• Most people in the U.S. are now on social media, and many of them follow and interact with brands there. Social media is one of the most important channels brands have for interacting with customers, leads, and other members of the public, and developing a social listening strategy is a big part of doing it well.

    What is social listening?

    Social listening is the practice of monitoring different social media platforms to track mentions of your brand and other terms related to your products and industry.

    The nature of social media means that most users only see messages from accounts you already follow or that come from people intentionally contacting you. For brands, that can mean missing out on a significant portion of the conversations you want to know about and join. Social listening means actively working to find all the messages and conversations on social media that relate to your business, not just those from accounts you already follow.

    Why social listening is important

    Social media provides a direct line to the kind of people you most want to reach. But with millions of users on each of the major platforms, honing in on the specific users and conversations relevant to you can be a challenge if your social media strategy does not include social listening.

    The fruits of your social listening labor can be significant. “There’s a lot of opportunity to capture your audience’s attention by interacting with them in real life,” says Elena Harper, Co-Founder and Head of Digital Marketing at Vantage Point SF. “It’s actually a pretty phenomenal thing that most brands don’t really work with.”

    So don’t feel bad if you haven’t created your social listening strategy yet. Here’s how to get started.

    Six steps to create a social listening strategy

    1. Define your goals.

    With social listening, Harper says most companies focus on a combination of three main goals:

    • Increasing engagement with their audience
    • Creating content that’s more relevant to their audience’s interests
    • Gaining acquisitions, both in terms of followers and customers

    That can be a good list to guide you in clarifying your own company’s social listening goals.

    2. Decide which channels to focus on.

    You have limited time and resources, so you’re better off identifying the three most important channels to focus on. However, social listening tools may help you continue to monitor a larger list, so you don’t miss out on what’s happening outside your top three.

    Harper suggests auditing each social media platform. “It’s just ultimately knowing where your audience lives and where they interact with content, and that requires a little bit of background research,” she explains.

    Don’t feel pressured to focus on a channel that’s not a fit for your brand just because it’s getting a lot of attention. When working with Intel, she found “they really wanted to double down on Pinterest. I was like, you guys, your audience doesn’t exist there.

    3. Determine the best social listening tools to use.

    A number of companies have developed tools that make it easier for you to manage social listening on one dashboard.

    These tools will generally let you track mentions of your brand name, any target keywords you want to follow, and mentions of your competitors. If you’re able to make an investment in social listening tech, finding the right tool for your needs can make the process much more efficient.

    But if a social listening tool is outside of your budget, don’t worry. “I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum where I’ve had a lot of budget to work with and I’ve been able to use really fabulous tools to do this, or have no budget and have to manually pull stuff. Either way it’s possible,” says Harper. “You just need to know what data you’re looking for.

    4. Define what to look for on social media.

    The most obvious thing to track with social listening is mentions of your brand, but don’t stop there. “Pay attention to trending conversations across your audience cohort, because they might be talking about things that are related to your brand or product,” says Harper.

    Brainstorm keywords people are likely to use when talking about your products or topics related to your industry. Include your competitors since hearing what people have to say about a product similar to yours can yield interesting insights. Look for trends in the conversations happening around your products and industry to gain broader insights into what your audience cares about and how they’re feeling.

    5. Create a plan for interacting.

    Social media is, of course, a social medium. So a big part of the value social listening provides is showing you opportunities to join the conversations happening.

    Harper described working with a brand to monitor specific keywords week by week. “We had one of the engineers on the client side create this kind of catch-all for chatter,” she said. Using the in-house tool the engineer built, “we basically implemented a slew of different keywords that we were trying to look for across our audience cohort.”

    “What that allowed us to do was start a conversation with the audience in a much more fluid, genuine fashion,” she explained. When your brand becomes a regular part of relevant conversations on social media, you’ll stay top-of-mind for users interested in your industry.

    But it’s important to keep these interactions relevant. “You want to make sure that you’re not grasping at straws in terms of what people are talking about [and] that there is a legitimate conversation happening around this topic.”

    6. Apply what you learn to your content strategy.

    Content marketers must constantly work to find topics their audience cares about. Social listening can reveal new questions, concerns, and interests your audience has.

    “You could aggregate conversations people are having both outside and inside your social channels and create a blog post and leverage some of those keywords,” Elena suggests.

    With one of the clients she worked with, she says, “Once we started leveraging the social listening data and began figuring out how to best apply it across our content, we got a pretty significant lift in terms of engagement across our main social channels.”

    Between the content they developed and the interactions they had in real time, “We saw a lift of about 45% in terms of engagement.”

    A social listening strategy helps you connect with your audience

    Social media has created its share of challenges for brands, but it’s also an area ripe with opportunities—if you know how to look for them. With the right tools and social listening strategy, you can start recognizing and taking advantage of moments you wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

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