Social Media Listening: Why It's Critical for Brands.

Savvy social listening can help you steer clear of catastrophe and keep apace with your social community.
Caitlin Brennan
May 10, 2017 - 6 min. read

Don’t look now, but a social media disaster might be just around the corner. Actually, it’s better to look, lest you obliviously stroll into a preventable debacle. Best practice techniques such as social listening could have mitigated recent blowups like those that befell United Airlines and Pepsi. These examples may be worst-case scenarios, but are powerful examples of the important reasons why you need social media listening.

What is social listening?
Social media listening goes beyond just monitoring online conversations. It is a combination of qualitative observation and quantitative analysis of sentiment and intent.

Effective social media listening involves filtering through millions of messages generated each day to unlock actionable insights. This means checking the status updates of your brand followers and looking for common trends, or sifting through through all the available data to get a feel for what people are saying about a particular topic. Algorithms can assist by identifying positive and negative sentiments across large volumes of data.

Social listening should be the precursor to any social media campaign. Considering social media is built on the premise of building relationships, that process requires listening and feedback between both parties.

If you begin broadcasting messages across social channels before properly understanding your audience and their preferences, you risk alienating them from the start. Your community will not grow, and your messaging will fall on deaf ears.

Social listening is also hugely useful for a range of business functions:

 1.  Competitive insights (and getting the dirt on competitors)
While it’s a natural impulse to try to create a groundbreaking, creative marketing campaign, you don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. Take a look at the kinds of content your competitors are creating and how that content resonates with their audience.

Remember, their audience likely crosses over with your audience. You obviously don’t want to copy your competitors verbatim, but you can use their style as a jumping off point for what content and messaging that works for similar audiences.

Another opportunity provided by listening to your competitors is the chance to jump into conversations about your competition. For example, people regularly use social media to crowdsource purchasing advice. It is not unusual to see questions about “X vs Y brand” popping up on Facebook and Twitter, along with several responses from other users offering advice.

Simply offering further assistance to someone asking these types of questions is often the first step to getting them into your sales funnel. Suddenly, they go from being a complete stranger to an identified prospect. Come armed with useful information, not just slogans and deals.

You can also jump into a conversation with a user who has been ignored by your competitors – even if they had no intention of buying your products, it may be that you can steer them towards a sale simply by demonstrating outstanding customer service.

2. Product development
Back in 1997, a group of forward-thinkers struck on a novel, potentially revolutionary idea: an online “social network” they called SixDegrees. But no one was ready for the concept and it fizzled. It may seem counter-intuitive to cite the first social network as an example of the importance of social listening, but SixDegrees’ downfall is a timeless example. Some products are ahead of their time, some miss the mark altogether, and some just need a tweak to be the next big thing.

Now, the odds are that unlike SixDegrees your product has precedents and competitors. By listening in to what your mutual customers think about these could furnish the tweak that will strike that elusive chord.

After a rather gross PR crisis in 2009 further tarnished the reputation of Domino’s Pizza, the company knew they had to improve their public image. Domino’s humbly based their comeback campaign on admitting their pizza wasn’t great and promising to do better. They encouraged customers to try their improved pizza and give feedback through social media. Their strategy worked – Domino’s stock dramatically increased and the company is now worth $9 billion

3.  Detecting influencers
Employing social media listening and monitoring will save you hours of work identifying influencers. Imagine having to manually sort through all the mentions directed at your brand to see what, and who, is getting the most activity. Depending on how popular your brand is, that could be a full-time job. Through social listening, you can search for common phrases and themes pertaining to your brand to see which users garner big social responses.

Before you pick the person with the largest following or the most shares, take a look at the sentiment of your potential influencer’s content. Make sure the person is saying positive things about your brand.

4. News and trend-jacking
Every now and then, a news story will hit the headlines that has an angle you can use to promote your business. Obviously, exercise caution and use common sense before hopping on the bandwagon. A quick rule of thumb: steer clear of associating your brand with anything remotely sad. This may sound like a trite summation, but you never want to appear like your brand is trying to profit from the suffering of others. 

Case in point:

Social listening

Cinnabon’s tone-deaf tweet to the deceased actress was eviscerated by critics throughout the galaxy. Although intended to be a tribute, the tweet was just a blend of non-sequiturs and bad taste. The double-meaning of “buns,” the juxtaposition of death and gooey calorie bombs and the lack of previous association between Cinnabon and Carrie Fisher came together in one big, sticky mess.

On a less morbid note, here’s an example of how you can link to an event that isn’t related to your brand.

IMDB is not an education site. However, they were able to cleverly associate their brand with a trending holiday while not overshadowing the event or coming off as insincere. They found the vital link between brand and event and framed accordingly.

5. Brand reputation – how to handle a social media crisis
If you find yourself in a Cinnabon situation, social media listening and keeping a level head can be your lifesaver before the situation snowballs.

Take United Airlines. A video of a passenger being forcefully dragged off a United plane sparked enormous outrage online. A not terribly apologetic apology issued by United’s CEO Oscar Munoz further fueled the fervor. Had United been actively listening to the online outrage, they could have crafted a thoughtful response acknowledging the gravity of the issue.

Keep in mind that it’s important to distinguish between an instance of negative engagement and a full-blown crisis. A few angry customers can be dealt with on an individual basis, opposed to a viral outcry which needs to be publicly addressed. Social listening will provide you insight into the severity of the crisis and the specific reasons why people are angry.

For example, say your company sells waterproof boots. A week after shipping a new line of boots, angry customer comments begin to pop up on Twitter claiming that the new boots leak. In a matter of hours, the negative comments turn into a symphony of angry customers. While it would be easy to panic in this situation, this is a great opportunity for social listening.

When you look at all the comments directed at your brand you can identify a few trends. First, people are only complaining about the new line of boots. Second, you can see that there are mentions of the boots leaking in the toes. With this information, you can issue an apology, isolate the problem to one item and offer a targeted solution.

6. Brand reputation – easy wins
In 2011, hungry businessman Peter Shankman tweeted a wistful wish that his favorite steakhouse would meet him at his destination airport with dinner. He was joking, but Morton’s Steakhouse caught his tweet and delivered – literally. Their payoff was that a) Shankman had 100,000+ followers and b) six years on and we are still citing this as the kind of brand awareness money can’t buy.

Each day dozens of these micro-windows of opportunity could be presenting themselves to your company. Are you set up to catch them? Your gesture most likely won’t go viral these days, but the word-of-mouth kudos these moments spread in social circles make it well worth it.

Blue skies ahead
Think of social listening like a weather woman who uses tools to predict coming storms and sunny days. Social listening can alert you to trends and clouds gathering on the horizon. The more you tune in, the better you will be prepared to face a social crisis and connect to your community.