Listen Up! Six Things You Need to Know About Social Listening

It's About Acting on the Intelligence We Glean From Listening and Monitoring

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Kyle Monson
Kyle Monson

I'm going to write this, then it will be posted it and I'll tweet it, and then I'll track the retweets and inbound links, and then I'm going to respond to whatever the wide world web says about the post. This process is fast, easy and free, and it is very much second nature to me after spending the better part of a decade in publishing and advertising. If it's so easy for me, why is it so hard for big brands?

The short answer might be "lawyers," but I think there's more to it than that.

I'm writing an abstract for an upcoming Social Media Week panel entitled "Social Listening Done Right," and thinking through the various POVs I could take on the subject. The one that really sticks in my brain is perhaps the most obvious one: A panel about effective social listening really isn't about listening at all. It's about acting on the intelligence we glean from listening and monitoring. The efficacy of social listening is determined not by the listening itself, but by how we listen, who we listen to, and what our next steps are.

Social media monitoring and social listening have been buzzwords for a while now, so every brand with a digital presence should already be engaged in it. But there are different levels for different size organizations, different digital competencies, and different budgets. To break it down:

  1. Basic keyword tracking—through Google Alerts, Twitter Search, or whatever else—is the baseline level of monitoring, but is certainly sufficient for smaller brands without a huge Web presence.
  2. Advanced tracking involves a paid tool like Radian6 that really lets you dive into the real-time stream and extract meaningful context from deep rivers of data.
  3. For lack of a better term (help me coin one!), "Super-advanced tracking" puts the Radian6 dashboard in front of what we call a SME, or "subject-matter expert."

I insist on this advanced level of listening for the campaigns I work with. It's far too tempting to hand the social monitoring responsibilities over to an intern, who might not be able to provide proper insight into the community and its niche celebrities, activists, and journalists.

The central dilemma and promise of social listening is the ability to separate small amounts of signal from huge amounts of noise, and then parse that signal for meaning. Radian6 and its ilk do a good job of filtering out the noise, but it's on the human user to make sense of what gets through. Reliably interpreting what people are really saying is hard enough in real life, it's harder still on the Internet, and it's almost impossible when you're overhearing the conversations of a group to which you don't yourself belong. Furthermore, the intelligence you glean from listening and the actions you take will change based on whom is doing the listening—so put the intern somewhere else, and find a SME to do your social listening.

Which brings us to the next question: Why are you listening and tracking? Is it because an article said you should? Is it because social media monitoring is a service you can charge your clients for? Or is it because listening is essential to your brand, and campaign goals and actions?

I'd break our goals into three parts, and suggest that a truly integrated social media campaign should be doing all three.

Listening for intelligence is the easiest, and should be part of your campaign's discovery process—you're tapping into the world's biggest focus group. There are dangers in relying too much on the info you collect from social media, but it's a useful way to quickly gauge the attitudes and opinions of your brand's loudest advocates and detractors. The other aspect of listening for intelligence is gathering metrics—are you driving earned media? Is the audience responding the way you intended?

Listening for intelligence is often not done in real time, and may not need to be. A weekly or even monthly report of what people are saying about your brand could be totally sufficient, if you are using the data to set long-term strategies instead of short-term responses.

Listening for customer service is the next level. Everyone talks about this like it's an amazing feat of social media dexterity. Whatever. Without the right strategy, proactive customer service reachout can do more harm than good (and it often does—think of the hapless corporate social media rep who thinks I'm inviting him to contact me when I tweet that his company should DIAF).

Instead, develop a customer service campaign that will improve your customers' experience with your brand. Helping, providing meaningful answers, and resolving issues are good. Intrusions, meaningless apologies, or—worse yet—antagonizing will likely blow up in your face.

Listening for action: Here's where this stuff gets fun. Listening for action means you're not just monitoring conversations, you're responding to them—and you're not just responding to conversations, you're getting involved in them. This is, to put it mildly, hard, especially with big brands. You need an expert using Radian6, making real-time recommendations; you need the involvement and approval of the brand's PR and legal teams; you need content producers involved and prepared for rapid-response briefs; you might even want real-time paid media to amplify the conversation to a broader audience. There are lots of stakeholders and lots of walls and silos to break down, and then there is the difficulty of getting recognized as a participant in a tight-knit online community that probably doesn't welcome brand participation.

It's difficult, but listening for action is essential, because it ties your social media strategy to the brand's overall attributes and campaign goals. It's an opportunity to not just monitor but affect perceptions and sentiment on a large scale.

We'll talk about this more in-depth during the Social Media Week panel; hope to see you there. And until then, here's our Cannes award-winning case study, which provides a great look at what it means to actually listen for action. I'd love to see your own case studies involving social listening, so feel free to post them in the comments below.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kyle Monson is director of Content Strategy at JWT.
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