The Ultimate Guide to Social Listening: What It Is and Why It’s Important

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Ever wish you could be a fly on the wall? Well, thanks to today’s digital communication tools, it’s easier than ever to do exactly that.

We’re talking about social listening. 

Nearly half of the global population is on some form of social media, and most of them are airing their grievances and praises and other random musings to the world. 

Social media marketing is always changing, but one thing remains constant: it’s an important platform for every brand to pay attention to — even if social selling or social media marketing aren’t big parts of your business. This is where you can hear from your target market, uncensored, and get inside their heads to learn what really makes them tick. 

Knowing what makes them tick is the secret to winning them over. 

So, what is social listening and how do you do it? Keep reading to find out! 

What is Social Listening?

Social listening is when you track social mentions of your brand and conversation about relevant keywords and topics. When conducting social listening, it’s helpful to track not only social mentions of your brand and products, but also industry keywords, influencers, competitors, and topics. 

Social listening provides brands tons of opportunities to jump into conversations and develop authentic relationships with potential customers and brand loyalists. 

Recently, I responded to a tweet about products McDonald’s sells online. McDonald’s responded to the tweet, even though I didn’t directly tag them in the post — and neither did the original tweeter. 

What’s the Difference Between Social Listening and Social Monitoring?

Social monitoring entails data collection, while social listening entails analysis and action. Essentially, social monitoring is just seeing what the conversation is, and social listening looks at the sentiment of that conversation, themes, and how to engage. 

We polled a few social media marketing experts to expand on this. Here’s what they had to say: 

“Social media monitoring can be summed up as checking the activity and conversation surrounding an individual, business, product, or even service. Social media listening is more about the actual activity. It requires you to dig deeper and engage with your audience, turning normal conversation and questions into opportunities.” – Keith Kakadia, owner, SociallyIn

“Social monitoring is the monitoring of conversations and messages that relate to your brand name, products, and competition. The data you’re able to glean from monitoring your brand as well as your competitors’ can inform better strategic decisions. Social listening revolves around the assessment of conversations around your brand and industry as a whole. These insights allow you to make more informed strategic decisions.” – Emma-Jane Shaw, chief content strategist, Uku Inbound

“The difference between social listening and social monitoring is the same as the difference between plain old listening and monitoring. With monitoring, you’re scanning what’s out there and looking for the great or terrible occurrences — the anomalies — so you can manage them. WIth listening, you’re aiming to be a part of a conversation. You’re actively listening and engaging.” – Nikki Bisel, founder, Seafoam Media

“Monitoring is the net to capture things like @ mentions, brand mentions, hashtags, etc. Tools like Hootsuite simplify this part of the process by gathering all such mentions and conversations into easily monitored streams to be processed by the social media manager. The listening part of the process involves the bigger picture view. Deciphering what the mentions mean, what the conversations are actually saying (it’s not always cut-and-dry), and using the intel to implement a strategy of response, voice change, and occasionally pivot.” – Jason Myers, senior account executive, The Content Factory

“Social monitoring is gathering the data related to your brand on social media, and social listening is understanding what the buzz is around your brand or sector. Social monitoring is a part of social listening — it gives you the data which you can analyze and understand your customer expectations and market trends. Social monitoring is necessary because your marketing strategy should be based on solid data. But social listening helps you to make sense of the data, to understand why things are the way they are.” – Avinash Chandra, founder and CEO, BrandLoom

“Social listening is active; social monitoring is inactive. With social monitoring, you simply collect data on brand engagement, reputation, etc. and perhaps respond to social mentions/messages. Social listening is taking this data, analyzing it, and actively using it to improve your product and/or service. Social listening is good for all companies, but specifically larger ones — or those with more volatile customer bases. Basic social monitoring is useful for smaller companies with more docile customers, seeking only to keep the system alive and track growth. However, if sales are down, it might be a sign to make a switch.” – Shawn Pillar, marketing director, Juicer

Benefits of Social Listening


Consumers post at and about brands for a few reasons. It could be to offer praise or share excitement, or it could fall on the other end of the spectrum and be something negative about the brand or product. It could even be something else, like seeking support for a technical issue or asking a question about a product they’re interested in purchasing. 

