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Strategy

Social Listening: The Best Way To Understand Your Audience

Social pros use social listening to proactively monitor social media channels for mentions of their brand, competitors, product, and more.

Colleen Christison June 5, 2024
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If you don’t have a social listening strategy, you’re missing out on some of the most valuable data available to help build your business.

Social media listening tools allow you to build a solid understanding of what customers and potential customers think about you by analyzing what they say on social channels. You can also learn what they think about the competition. This is incredible market research readily available in real-time, as long as you know how to access it.

Want to get right to it? Watch social media expert Nick Martin explain the three steps of social listening in the video below:

If you’d prefer a more detailed guide, read on to learn about:

  • What social listening means,
  • The benefits of social listening,
  • How to do social listening well, and
  • Which great social media listening tools you should use.

Bonus: Discover the best way to gather insights and intel from your audience, competitors, industry, and favorite aspirational brands in our complete guide to advanced social listening.

What is social listening?

Social listening is the practice of proactively monitoring social media channels for mentions of your brand, competitor brands, and related keywords.

Social listening lets you track every mention of your brand on social media in real time. You’ll be able to learn how customers feel about your products and services, what they want, and what they don’t want.

But don’t stop at tracking mentions of your brand. With social media listening, you can also:

  • Track competing brands,
  • Monitor trending content and
  • Conduct a sentiment analysis on topics meaningful to your business.

Social listening insights can influence your business decisions, including marketing and product strategy, customer service, and support. You can use the info you gain to make smarter, data-driven calls that can positively impact your business’s bottom line.

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The difference between social monitoring and social listening

They sound similar (and they are!), but the difference between social monitoring and social listening is simple. Social media listening is proactive — social monitoring is reactive.

Social monitoring looks at specific brand mentions and sends alerts whenever your brand is mentioned online. It is sometimes referred to as brand monitoring.

Social monitoring is useful for quickly responding to complaints, but it doesn’t give you a big-picture view of what people are saying about your brand or industry.

Social listening, on the other hand, gives you a complete overview of all online conversations related to your brand, products, industry, and competitors. This holistic approach provides valuable insights that can help you make strategic decisions about your marketing and social media strategy.

In short, if you want to stay on top of the latest trends and see what people are saying about your brand over time, you need a social listening strategy.

Still have questions? Check out our complete guide to social listening vs. social monitoring.

What does social listening actually look like?

We’ve pulled together a few social listening examples to show you the concept IRL.

1. Spotify

Spotify has an entire Twitter account and website dedicated to customer conversations. This type of social listening allows people to come directly to them.

The Spotify Cares account also monitors tagged and untagged mentions, so they never miss an opportunity to offer support.

2. McDonald’s Canada

In 2023, McDonald’s limited edition Grimace shake took over the internet, but Canadian consumers missed out on all the fun — and weren’t quiet about voicing their displeasure.

Luckily, McDonald’s Canada was listening. In 2024, they brought the purple shake north of the border.

Way to pay attention, Ronald McDonald.

3. Samsung

Social listening isn’t just about noticing what your customers want, either. Sometimes, it means paying attention to what your competition’s customers don’t want.

After Apple’s “Crush” iPad ad went viral for all the wrong reasons…

…Samsung capitalized on the trending conversation with their own version of the ad.

4. Airbnb

When influencer Alix Earle’s summer vacation rental turned out to be a scam, the popular creator turned to TikTok for help.

@alixearle 4 girls 1 cot #positano #girlstrip ♬ hi erica – Cameron

Luckily, Airbnb was listening.

They came to the rescue fast, quickly offering an alternate place for Earle and her friends to stay.

@alixearle THIS IS NOT REAL LIFE. Omg thank you @airbnb for coming to the rescue 🥹😭 #positano #airbnb #italy #girlstrip ♬ original sound – Alix Earle

Not only did Alix Earle get a beautiful new vacation rental, but Airbnb managed to generate some serious goodwill among the creator’s 6M+ TikTok followers.

All thanks to the power of social listening!

The benefits of social listening for your business

If you’re not using social media listening, you’re creating your business strategy with blinders on. Current and prospective customers are already talking about your brand and industry online. It’s in your best interest to listen to what they have to say.

Here are some of the ways social listening can benefit your business.

Understanding your audience

Social media listening helps you better understand what your audience wants from your brand. People will tell you what they want; you just have to listen.

For example, an existing customer might tweet about how much they love your product. Or, you might spot a conversation where people are looking for solutions your product could provide.

In both cases, you can use this feedback to improve your offering and make your customers happier.

Business and product intelligence

Monitoring conversations around the industry also uncovers a ton of insight about what’s working and what’s not. People love to vent, so you can learn about current frustrations with products, both yours and your competitors.

This information is a gold mine for your customer service, product development, and marketing teams.

Once you modify your products/shipments/customer service, tell people about it in a targeted campaign.

Crisis management

Social listening allows you to track sentiment as it changes. You’ll know immediately when the tone of people’s conversations about your brand shifts.

