Social listening was once a novel technology, even as recently as two years ago.

Today, there are dozens of social listening and social monitoring software providers, each touting capabilities that vary wildly and generally sound like black-box, secret-sauce voodoo magic.

But once you understand the underlying framework behind each of these tools – data collection, normalization and natural language processing – it is surprisingly easy to distinguish between the value of different tools.

And from there, to embed them into strategies that drive marketing organizations further through research and analytics.

Social listening as a tool for data-driven growth

The most common question I get when talking with people about social listening is “What do I do with this data?”

The answer is:

  • Understand your audience.
  • Care for your audience.
  • Activate your audience.
  • Benchmark against your competition.
  • Optimize your campaigns.

Research is, after all, the beginning of better marketing. 

Yes, it takes a bit of creativity to apply social listening data to real business problems. That’s why I’m writing a blog right now.

First, a definition:

Social listening, sometimes called social monitoring, refers to technology that has the following properties:

  • Scans major social networks for instances of a keyword or key phrase.
  • Scans other sites – blogs, forums, news, etc – for instances of a keyword or key phrase.
  • Analyzes the results of these scans with Natural Language Processing (NLP) for sentiment.
  • Analyzes the results of these scans for various actionable insights, including major topics and key influencers.

Capabilities vary widely among tools. Many social listening platforms are not worth the money they charge, others are reasonably priced.

Prices, by the way, range between $10 and $10,000 per month – or higher for custom and volume-based pricing.

We will be discussing the ‘Enterprise Social Listening’ tools on the higher end, between $1,000 and $10,000 per month.

Understand your audience: Market research & product research with social listening

Most social listening tools scan hundreds of millions of websites for mentions of certain keywords.

This means that the results you’re looking at are really a sample set of the entire ‘social web’.

So if you want to know what people online think about ‘smartphones’ – or if you’re a product manager for Apple and you want to know what people think about ‘iPhones’ – a quick scan with the right tools will tell you:

  • How many people or sites discussed iPhones/smartphones.
  • How the volume of iPhone/smartphone discussions trended over time.
  • Where the iPhone/smartphone discussions happen.
  • How people feel when they discuss iPhones/smartphones.
  • What they are saying – over all time and at specific intervals – in the context of iPhone/smartphone discussions.

As a market analyst, the information is useful for correlating with sales, stocks, etc. – and for understanding macro trends in order to anticipate the near future.

As a product portfolio manager, the information is useful for understanding customer satisfaction.

Care for your audience: Customer service with social listening

In fact, customer service is one of the major applications of social listening technology.

Tools like Sprinklr and SparkCentral are designed to power customer service for enterprise organizations.

By observing real-time lists of unhappy customer data, organizations can react quickly to address customer concerns, as well as observe major themes that arise from dissatisfied customers.BIS

For example, remember #Bendgate? That crazy thing where iPhones could bend? Yeah, that all started in September 2014. See this chart displaying over 450,000 mentions between September 20 and 30. 

The mentions are either of #bendgate (green) and “iPhone NEAR/5 bend” (purple; NEAR/5 is a Boolean search operator that will only allow results where the second word is within 5 words of the first):

Courtesy of Infegy Atlas - our preferred social listening tool.

Notice that things don’t really pick up until about the 25th, but the mentions begin streaming in on the 23rd.

Before the hashtag really caught fire, mentions of iPhones bending were higher. In fact, there are mentions of iPhones bending as far back as the 21st (though it’s not visible on this chart because of low volumes).

Savvy use of a social listening tool would allow those who manage customer satisfaction to watch this theme of bending iPhones unfold before it went viral.

You can beat the press to the punch with social listening.

Activate your audience: Targeted advertising and influencer activation with social listening

Top-tier social listening tools should provide you with unique IDs of social users, where possible.

Typically, this is only feasible on Twitter and Instagram, and sometimes other less-used social platforms like Reddit and Weibo.

For example, see this list of targeted Twitter users developed using ManageFlitterCMOs in Boston.

Once you have unique IDs of targeted users – especially ones who have strong affinity for your brand – you can do two things:

1. Deliver advertising to fans via Custom Audiences

Twitter and Facebook both offer advertising solutions that involve bulk uploading unique IDs of users in order to deliver advertising to only them. These are called Custom Audiences.

Say you develop advertising attribution software and are trying to sell to marketing execs.

You are based in Boston – or are boosting sales efforts there – so you want to develop awareness by placing your message in front of marketing execs in that area.

With that “CMOs in Boston” list I generated through ManageFlitter, you could deliver advertising to these users. If your list isn’t large enough (over 500 users), then you could broaden your search to include other qualifying terms.

If you have users signifying positive sentiment – or are using more sophisticated NLP software that looks at purchase intent – you could pull the user results from Twitter and advertise upsell products to them.

DISCLAIMER: According to Twitter’s Terms, exporting lists from searches such as the one described above in order to upload them to Custom Audience for advertising targeting is not viewed favorably. Legal ramifications may result.

You can read more about it in the comments below.

2. Activate influencers

Most social listening tools have some level of focus on telling you who your “influencers” are.

These are the power users – the ones who advocate strongly for your brand and who have a good degree of visibility online.

Much like Custom Audiences for advertising, you can act on the user lists generated by these tools to encourage influencers to talk more about your brand.

Some brands offer these influencers special promotions in exchange for posts; others invite them to exclusive events.

Benchmark against your competition: Landscape analysis with social listening

Share-of-voice is a common measure of competitive standing among major brands. With the right tools, you can develop macro SoV insights, as well as SoV by geographic segment, channel segment (News, Forums, Blogs, etc.) and demographic segment (gender, age, etc.).

You can also develop sentiment benchmarks. Perhaps your brand is getting largely negative feedback, so you develop campaigns designed to encourage positive sentiment online.

You can set incremental measures of success so that, in six months or a year, you’re on top of the positivity game.

Marketers can also use social listening to track negative press about competitors.

In one instance with a higher education client, we knew about a disastrous press situation for our client’s competition before our client did. Many social listening tools offer alert functions that make this possible.

Optimize your campaigns: Real-time monitoring with social listening

Content marketing for enterprise is often focused around key phrases, tag lines or hashtags.

Social listening tools allow you to track the spread of these beyond your own paid/earned/owned efforts to promote them.

You can also measure the saturation of your hashtags and campaign terms among the overall buzz about your brand.

For example, for a major telecom client we were able to see the points at which their online conversation was dominated by a new hashtag they had launched.

This allows them to optimize their content based on the apparent efficacy of these times.

And finally, you can deploy social listening tools to measure the efficacy of your campaigns not only in volume, but also in sentiment.

After all, what good is buzz if it’s bad?

Where to learn more about social listening tools: