Social Listening: What it is, Why You Should Care, and How to Do it Well

By Christina Newberry


Image via @daphneemarie

Imagine the powerful business insights you could gain from an organic form of market research where the focus group was made up entirely of people already engaging with your brand or your industry. Sounds pretty great, right?

That’s exactly the kind of business intelligence you can access when you implement a social listening strategy to track, analyze, and respond to online conversations about your brand and your industry.

Think you’ve already got this covered because you’re tracking online mentions, engagement, and other social media metrics? Well, you’ve made a good start, and you’re collecting some key data that will be useful for social listening, but you’re not quite there yet.

Let’s get you started with a clear social listening definition and a look at how this important technique differs from your other social monitoring efforts.

Table of Contents

What is social listening

Why your business should care about social listening

How to set up for social listening

Social listening best practices

Social listening tools

Bonus: Download a free guide to discover how to get more sales and conversions with social media monitoring on Hootsuite—no tricks or boring tips.

What is social listening?

Social listening is the process of monitoring social media channels for mentions of your brand, competitors, product, and any other ideas or themes that are relevant to your business. The next step is analyzing that information for actionable insights. Those actions can range from engaging a happy customer to shifting your overall brand positioning strategy.

The actionable element of social media listening is what differentiates it from social media monitoring, which also, like the name implies, involves monitoring social media. Social media monitoring, though, is more about compiling data—it’s gathering information about what’s already happened rather than looking forward to determine future actions.

Data from social monitoring can be used to test one campaign against another, monitor return on investment (ROI), or prove the value of social marketing when it comes time to ask for your share of the annual budget. If you analyze the data gathered during social monitoring and use that analysis to inform company actions and strategy, then you’ve transitioned into social listening.

An additional difference is that social monitoring is focused more on metrics, like engagement rate, number of mentions, and so on, whereas social listening looks beyond the numbers at the overall mood behind the social media posts—how people actually feel about you, your competitors, and your industry.

That mood is also known as social media sentiment, and social media sentiment analysis is a key part of social listening. Effective sentiment analysis can help you amplify messaging that’s receiving positive interaction, respond appropriately to anything that’s triggered a negative response, and see trends over time that can keep your future marketing and product development efforts on track.

After all, your most “popular” post according to engagement metrics is not necessarily your best. A spike in engagement can be great—but not if those engagements are people complaining about what you’ve done or said.

Why your business should care about social listening

Quite simply, if you’re not engaged in social media listening, you’re creating your business strategy with blinders on. You’re missing out on mountains of actionable insights from real people who are actively talking about you or your industry online—why wouldn’t you want to listen to them? In short, if you don’t care about social listening, you don’t really care about your customers, and that’s just bad business. Here are just some of the ways social listening can benefit your brand.

1. Customer engagement and research

Think you already know everything you need to know about your customers? You might want to think again. A survey by Pegasystems found that while 66 percent of telco/broadband and retail banking companies said they “deeply know” their customers, less than a quarter of telco/broadband customers and only 41 percent of banking customers agreed.

In the same survey, customers reported that companies failing to listen to their needs was one of their top three customer service complaints. Social listening can give you important insight into what your customers expect from you, and how well you’re delivering on those expectations.

It also highlights moments when outreach is required to engage in conversations (positive or negative) that are already happening about your brand, whether that’s a customer singing your praises, a customer service request, or someone asking for recommendations for a product in your industry.

2. Identify strategic wins or missteps in real time

Which of your posts are getting the highest engagement combined with the best social sentiment? If social sentiment about your brand abruptly changes one way or the other, you can dig into individual posts to get a sense of what you’ve done so very right—or wrong.

If you’ve hit a homerun, take notes about elements of the campaign or strategy that you could carry forward and apply to future efforts. If things have gone sideways, review the social feedback for lessons that could prevent a similar misstep. And, most importantly, if you’re in the middle of a drop in social sentiment caused by an inappropriate ad or post or press release (think Pepsi in the wake of the Kendall Jenner ad), staunch the bleeding by pulling the material and telling your customers that you’ve got the message, and you’re sorry.

Bonus: Register for our upcoming webinar, “Build and Protect Your Brand on Social Media,” to learn everything you need to know about online reputation management—from potential risks to mitigation tactics and tools.

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3. Discover how people perceive you in comparison to your competitors

Since you’ll be listening not only to what people are saying about you on social media, but also what they’re saying about your competitors, you’ll get important insights about where you fit in the customer perceptions of your industry.

You’ll also get important real-time intelligence about what your competitors are up to, so you can determine how to respond to new threats and opportunities, what Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes has called a “streaming, real-time digest of what your competition is working on and pushing out.” At the same time, Holmes notes, “Setting up a stream to monitor references to your own company can be extraordinarily informative (and humbling).”

4. Uncover pain points in your industry that you can be the first to address

By monitoring important keywords related to your industry, you can start to uncover conversations people are having about products, services, and features that aren’t working for them—which you can funnel straight through to your product development team. Can you tweak an existing product or add a feature to resolve the problems people are expressing? Maybe what you learn will become the seed for an entirely new product idea.

You’ll also find people expressing frustrations that your existing products can already address. That may provide ideas for marketing campaigns to highlight features that people may not know about.

5. Find leads that you can develop into relationships for social selling

Those same people might also be leads that you can nurture into relationships for social selling. It’s not often a great idea to leap into someone else’s conversation with a hard sell, but you can certainly reach out to make a connection, share information that’s helpful, and establish your brand as the best resource when it comes time to make a purchasing decision.

6. Identify influencers and advocates

Having a general picture of the social sphere for your industry will give you a sense of who the important influencers are in the industry. These are important people to connect with, as they can have, not surprisingly, a significant amount of influence over how their followers and fans feel about you—or your competitors.

You’ll also start to identify key brand advocates—people who already love your brand and are singing your praises on social media. This is another group you should reach out to, looking for opportunities to collaborate. Nielsen found that 83 percent of people trust online recommendations from friends and family, making recommendations from people we know and trust the most credible form of advertising in their study.

How to set up for social listening

With so many potential data sources to monitor, you’ll need tools to help you with your social listening strategy (more on that below). But before you choose a tool and dig into the nitty gritty work of social media listening, you’ll need to determine what you should actually listen for.

The exact keywords and topics you monitor will likely evolve over time as you learn (from social listening) what language people use when they talk about your business and what sorts of insights are most useful for your business, but here’s a list of important keywords and topics to monitor right from the start:

You should also monitor common misspellings and abbreviations for all of these. The two videos below explain how to set up monitoring streams in Hootsuite:

Learn how to get even more out of Hootsuite with free social media training from Hootsuite Academy.

Social listening best practices

Here are some key points to keep in mind to get the most from your social listening efforts.

1. Identify where people talk about you, not just what they say

Rather than focusing on a few big social networks like Twitter and Facebook, cast a wide net with your social listening program. You may be surprised to learn, for instance, that the conversation about your brand, or your industry, is very different on LinkedIn or industry blogs than it is on Facebook. Maybe there’s lots of conversation happening on Twitter, but none whatsoever on Instagram.

Understanding where people are talking about you and your industry—and how those conversations vary across different networks—will allow you to create an appropriate strategy to join the conversation through both organic engagement and paid advertising.

2. Learn from the competition

While you never want to follow someone else’s strategy too closely, you can gain plenty of insight into what works and what doesn’t in your industry by listening closely to what audiences think of your competitors’ actions.

Let’s face it: it’s a lot less painful to learn a hard lesson by watching your competitors make a mistake than by making it yourself. Glean what you can from your competition’s wins, but keep an even closer eye on their missteps to incorporate their lessons learned into your own body of knowledge.

3. Collaborate with customer service, content marketing, and product development

As described above, your social listening efforts will provide a wide range of information, from customer posts that need to be responded to right away, to ideas about what kind of content marketing might be most effective, to potential ideas for new products or new features for existing products.

Share your social listening insights throughout the company with all of the relevant teams. Seek input from those teams, too, to learn if they have specific questions that you might be able to answer by tweaking your social listening setup.

4. Benchmark your ‘normal,’ then watch for changes

As you start to collect social data, you’ll develop a sense of what’s normal for your brand in terms of the amount of conversation and the overall sentiment. Once you establish your benchmark, you can actively work to improve those numbers. You can also keep an eye out for changes. Significant changes in engagement or sentiment are flags that overall perception has changed, and you need to understand why, so you can adapt your strategy to ride the wave of positivity, or correct for a misstep and get back on course.

You can also benchmark your own engagement and sentiment against those of your competitors to get a sense of your overall place within customer perceptions of your industry.

5. Examine what your data is telling you—and take action

Remember, if you’re not taking action, you’re just engaged in social monitoring, not social listening. Social listening is not just about tracking metrics, but about gleaning real insights into what your customers and potential customers want from you, and how you can better address those needs.

Allow time and budget to analyze the data you gather for patterns and trends over time, rather than just individual comments, as it is these overall insights that can have the most powerful effects in guiding your future strategy.

Social listening tools

Now that you understand what social listening is, why you should implement it, and some of the key strategic points to consider, let’s look at some tools that can help.

Bonus: Download a free guide to discover how to get more sales and conversions with social media monitoring on Hootsuite—no tricks or boring tips.


As shown in the videos above, you can use Hootsuite to set up social media streams that monitor conversations and keywords across several social networks. When you see an opportunity to reach out to potential customers, influencers, or advocates, you can respond directly or assign the response to someone else on your team.

Hootsuite Insights

Take things a step further with graphical reports that allow you to monitor more than 25 social networks as well as news sites, blogs, forums, and other online spaces where people interact—and get real-time updates on unusual spikes or drops in activity. You can also track sentiment broken down by location, language, and gender.


Talkwalker offers advanced listening and analytics capabilities covering 150 million sources including blogs, forums, videos, news, review sites, and social networks. Combining Talkwalker with Hootsuite allows enterprises to effectively define and categorize the conversations that matter using over 50 filters so they can make informed decisions on how to engage with their audience.


Track conversations on highly specific topics within carefully segmented audiences. Synthesio can tag mentions by language, location, demographics, sentiment, and influence, and the reports produced include a social reputation score.


Social networks aren’t the only place online where your customers and prospects are talking about your brand. So ReviewTrackers makes it easy to find and respond to posts from over 85 dedicated review websites including TripAdvisor, Foursquare, Healthgrades, Facebook reviews, Google Maps, and others. Their integration with Hootsuite shows you online reviews alongside social streams in your dashboard, letting you spot emerging issues across channels. You can even uncover positive reviews and then share them across your social accounts to spread the good news—all from your Hootsuite dashboard.


Identify key audiences, then monitor and evaluate social conversations by segment. Reports provide information about what each audience is talking about online, as well as how they think and behave.


Track conversations on blogs, forums, social networks, and more, including sentiment and impact of all mentions.


Track mentions, keywords, and sentiment in multiple languages and find potential influencers across social networks and other online sources.

Reddit Keyword Monitor

Reddit is the fourth-most-popular site in the United States, behind Google, Youtube, and Facebook. Conversations on this discussion site are a key source of social intelligence, and this app will help you find and track them.

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.

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