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What is Social Listening & Why Is It Important?

Updated July 2019.

Many brands are confused about how social data is captured and applied – and that can prove fatal, as it’s crucial to informing brand strategy. What is social listening exactly? Let’s find out – along with the many ways it’s important and how you can use it to capture your brand’s piece of the global marketplace!

Listening vs Monitoring

One common misconception is the belief that social listening and social monitoring are the same thing – interchangeable terms for one process. In truth, social listening and social monitoring – though often used together – have distinct jobs to do, much like your CEO and CFO.

Social monitoring is about recognizing or being alerted to certain key events as they happen – such as a customer complaint getting a lot of attention. It’s establishing a baseline and monitoring for when things deviate from it, using social listening to understand why.

What, then, is social listening?

This article will answer that question in detail, with specific attention to its multifaceted functions, including how to:

A Bit More About Social Listening

Social listening works in conjunction with social monitoring to provide an overall and all-the-time baseline for your brand to work from. It’s a detailed analysis of your audience, what they care about, and where they discuss such things. It’s about uncovering and aggregating all the information you’re missing if you only count likes and mentions.

Social listening takes a broader look at the overall social landscape – taking in the typical shapes and sounds, so anomalies become easier to spot.

Or think of it this way: Social monitoring is like getting a flu shot when everyone around you is getting sick, whereas social listening is like eating an apple a day so your immune system is healthy and strong no matter what you’re exposed to.

Why Is Social Listening Important?

Monitoring is an important preventative, but nothing beats a consistent, proactive approach. Just like a healthy immune system is important to prevent the body from being easily susceptible to illness, social listening keeps your brand aware of the bigger picture. Instead of focusing on individual tweets and issues, you get an aggregated view that highlights trends and themes you can use to direct brand strategy.

Unlike social monitoring – alerting you to a single problem that you solve in the moment – social listening shines a light on ongoing issues. Perhaps you have the same issue popping up regularly on the same day, or in a certain geographical area. Instead of offering a quick fix to satisfy a single customer, you can solve the problem at the root and eliminate it going forward.

But it’s not just about solving problems. Social listening offers information you can apply to any aspect of brand operations.

Let’s look at each in turn

Understanding Social Sentiment To Track Brand Health

Social sentiment is actually the core of all social analytics – but tracking brand health in general is its broadest application.

When NetBase measures sentiment we use two combined metrics to calculate overall Brand Passion:

  • Net Sentiment – whether consumer emotions are positive or negative from +100 to -100
  • Passion Intensity – the strength of consumer emotions from +100 to -100

Why does Passion Intensity matter? Because a small contingent of consumers who love or hate your brand is most vocal – thus socially more powerful – than a large contingent of consumers who are ambivalent. Just ask any brand who has gone viral – in a good or bad way.

With sentiment analysis, it’s crucial to know where your brand stands typically, but also to look at spikes in sentiment to understand what’s happening during specific events.

Whether it’s a new campaign or product, or a crisis about to erupt, look at sentiment values before, during and after to assess whether the impact is ongoing, or isolated to a specific event, etc. If you haven’t solved the problem, sentiment will tell you.

Sassy Starbucks’ Brand Health Mojo

For example, Starbucks was under fire last year for a racially charged incident at one of their Philadelphia locations. Video of the event went quickly viral. The coffee brand dealt expertly with the aftermath. It temporarily closed 8,000 U.S. stores for racial bias training, which was met with positive feedback from consumers.

And that good feeling gives them a cushion, of sorts – an overflow in the sentiment arena the next time a barista does something foolish. With X number of locations worldwide, flubs of epic proportions feel inevitable.

This week, for example, the coffee giant experienced a pretty significant gaffe, when a barista asked uniformed officers to leave a location because they made another patron feel uncomfortable.

Sentiment for Starbucks fell flat, at 0%, with nearly equal positive and negative feelings swirling around the brand as it navigates this latest issue:

Starbucks social listening reveals sentiment woes

And in case they were unsure of why, specifically, calls to boycott the establishment were happening, popular terms being discussed leave little doubt:

Starbucks social listening revealing insight via popular items being discussed about the brand

Sentiment Recovery, Starbucks-style

How are they registering at 0% sentiment instead of something negative? They were quick about things, as they always are, because they stay on top of brand sentiment, and posted an apology.

And you can be sure they’ll continue to monitor it closely for any spikes or shift in mentions as they move forward.