Regardless of the reason, a response WILL put you in customers’ good graces. And the whole world can see 👀

Improved Customer Relationships and Brand Image

When customers talk about you on social media, a response can benefit the relationship. According to Sprout Social, 83 percent of social media users want brands to respond to questions, and 68 percent want them to join in on the conversation. 

And better relationships also mean more sales. The same data found that nearly half of consumers shop with a responsive brand. 

There are a few ways social listening improves customer relationships. Think back to the context someone might mention a brand on social: complaints, praise, questions, support. Let’s break it down by each one: 

  • When someone complains about your brand, social listening can help you mitigate any negative PR as well as proactively address their concerns. Others will also see this and appreciate a responsive brand and be more willing to do business with you. Global alcohol brand Diageo, for example, even went as far as to making a commitment to ban plastic straws in all products by 2020. “we are, like many of our consumers, increasingly concerned about the negative environmental impact associated with the irresponsible disposal of plastic straws,” Global Sustainable Development Director David Croft said. CVS, on the other hand, has tons of people post photos of their unnecessarily long receipts (there’s even a whole accounted dedicated to the cause), yet the retailer hasn’t responded to the criticism or made a change in their receipt-printing policies. 
  • When users praise your brand, responsiveness and appreciation go a long way — again, not only for the person you’re directly engaging with, but also the wider audience on social media who sees the exchange. 
  • When people ask questions of or about your brand, your willingness to help goes a long way here. In fact, Sprout even found that the majority of social media users have a positive sentiment for brands that respond to questions. It’s also an opportunity to get ahead of any objections potential buyers might have.
  • When individuals seek support for your products or in purchasing your products, you want to be super helpful. Remember, it’s not just about closing the sale. It’s also about turning a one-time customer into a lifelong advocate and returning buyer

Wendy’s is one of my favorite go-to examples for this. Wendy’s isn’t scared to have fun, show personality and a sense of humor, and engage creatively via social listening. A scroll through their tweets and replies will show tons of unique ways the brand has jumped in on social conversations. 

Product and Company Improvements

The best source of feedback is your customers. You want them to know you’re listening on social media so they continue to provide insights into their experiences and how you can improve. 

Let’s look at a hypothetical to understand this: You sell T-shirts

On a small scale, you might have a customer post on social media that the size medium fits more like a small. So unfortunately, while they love the shirt, it doesn’t fit. Here, you can simply respond and let the customer know that you’ll send them a new shirt in size large, free of charge. 

On a larger scale, you can look at trends on social media conversation about sizing. Is this a recurring theme or an isolated comment? If recurring, look at adding a sizing chart to your product pages or even reconsider the sizing altogether. 

Test New Ideas and Campaigns

Testing new ideas in small batches before investing in the whole kit and caboodle is a smart business strategy to mitigate risk as you scale or launch new campaigns and products.

As far as social listening goes, you can split-test paid social campaigns and see how each campaign performs. Look at the engagement, analyze the sentiment, and cross-check it with the data to see which approach works best. 

You can also make adjustments on the fly. 

Inform Your Marketing Strategy

Social listening is rich with actionable insights about your target audience. With it, you can see what topics, content types, brands, keywords, and other trends are popular with your target market. You can then craft not only a social media marketing strategy, but your entire overarching marketing strategy around these learnings. 

This is also likely to change over time, too, so ongoing social listening can clue you into those shifts and your brand can stay ahead of the trends. 

The National Park Service has a really fun way of “listening” to negative reviews. Browse their various social media accounts, and you’ll see tons of posts highlighting the ridiculous reviews along with information commentary from the NPS.

This can be a risky approach, so refer to “test new ideas and campaigns” before filling up your social content calendar with these types of posts. 

Stay in the Know

By listening to what people are saying, you’re getting access to real-time insights about your industry. You’ll see if there’s a new competitor gaining traction in the market share, or if there’s a new industry trend you need to think about incorporating into your products. 

Identify Key Influencers

Social listening also shows you whose content is making the rounds and the topic of conversation on social. This can reveal potential influencers to collaborate with on integrated campaigns to promote your brand and products to a new, engaged audience.

