Listen, Learn, Earn: Social Listening How-To

Simon Kemp

The massive proliferation of social media in recent years has changed marketers’ ability to understand their audiences.

Even with basic tools, it’s now possible to develop insights into people’s thoughts, motivations and behaviours in ways that were prohibitively difficult or expensive even 10 years ago.

Today’s post explains how you can start taking advantage of these incredible opportunities, and includes a guide to some of the best free tools, and tips on how to get the most out of them.

What Is Social Listening?
It might help to start with a definition:

Social listening is the art and science of developing meaningful brand insights through the identification and analysis of relevant conversations in social media.

Listening is a powerful addition to a brand’s strategic toolkit, providing insights that can add value throughout the organisation.

However, many marketers miss much of this potential value due to an egocentric approach to social media monitoring.

We need to get better at using social media to understand people, not just to monitor brand mentions or campaign metrics.

Listening to Learn
As Earl Nightingale astutely observed,

You can’t learn anything with your mouth open.

However, many marketers see their role as the ‘talker’, sharing the brand’s message with the rest of the world.

Sadly, this means they’re missing invaluable opportunities to learn.

We stand to gain much greater value – for ourselves as marketers, as well as for our colleagues across the rest of our organisations – if we also adopt the role of listeners, acting as the interface that enables outside feedback to permeate the business.


Social media can add value throughout the organisation

It’s Not About You
When it comes to social media monitoring, it’s also important to distinguish between ‘selective hearing’ and active listening.

Most marketers use monitoring to assess the performance of their marketing, setting up tools to track mentions of their brand and product names.

This kind of listening is useful, of course, but it takes a very selfish view of the world; it’s akin to walking into a party and only joining conversations that are already about you.

More importantly, when it comes to product-related updates, barely 1 in 10 mentions a specific brand.

In other words, if we’re only tracking brand names, we’re missing 90% of the potential value; we need to listen out for a broader range of conversations that will help us to gain richer insights into purchase moments, usage occasions, and subsequent emotions.

Big Data vs. Small Details
Conversations about brands and products are only a small subset of total social media activity.

Every day, people share billions of public posts across social media, and every one of these updates – no matter how innocuous – can offer valuable insights into people’s attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, and habits.

Even the much-maligned ‘photos of my lunch’ can reveal a wealth of new understanding: where people like to eat; the time of day they dine; who they lunch with; the kinds of food they like; how much they’re willing to spend…

What we learn depends on how carefully we choose to listen.

The Discovery Engine
Once you adopt this more organic approach to listening, you’ll quickly discover that most people’s conversations aren’t about the areas your marketing focuses on.

Furthermore, you’ll start to realise that the things that matter to your audience aren’t always the things you expect.

Because of this, social media offer unique opportunities to identify new products and services, as well as more efficient and effective ways to communicate with people.

If you think of search engines as a tool that helps us to answer the questions we already have, social media do something new, allowing us to identify the questions we didn’t even know we needed to answer.

Used correctly, social media listening is a ‘discovery engine’ that can help us redefine the way that we do business; as John Willshire puts it, social insights will allow us to “make things that people really want, instead of trying to make them want things you’ve already made.”

Getting Started
In order to get the most our of social listening, you need to build your activities around your brand’s objectives.

Start by asking some simple, strategic questions:

  1. In order to hit your targets, what do you need people to do differently compared to what they do today?
  2. Who do you most need to persuade in order to bring about this change in behaviour (remember that this may not be the buyer or end user of your brand)?
  3. Why aren’t people already doing what you want them to do? What do they think or believe today that we need to change? What are the barriers that stand between today and success?


It’s likely that you won’t know all the real barriers to success yet, which is where social media listening comes in.

Based on your objectives, spend some time crafting search queries that will help you to understand potential barriers in the context of people’s broader lives and behaviour.

Go beyond searching for brand names, to exploring the benefits you provide, and the problems or opportunities they address.

For example, if you’re Colgate, don’t just search for your own name, ‘Oral B’, or even ‘toothpaste’; instead, search for ‘toothache’, ‘bad breath’ or even ‘dentist’.

It’s easy to try this out for yourself – these free tools are a great place to start:

Finding Mentions vs Uncovering Value
Be sure to spend time actively reading and analysing what you find though; automated sentiment analysis and volume trends are interesting, but the real value lies in the specifics of what people say; where and when they say it, who they’re discussing the topic with, and what their potential motives for discussing it might be.

Read the conversations as a person who’s trying to empathise with a friend, not as a marketer who’s trying to sell stuff.

Even the most basic query should bring up some valuable insights if you ask yourself these questions about the conversations you find:

  1. Who is talking (i.e. who posted the update)?
  2. What are they (really) saying?
  3. Where are they saying it? [social platforms, as well as physical locations]
  4. When are they saying it? [time of day, as well as context, e.g. at the POS]
  5. Why are they saying it (what are their motivations)?
  6. Which elements have engaged other people (e.g. ‘likes’, comments, shares, etc.)?
  7. How might these conversations impact my brand (for better or worse)?


This post originally appeared in my column on The Marketing Society Blog.