There’s been a lot of talk lately about social listening, which is another term for social media monitoring.  At a technical level, social listening is an eloquent name for “search.”  These days there are tools available to extract insights from the billions of conversations happening on social media at any given time. If you’re not doing any social listening, or have been looking for a way to beef up your efforts, here are three things you should know:

1) You don’t need a social media marketing program to use social listening

Social listening is a great way to inform any business effort that would be assisted by input from a relevant social community.  Before we had the tools to crunch together the gozillions of social conversations happening across the internet and deliver business insights, we had things like focus groups and research polls.

Any effort that involves the traditional 3 C’s Business Model (Customer, Competition, Company) can be assisted by measuring social sentiment.  When viewed this way, social listening can be used across your organization in several ways:

  • R&D: Find new product ideas listening to what people are saying about products and features
  • Sales:  Could chatter in a specific geography be a new market opportunity?
  • Legal: Research social sentiment on relevant issues, cases and events
  • HR: What are employees, past and present, saying?
  • Customer Service: What are your customers saying?
  • Crisis Communication: Ack!  Hair on fire.  How serious is it?
  • PR & Community Management: Are there key influencers or detractors worth engaging?

2) You get what you pay for (and that’s OK)

With billions of social conversations happening out there simultaneously, finding the ones that are relevant to your business effort can be like finding a needle in a haystack.  I’m sure you’re totally awesome, but you’re not superhuman.  So don’t try to be superhuman.  Use a tool.  (Yes, you’re still allowed to wear a cape.)

For those of you just starting out with a social effort, there are free and freemium social listening tools out there.  These tools are free because they parse a limited number of data sources for results, and they’re a good way to dip your toe in the water of social monitoring.  Once you’re running a serious social media marketing program with measurable business results, you’re best off with a social listening tool that delivers both data and insights associated with that data.  Something as simple as a word cloud will give you quick insight into what’s going on in social chatter around your topics of interest.

If you’re wondering, “Why can’t all these tools be free?” the answer is simple. Beyond “Well, somebody has to build and maintain them,” the fact is data isn’t free.  Meltwater Buzz, for example, gathers as much data as is technologically possible (for you more advanced tech folks, yes, we do get the entire Twitter firehose), and then delivers both the source results and the business insights around them.

If your presence is global, you may also want to monitor in multiple languages and translate the results to your native language.  But no free tool will support that.

3) Consumers aren’t sure how they feel about social listening*

The infographic at the beginning of this post sums it up: 32% of U.S. consumers of all ages – and more surprisingly – 38% of Millennials have no idea companies are listening to them.  More than 40% of consumers think listening online intrudes on privacy.  But almost 50% of consumers want companies to listen in order to improve products, and nearly 60% of them want companies to respond to complaints made through social media.

Indeed, the message from consumers seems to be “Listen to me when I want you to,” which is a request best put into action when you start crafting your social conversation.  By listening, you can figure out what your target community is saying, as well as where and how you might best insert yourself into that conversation.

So go ahead and listen, and be prepared for some rotten tomatoes.  As we community managers found in the days of chat rooms and message boards, the low barriers to entry for digital communication and the anonymity of sitting behind a computer screen will generally lend themselves to some level of squeaky wheel syndrome.  Don’t flip out too much when you see complaints coming into your Twitter feed, but do be prepared with an action plan to route these communications productively.

There’s a lot of data out there these days, and knowledge is power.  Let the wisdom of crowds guide your business efforts: after all, social listening is the new focus group.

* “Social Listening vs. Digital Privacy,” JD Power & Associates & Netbase, 2013