If you want to learn what your customers and potential customers are thinking, what type of products they need and what problems they want to solve, you should be engaged in social listening. This refers to monitoring social media conversations on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. While social listening can be considered a type of market research, it goes beyond the usual definition of that term. Your objective is to not simply gather data but to actually listen to what people are saying, providing valuable insights you can use in your marketing. The following are 5 listening strategies that you may not have yet considered.

1. Participate in Conversations

The typical notion of social listening implies a one-way process with you, the business, listening to your customers. However, if you want to get the maximum benefit from this process you need to insert yourself into the conversation. This helps you introduce topics that are relevant to your business model.

You can, for example, join Facebook and LinkedIn groups, pose questions on forums and invite people to tell you their concerns. Social listening doesn’t have to be done in secret, with you spying on your customers. The more you engage with them, the more you’ll learn. This approach also helps you build engagement and relationships with your audience. Even if you don’t gain insights you can use right away, there’s always value in connecting with the people in your market.

2. Combine Listening and Marketing

While social listening is part of a larger marketing strategy, it’s often considered as a separate category. For example, you use certain tools to listen and other tools to generate leads. While this is sometimes practical, you should also seek ways to blend the two.

When you find conversations where people express a need that you can fulfill, there’s no reason not to offer it to them. This doesn’t mean spamming every discussion you encounter with links and sales pitches. This should be done in a natural and non-intrusive way. An example of this is monitoring question & answer sites like Quora or Yahoo Answers. If someone asks a question that your product answers, there’s nothing wrong with sending them a link. The same approach can be applied to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. If you encounter opportunities for lead generation or marketing while engaged in listening, you may as well seize them.

3. Respond to Conversations Quickly

The internet moves fast. With people tweeting and posting live videos, people are getting to expect information in real time. If you want to get the most out of listening, you need to move fast and stay on top of the very latest trends and discussions.

This means that you don’t want to simply gather information and put it aside for later use. The most effective approach is to get into the habit of creating content immediately after discovering a relevant piece of news, a hot trend or a timely conversation. While this may seem like a challenge, there are now plenty of tools to help you do this. It’s really a shift in mindset. You simply must recognize that the internet increasingly reflects what’s happening in real time. Creating content that’s topical makes you a valuable source of information and also helps you rank in the search engines for popular terms.

4. Listen Outside Your Immediate Industry

It obviously makes sense to do extensive social listening about your own business, that of your competition and your industry in general. However, it can also be helpful to cast your net even wider and look at other industries for insights. This helps you come up with creative solutions that you may have otherwise overlooked. You’ll usually learn the most from industries that are at least distantly related to your own. For example, if you sell herbal or other natural health supplements, you probably won’t learn much by listening to people talking on a gaming forum. However, you might learn something from people in the pharmaceutical industry or other health care professionals.

Similarly, a company that sells accounting software might profit from paying attention to problems and solutions offered by companies that make other types of software. Sometimes creative solutions can be found in industries that are a little outside your specialty. Research products and industries that have issues or problems with your own and see what you can learn.

5. Use Listening to Predict the Future

While we don’t yet have tools to predict the future with complete accuracy, social listening can give you valuable insights into emerging trends. Keep tabs on innovative startups in your industry. Look for problems that neither you nor your competitors have yet solved. Study alternatives to the products or services you offer.

You should be especially alert to potential disruptions that could shake the foundations of your industry. For example, are there new apps, platforms or business models that might soon replace the way you’re doing things now? Uber putting taxis out of business is an obvious example, but similar things happen frequently now, though often on a smaller scale. When listening, don’t be content to live in the present. Nowadays, the future tends to arrive faster than you think