, and you certainly don’t want to end up alienating anybody. Quality is always more important than quantity when it comes to social listening.