They’ll do this both to ensure the conversation transitions back to a more positive tone, as it had been trending the full month of June during their Born This Way effort . . .

Lady Gaga Born This Way tweet and online love it received

. . .  and to see that nothing new happens to threaten the brand’s good standing any further.

Summary:

  1. Establish a baseline using sentiment analysis
  2. Look at any spikes in sentiment and find out what’s driving them
  3. Continue following sentiment to ensure brand health

Identify and Optimize Content to Meet Brand Goals

Social content isn’t simply about “being on social.” Content is crucial to engagement and conversion – so you want to get it right. This is where social listening tools like NetBase come in super handy – because they eliminate a lot of trial and error.

Searching on your brand shows you which content is resonating – and on which channels. That helps you plan the type of content you need.

Let’s imagine you’ve realized most of your engagement is on Instagram, so you know visual content is most important. Or, if blogs are getting you the most traction, you know text is clearly your audience’s preference.

But what about the focus of your content? That’s where sentiment comes back in. You can look at hashtags, topics and keywords to see what people talk about most passionately, and how that relates to the content they interact with and share. This also helps you optimize for search.

Or you can look to NetBase’s first-to-market artificial intelligence platform, AI Studio, which automatically discovers themes for you, based on millions of data points emerging from topic conversations you’re wanting to understand. This amplifies listening efforts dramatically on its own.  And can help you identify hashtags you may have missed otherwise.

Instagram is very hashtag oriented, so knowing which hashtags are popular and relevant to your topic area is key. On other channels, you’ll shift focus to the proper keywords/terms. The terms people use when searching for whatever your brand offers are important so this AI-powered, automated discovery is a real game changer. The last thing you want is one of your competitors discovering this hashtag and making it their own before you do! Coming up first in hashtag search results can be a huge brand awareness boost.

Competitive Understanding

Which brings us to another key tactic: searching on your competitors as well as your own brand. Understanding how consumers feel about them helps you compete more effectively.

Now an example! Extending our conversation above about Starbucks, let’s search on the larger category of “coffee” and “#coffee” to see what’s happening in that sphere.

We see the usual suspects present with “drink”, “morning” and those heading into a “coffee shop” to “buy” a “cup of coffee” before heading to “work,” And we also see Starbucks mentioned, of course, both in the popular terms and hashtags. But we also see Japanese competitor and canned coffee king, UCC mentioned prominently in hashtags:

Overall coffee sentiment showing Starbucks and UCC

Investigating further reveals a 50th anniversary promotion for participants to win a case of its coffee, eliciting a nostalgic response:

social listening shows nostalgia for UCC brand cans

The online love the brand is experiencing right now is enviable:

uly 9th UCC sentiment spike stats

And its thanks in part to influencer engagement, with its July 9 spike attributed to reaching out to one influencer, actress and Instagrammer Marie Iitoyo:

UCC tweeting to influencer as smart social listening tactic

 

while attracting another:

Instagram post showing UCC coffee

Learning the Lesson

The competitive research lesson here? Nostalgic campaigns are a great sentiment boost, Instagram offers amazing engagement for coffee posts, and (for UCC) always pay attention to sentiment spikes or you may miss an influential micro-influencer promoting your brand! It’s unclear if they connected with this influencer yet, but they may want to!

The end of the Instagram post even mentions Starbucks, translated to read: “Maybe next time I will drink like this, and because Starbucks isn’t close to my house, I feel that I’m thankful that I feel so happy with it. Try it by all means-congratulation”

So this also offers an opening for Starbucks to capture a market seeking quick combo options offered in a vending machine nearby (as most things are available in that region).

Summary:

  1. Identify the content and channels meeting your brand’s engagement goals
  2. Look at sentiment in correlation with content
  3. Look at competitor content for additional ideas

Create Campaigns Designed to Succeed

The beauty of social listening is that information you glean from one area – like content – spills into others. After all, content is the backbone of promotional campaigns – but that’s not the only consideration.

Social listening is something you want to apply to your entire category – not just your brand. When you do, you will spot trends you can leverage in a number of ways – like ad campaigns.

What does your audience want and how can you use those insights? Should you run a contest? Offer a special? Ask for user generated content? Your social listening will tell you. And this is where real-time really helps as well. You want to know what your audience is into NOW.

You also want to identify influencers – but be sure they’re helping keep the conversation positive.