This is like an early warning system for potential crises. Social listening can create opportunities to fix or address issues before they boil over.

If sentiment is down, review the social feedback to identify the change’s source. While you’re at it, look for lessons that could prevent a similar misstep in the future. This can help you address PR disasters before they get out of hand.

The Loblaws boycott, for example, picked up speed by trending on X/Twitter. While Loblaws chose not to address the boycott, they are certainly aware of it and likely monitoring the situation.

Customer relationships and acquisition

Social listening can help you uncover questions and conversations about your industry on social platforms. Still, you should refrain from using it as an opening to jump in and try to sell right off the bat.

If you’re going to join a conversation, do it with your audience in mind. What value can you add?

Online, you have the opportunity to develop relationships with potential customers in your industry. Once you have a relationship, you can nurture it for social selling.

Collaboration opportunities

Monitoring social conversations about your industry will give you a sense of who the important creators and thought leaders are in your space. These are important people to connect with. They can have a huge influence on how people feel about you.

Remember: This is a two-way street. Supporting others in your industry makes it more likely they will help you in return. Rather than trying to barge into an existing community, connect through collaborations with people within the community.

Keep an eye out for folks already saying great things about your brand. These are natural brand advocates. Reach out to them and look for opportunities to collaborate in meaningful ways.

Competitor and industry trends

Social listening is more than understanding what people say about you. It is also important to know what your competition is doing and how people talk about them and your industry.

The conversations you find might reveal a gap in the marketplace you could step up to fill. Or maybe it’s an opportunity to jump in and stir up some friendly competition — for clout, of course.

Wendy’s, for example, is always quick to jump on their competitor’s Tweets.

Discovering these new opportunities and threats as they happen allows you to plan and respond on the fly.

Uncover market trends

We all know how fast the social media landscape changes. What’s viral one day is passé the next. Staying on top of trends is a full-time job without social listening to do it for you.

Track relevant keywords and hashtags related to your industry to stay ahead of the curve.

You can also use social listening to predict future trends by analyzing what people are talking about now and how those conversations have changed over time.

These insights can shape your content strategy, product development, and marketing campaigns.

Psstt: Read the Hootsuite Trends Report to keep up with new and noteworthy trends.

Improve campaign targeting

Personalization is key to any social advertising campaign. Your audience wants to feel like you’re speaking to them directly and not just churning out generic content.

Social listening will show you the issues your audience cares about, the kind of language they use, and what resonates with them. Think of it like a survey that’s always running in the background.

Use these insights to inform your campaign, from the copy to the visuals. This will help you create content that speaks directly to your audience.

  • Customers talking about social burnout? Build a work-life balance guide to show you care.
  • People in your target region complaining about the weather? Create a short-term sale on season-appropriate items.
  • Seeing an uptick in small business for social media requests? Why not build an entire campaign to help them out?

How to create your own social listening strategy in 5 steps

Jumping straight into social listening without a plan is a good way to get overwhelmed. Make the most of your time and energy by starting with a social media listening strategy.

Here’s how to create one in five simple steps.

Step 1: Decide on your goals

There’s so much data out there. If you don’t first decide on your objectives, you’ll be drowning in information. Determining your goals allows you to filter the noise.

To determine your goals, ask yourself:

  • Is it important to know how my brand stacks up against the competition?
  • Do I know where we stand in the marketplace?
  • Are people enjoying our products? Could they be improved?
  • Do we know what our brand sentiment is?
  • Do people know we exist?
  • Do people know our products or services can solve for [this specific issue]?

The answers to these questions will tell you whether you should focus on brand awareness, outranking your competitors, or improving your product offerings.

Step 2: Decide on the search terms and competitors you should keep an eye on

Once you know what you’re working towards, you’ll have a better idea of the keywords you need to target.

Start making lists of keywords and search terms you’ll need to target. These might cover:

  • The keywords associated with your brand or industry
  • Your competitor’s names
  • The keywords associated with your products or services

Step 3: Choose a social listening tool

Choosing a tool is one of the most important things you must do when setting up a social media listening strategy. We love Hootsuite Streams and Talkwalker for obvious reasons.

Here’s how to easily create your own social listening Streams using Hootsuite:

Head to your Hootsuite Dashboard

Log in to your Hootsuite account and head to your dashboard. If you don’t have an account, don’t fear: It’s easy to sign up.

Add and customize your Streams

On the left-hand menu, navigate to the Streams icon.

Then, click on + New Board in the top left corner, and follow the Board type prompts on the right-hand side of your screen.

You can choose to:

  • Monitor your own content. Follow all activity on your own social accounts.
  • Discover new content. Keep an eye on competitors, trends, and social conversations.
  • Follow personalized feeds. Create custom streams based on any theme or activity in your accounts or those you follow.

The board type you choose will depend on your goals. We recommend setting up multiple Streams to monitor your industry, competitors, accounts and campaigns.

You can adjust the Stream settings to show you more or less content, depending on your preferences.

Here’s a video on fine-tuning your social listening Streams:

Step 4: Take action or compile your findings

Create a system for responding to common social listening findings. Note which comments can be acted on immediately and how and which should be sent up the chain of command.

