What is social listening?

In the past businesses paid huge amounts of money to get a sense of what potential customers were thinking. Surveys and focus groups were common solutions, but they were time- and cost-intensive. Today, customers, competitors and the public at large all share their thoughts freely online – and all businesses need to do is listen.

This is social media listening: the art of deriving insights from online conversations. Brands that can listen effectively will gain access to the many huge upsides of social media marketing. It’s quick and affordable, it meets people where they are, and it can be hugely impactful when done right.

Social media listening is particularly useful for de-risking, as it enables you to quickly develop a realistic picture of how your brand and industry are discussed, in real-time, online. You can then respond accordingly – with updates to products and services, of course, not by getting in into a futile back and forth with detractors!

But social listening isn’t just for damage control. This unparalleled view into the minds of customers can also provide fuel for content creation, audience engagement, and lead generation.

According to our survey of 500 CMOs and marketing managers, B2B brands’ priorities on social media are increasing brand engagement (51%), generating awareness (46%) and building their share of voice (33%). The top concern is that creating relevant content is too time-consuming (28%). Check out the other findings from our research in our B2B social media content creation guide.

Listening is key to achieving each of these priorities and overcoming this central concern. By listening to what potential customers are talking about and understanding the pain points they face, you can create more relevant content. Listening can also significantly cut down the time involved in planning (if not creating) content.

It’s no surprise, then, that businesses in our survey told us that the number one thing they use a B2B social media agency for is brand monitoring and social listening (51%). By working with an agency, B2B businesses also gain access to a team who are immersed in online culture. According to social media expert Matt Navarra, internet culture super geeks are the best at it because they have a passion for keeping up to date with online trends and can rapidly find where a brand fits – or has an opportunity to fit – in the conversation.

How is it different from social media monitoring?

Social media monitoring often gets confused with social listening. Monitoring involves keeping an eye out for any mentions of your brand – generally so the social media team can leap into action and address it. When an upset customer complains on social media and someone from the company replies, that’s social monitoring.

While monitoring takes place at the micro, reactive scale, social listening is the macro, proactive version. It looks at the big picture to understand what people are saying about a brand, its competitors, and the sector at large. Social listening involves actively searching social platforms for a set of keywords, tracking how they are discussed over time, and using this information to improve the business’s offering.

Social media monitoringSocial listening
Individual scaleBig picture
Address immediate issuesPlan for the future

The goal of social listening, in short, is to maintain a robust, current understanding of what your customers, others in your industry, and the public at large are saying online. A business that has this understanding will be extremely well positioned to create products and services that better suit their customers’ needs, identify gaps in the market, create content that connects, and avoid common pitfalls.

Being a good listener

There are several things you need to conduct social listening effectively. First, you need to be where the conversations are – listening to silence won’t get you anywhere. This means regularly checking in on the platforms that your customers, competitors, and others in the industry use.

LinkedIn is a logical place to start, and many industries also have thriving communities on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. However, every sector is different, and the most popular platform isn’t set in stone. There may also be different preferences among different groups – customers, even B2B customers, may be more likely to complain about a business on Facebook or Twitter, while competitors may post mostly to LinkedIn.

Once you’ve found the groups you want to listen to, you need to consider what you want to listen out for. Manually sorting through the firehose of thoughts and opinions is out of the question, so you need to define a set of keywords to focus on.

At a minimum, you should monitor:

  • Mentions of your brand (both the name and direct @ mentions of the account)
  • Mentions of your products or services
  • Your competitors and mentions of their products or services
  • Key members of your team, like the CEO and any spokespeople
  • Terms related to your industry and product or service
  • Any hashtags your business uses

You need to include common typos or abbreviations of every keyword. If your business operates in multiple countries with different languages, you also need to listen out for these same terms in the local language.

Talk to our social media team to discuss your B2B social listening strategy or click here to get back to the top of the page.

Social listening tools

Using a subscription SaaS product is the most straightforward, comprehensive way to conduct social listening (and brand monitoring). There are a range of tools on the market to suit different price points and needs – here are five popular options:

Brandwatch: this social suite is used by many of the world’s leading brands, and it supports all of the leading social platforms, including TikTok. In addition to the powerful social listening solution, the Brandwatch suite also includes tools for publishing, advertising, measurement and management on social media.

Talkwalker: a self-described “AI-enabled consumer intelligence platform,” Talkwalker supports social listening across ten different social platforms. It makes it simple to track KPIs, such as hashtag performance, and dig into the detail with audience segmentation and visualisations.

Sprout Social: this suite offers social listening templates, such as “Brand Health” and “Industry Insights,” so you can start using it right out of the box. As you get more confident with it, you can then take advantage of Sprout’s advanced tools, such as the query builder, to get a more granular understanding.

Digimind: as a dedicated social listening (and market intelligence) platform, Digimind offers a more focused experience than many of the larger social management suites. AI is applied throughout the platform for everything from curation to compiling reports, cutting the time between setup and gaining insights.

Buzzsumo: the straightforward Buzzsumo social listening tools integrate with the platform’s larger social offering. The listening tools track brand and competitor mentions, trends and more and represent them alongside other key data on a dashboard.

Social listening on a budget

Not every organisation can afford to allocate resources to a subscription social listening solution – but this doesn’t mean that they can’t keep an ear out manually. This will, of course, be less comprehensive and real-time than having a tool do the work in the background, but the results will be broadly similar.

To start, it’s worth getting a look at the big picture. Fortunately, many of the solutions we would recommend for social listening are the same ones we discussed for content idea generation, such as Answer the Public.

Many businesses already invest in a PR coverage monitoring service, such as Onclusive, Meltwater or Vuelio. Some of these tools support social media at a small additional cost, so it’s worth reaching out to your provider if you already pay for one of them. While less precise than dedicated listening tools, these options can be a cost-effective way of understanding the big picture.

For a view of the specifics, you need to keep an eye out for mentions of your brand, products, and competitors. Popular tools automate this process, but you can always do it by hand for free. Using each platform’s search function (and applying search operators for more precise searching – see Twitter’s, for example), you can find relevant conversations and get a sense of the sentiment.

Enlist the experts

Managing social listening, along with all of the other aspects of a successful social strategy, is a lot of work. Rather than paying for a SaaS solution and managing it in-house, consider working with an award-winning B2B social media agency like us. We already have all the tools you need – plus real-world experience using them to deliver results.

Talk to our social media team to learn what we can do for your business or click here to get back to the top of the page.

Written by: Lou Watson-Dowell, PR & digital strategy director at Definition.