Interestingly, when exploring Starbucks’ influencers, we see Starbucks Japan figuring prominently in the conversation right now, possibly working on two fronts to recapture the conversation (both from its current PR crisis and from UCC):

Coffee influencers in Japan

Either way, their “Peach on the Beach” frappuccino product launch is auspiciously timed:

Starbucks Japan Peach on the Beach promotion

Don’t Focus too Narrowly

It would be tempting for Starbucks (or whomever). to look at the most influential people sharing posts online right now – and where, and design campaigns attempting to capture those audiences, but that would be a mistake. Other channels come into play here as well.

There’s significant discussion happening on other sites, including Tumblr and Reddit, and via forums and news outlets. And geographically, we see lots of activity in the U.S. and Japan, but other regions show activity too:

Using social listening to sort out popular domains and geography to target

Success is never guaranteed with any campaign, but you want to stack the deck in your favor as much as you can, so speaking to audiences on social sites, blogs and forums where they’re participating, beyond the top spots, is always wise. As is creating promotions that cater to your up and coming audiences, as well as those already solidly established. Then follow along in real-time to make any course corrections – or product launches – as dictated by your social listening.

Summary:

  1. Identify topics/trends consumers care most about for the meat of your campaign
  2. Share your campaign via the medium and channels your audience loves most
  3. Follow progress in real-time and adjust as needed

Delight Your Customers With An Authentic, Personalized Experience at Every Touchpoint

Social isn’t just about communicating about your brand – it’s about learning what consumers want, hence the “listening” part of social listening. It’s also a key part of your customer experience. Sometimes it’s where the experience starts, i.e., brand awareness, or where it ends, i.e., social customer care.

And in between it informs what that experience should be.

Consumers constantly share information on social – and that information is what brands must use to create and hone their customer experience.

Everything from your marketing campaigns, to product quality, to in-store service, to how your social care team interacts with customers shapes the customer experience. Use social insights to learn what your customers love, and to find ways to improve on what they don’t love.

Starbucks actively – and publicly – responds to customers online, for example.

Starbucks responding to customer care tweets

It would be interesting to see how they capture all of this consumer data and analyze it to inform ongoing efforts. We know a place . . .

Again, this is another area where looking at competitors is smart. If you’re not getting the brand love you want, look at other brands in your category to see why their customers love them. Just as important, look at where they are falling short and learn from their mistakes.

Summary:

  1. Analyze for terms and sentiment about your customer experience
  2. Look at competitors for inspiration and tactics to avoid
  3. Refine each touch point until you have a seamless customer experience.

Conceive and Launch New Products to an Audience Ready to Love Them

With overcrowded markets, digital shopping overtaking in-store, and other modern brand challenges, most brands literally can not afford to fail when they launch new products and services. Social listening is an always-on survey that lets you find out what features and products your audience wants – and which they absolutely don’t.

You may even find a great idea for a brand partnership.

UCC experienced an exceptional promotional push many years ago by partnering with an anime company on the release of a popular show. Imagine the brand awareness a real partnership would offer Starbucks considering the engagement on this fake one?

Social listening reveals potential collaborations

 

And you can always come right out and ask consumers about ideas your brand is considering. They won’t be shy about telling you what they think – and you’ll save all the money you’d have spent on a bad idea.

Summary:

  1. Identify consumer wishes on social, and use sentiment to assess value
  2. Look for opportunities to partner with other successful brands
  3. Poll your audience about potential new products before spending

Social Listening Is Your Roadmap

As you can see, social listening is not limited to marketing endeavors. The data you collect can be applied to any area of operations, and should be.

Though social monitoring is important for alerting you to potential problems, you need social listening to avoid being caught off guard.

You don’t want to wait until there’s a problem to take your audience’s temperature. You want to know how they feel every step of the way, and be able to anticipate and avoid problems as a result.

Additionally, the better you know your audience, the better you’re able to serve them – and that’s what keeps them coming back.

So invest in social listening tools now, if you haven’t already. Every second you wait just gives your competitors the advantage.

Read the other parts of this comprehensive series by clicking below:

  1. What is Social Media Analytics and Why Is it Important?
  2. What Is Social Media Monitoring?
  3. What Is Social Campaign Analysis?
  4. What Is Social Sentiment Analysis?
  5. What Is Social Listening & Why Is It Important? — currently reading
  6. What Is Image Analytics?
  7. What Is Audience Analysis?

Ready to see our social listening tools in action? Reach out for a custom demo!

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