Some actions can be taken immediately, such as liking or reposting a positive comment or sending a quick response to a complaint.

Some things should be saved for future consideration, like conversational trends, potential brand ambassadors, or recommended product or service updates.

Then, create a spreadsheet to compile your findings. This will help you easily recognize trends and patterns and turn your findings into actionable insights.

Step 5: Use the insights you’ve gleaned to inform your digital strategy

You can better inform your larger digital strategy by:

  • Continuously tracking mentions,
  • Compiling data from your campaigns and social accounts, and
  • Keeping an eye on your brand sentiment.

For example, you might notice people consistently posting about one feature of your product suite. It would make sense to focus your marketing efforts on amplifying this feature.

Whatever you find, be sure to share your social listening report with your team. Social listening analytics can benefit everyone.

3 social media listening tools

Social listening tools pull data from multiple sources, helping you find valuable information about how people are talking about your brand, products/services, and industry.

Here are three social media listening tools you can use today.

Hootsuite

Hootsuite’s number one in our hearts, thanks to the user-friendly Streams tool.

Streams allows you to use Hootsuite to monitor conversations, keywords, mentions, and hashtags.

“Game changer for marketers”

“…[with] streams, you can get any important activity from any and all platforms on all accounts with a quick glance, being freed from checking into every platform from every account; if somebody retweets or mentions you, you will know ASAP and be able to respond accordingly.”

– Aacini H., CFO & Marketing Director

Streams also allows you to stay informed about your industry. You can easily monitor the competition and build relationships with social media creators and potential brand advocates.

It’s an easy tool to set up and monitor, taking the guesswork out of your marketing.

Talkwalker

Talkwalker offers more than 50 filters to monitor conversations across 150 million data sources, including blogs, forums, videos, news sites, review sites, and social networks.

You’ll be able to monitor conversations around your brand and measure engagement, potential reach, comments, and sentiment.

Talkwalker is especially useful to spot activity peaks in conversations about your brand. This can help you determine the best times for your brand to post on social media.

Source: Hootsuite

Psst: Hootsuite is set to acquire Talkwalker VERY SOON. This means you’ll have access to Talkwalker social listening and analytics directly in your Hootsuite dashboard!

Brandwatch

Want to get more advanced with your social media listening? Brandwatch‘s features allow you to segment and analyze data and uncover actionable insights.

Insights also makes it easy to anticipate trends, measure campaigns, and stop a growing crisis with social data.

Source: Hootsuite

5 pro tips for social listening

1. Listen for the right words and topics

Successful social listening is all about choosing the most relevant keywords for your brand.

The keywords and topics you monitor will likely evolve over time. Social listening tools can teach you what kinds of words people use when discussing your business and your industry. You’ll also start to understand the insights that are most useful to you.

If you need help getting started, here’s a list of important keywords and topics to monitor:

  • Your brand name and handles
  • Your product name(s)
  • Your competitors’ brand names, product names, and handles
  • Industry buzzwords
  • Your slogan and those of your competitors
  • Names of key people in your company and your competitors’ companies (your CEO, spokesperson, etc.)
  • Campaign names or keywords
  • Your branded hashtags and those of your competitors
  • Unbranded hashtags related to your industry

You can also monitor common misspellings and abbreviations.

2. Listen in the right places

Part of discovering what your audience has to say about you is learning where they have their conversations.

You need to know where people are talking about you and your industry and how those conversations vary across networks.

For example, do they praise you on Instagram but voice complaints on X/Twitter?

This behavior will guide your marketing strategy for joining the conversation through both organic engagement and paid advertising.

3. Narrow your search

Once you’ve determined which terms and networks you should monitor, you can use more advanced search techniques to filter your results.

For example, depending on your market, you might want to limit your social listening efforts by geography. You won’t be concerned about the conversation in Greece if you run a local business in Iowa.

4. Share what you learn

Social listening provides a wide range of useful information for your whole company.

The customer service, content marketing, and product development teams could all benefit from what you learn while listening on social media. Make sure to communicate your insights and seek input from those teams, too. They might have specific questions you could answer by tweaking your social listening setup.

5. False positives are okay (within reason)

When you set up a query to monitor for a specific keyword or phrase, some posts that might not be relevant will sneak into the results. We call these false positives.

It’s okay to see a few of these within reason. Hootsuite’s social marketing team tries to get false positives below the 5% threshold.

Work to refine your search queries so that the majority of your results match what you’re looking for.

Hootsuite makes it easy to monitor keywords and conversations on social media, so you can focus on taking action on the insights available. Try it free today.

With files from Christina Newberry and Hannah Macready.

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By Colleen Christison

Colleen Christison is a freelance copywriter, copy editor, and brand communications specialist. She spent the first six years of her career in award-winning agencies like Major Tom, writing for social media and websites and developing branding campaigns. Following her agency career, Colleen built her own writing practice, working with brands like Mission Hill Winery, The Prevail Project, and AntiSocial Media.

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