Social Listening Is Key, but What Should Brands Be Listening for?

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply."

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey, the brains behind The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, was spot-on. Many marketing leaders and teams make this mistake when approaching social programs. As both a chief marketing officer and a leader at a social software technology company, I see this everyday.

While we use a lot of terminology when it comes to building social strategies—social listening, social analytics, social intelligence—it all starts with the data. To take the first step toward building successful social programs, brands have to start listening to the data. Social listening—specifically listening with the intent to understand and make smarter decisions with better data—is the backbone to any successful social program for any organization, brand or business.

We have been working with large, very successful brands for many years now that are using social data with different levels of success and sophistication. There is a common theme we see time and time again: The moment when they realize that they now have access to massive amounts of data, yet they are not sure what to do with it. Disillusionment and trepidation start to creep in once they are hit with the “so what” moment.

At this point, big brands and savvy marketers understand that social data is critical to their business, and social listening is a must. For the purposes of clarity, social listening is defined as listening to your customers and potential customers, unsolicited online.

In practice, this means capturing mentions of your brand, interesting brand topics, competitors or really anything interesting to your brand found across the internet. This includes the obvious social sites, but also forums, blogs, etc.

So people are gathering and listening to data, but now they are struggling to prove success to their management and higher ups. In some cases, it has reached the point where top-level management has really started to wonder if there is any value and if it is time to put an end to the program in lieu of a new tactic. Social listening … so what?

From social listening to social intelligence

This is where the movement to social intelligence becomes crucial. Social intelligence as a practice means acting on social insights and tying social data to business impact. So you have the data, and you have started to pull interesting insights. It is time to move beyond that and analyze the data into meaningful, actionable insights and distribute those insights to the right parts of the organization, to in turn make smarter, business impactful decisions.

Easy, right? Well, not so much. It is certainly a progression path, and it takes a team and executive buy-in. However, once you have it, it is a process of moving from a project to a program that is scalable and repeatable.

We see this progression from social listening to social intelligence as a maturity model that is often based on adoption through use cases and can be used as a map for your program. There are many different use cases that I can discuss as examples, but I chose to give brief examples of the five most commons use cases that we see regularly:

  • Crisis: step one of almost every social listening program. Listen and monitor to detect potential fires before they arise, and escalate issues to the right people in real-time to be addressed with background and data. You can even dig a little deeper here to help build an informed crisis-response strategy.
  • Market research: social media is the world’s largest focus group for businesses. Use it as such to get answers to the questions you asked, but also to the ones you did not think to ask. The methods behind using social media in this way are getting closer and closer to traditional market research (audience segmentations, definition of panels, etc.), yet the trickiest aspect is insights, as there has to be a fine balance between monthly tactical insights and deep-dive research that drives strategic decisions. That said, all of this can be handled with a proper social intelligence tool.
  • Campaign management: Use data to conduct a thorough social analysis of your target markets, segments, consumers and past campaigns to drive the right messages to the right audiences. Then define true metrics to measure the success of campaigns that go beyond just volumes.
  • Brand health: Track the long-term positioning of your products and sub-brands versus competitors, and measure social reputation and satisfaction by audience.
  • Integrations: a key step for success is to tie social feedback to non-social data and make sure that social media does not live in its own silo. Integrations could be with your customer-relationship-management and sales tools, your business intelligence platform, your customer-care platforms or other social marketing platforms.


Once siloed teams across your business are finally connected by data, people and systems, you’ll be able to use integrated tools and metrics to map value and drive smarter decisions. Understanding your goals and accessing the metrics of multiple practice areas throughout your company will allow your team to be able to fine-tune your social strategy and key performance indicators, ensuring that you’re bringing valuable insights back to the organization.

Always look beyond the “so what” of social data and connect your efforts to business impact. The “so what” moment can be distressing, but once you follow the program through the stages and start mapping value back to the business, adoption will follow.

Leah Pope is CMO of social insights provider Synthesio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.