Drive Sales

While all of the above benefits combine to increase sales — through customer retention, brand image and awareness, smart marketing, and so on — you can also use social listening to sniff out leads who are ready to convert.

How to Do Social Listening

Social listening requires an intentional practice of setting goals and knowing what you plan to track, understanding the channels where you can (and should) listen, and using the right tools to analyze and engage. 

Set Goals

Navigating social listening without goals is like navigating a journey without a destination. You might have a map, but it won’t tell you where you need to go. In social listening, you might have all the data and conversations in your possession, but without goals, you’ll have no direction as to what to do with it. 

So, what goals make sense for social listening? 

Consider some of the benefits listed above, as those are great inspiration for feasible goals. For example: 

  • Gain insights about an existing product line for the next product you plan to add to the collection
  • See where you stand in comparison to your competitors
  • Understand which products are talked about the most 
  • Learn your customers’ pain points in relation to your product offerings
  • Improve your brand voice by learning your customer’s voice

If you’re just getting started, it’s okay to make your goal something as simple as determining what people think about your brand and products. Start broad and then drill down to get more specific, actionable insights. 

What to Track

In social listening, you can track keywords, topics, hashtags, people, pages, and more. Specific capabilities depend on the tool you’re using (we’ll get to that in a bit).

Generally speaking, though, you’ll want to track: 

  • Your brand profiles
  • Your brand name (remember, not everyone is going to tag you!) 
  • Your branded hashtags
  • Your product names
  • Misspellings for your branded keywords
  • Any campaign names or other brand topics or words
  • Your competitors’ profiles, names, hashtags, and products
  • Names of figures and brands associated with yours (this could include both internal, like your CEO, and external, like a celebrity endorser or brand partner)
  • Industry hashtags

If you’re looking for ideas on more things to track, check with other teams in your company. Ask them what challenges they have or what information they wish they had, and then consider if this is something you can learn about through social listening. 

Where to Track

Knowing which channels to track comes down to understanding where your customers hang out and where they talk about your brand and products. This includes the major social media networks like Facebook and Instagram, but also less “social” channels like online forums or customer review platforms. 

First, do an audit of where your brand currently has a presence. You’ll want to include those channels. Then do market research on your audience and find out which channels they use. Add these to your tracking list. The main idea here is to gather as much data, from as many sources, as possible — this will give you the most accurate, big-picture information. 

Watch for Trends Over Time

Starting out with social listening can feel like information overload, but over time, this gets more focused. It’s important to avoid having tunnel vision on your data: focusing too much on what’s in front of you right now instead of looking at the bigger picture trends over time. 

Optimize and Pivot

As you look at the data and trends, optimize and pivot your marketing efforts accordingly. Especially in the digital, things change quickly — the most successful brands are innovative and stay abreast of these changes.


Today’s social media users are more savvy than you might think. A surprising 68 percent of consumers know companies are listening, even if they don’t directly mention the brand. And Sprout Social confirmed that brands who respond are viewed more positively — and even make customers more willing to purchase from them.

Best Tools for Social Listening

There are tons of social listening tools you can use, depending on your needs and budget:

  1. Audiense: Focuses on identifying your audience and providing recommendations based on the data. It also analyzes competitors, as well as uncovers potential brand partners, sponsors, and influencers. Pricing information not available.
  2. Brandwatch: Brandwatch has two social listening tools: Audience Insights, which focused on getting detailed information about your audience, and Consumer Research, which is a souped-up version of Audience Insights, complete with image analysis and the largest range of tracked channels. Pricing information not available.
  3. BuzzSumo: Reports on the best-performing content on social media, including a focus on influencers. It’s mainly aimed at helping you come up with new ideas for blog and social posts. It also helps you identify the best time and day to post on your own channels. Pricing starts at $79/month.
  4. Hootsuite Insights: Hootsuite is a social media scheduling platform with social listening built in. Track keywords, messages, engagement, brand mentions, influencers, and leads across social media platforms, and then generate reports based on that activity. Insights also tracks sentiment and emerging trends. Pricing starts at $29/month.
  5. HubSpot: HubSpot is a marketing automation software that has light social listening features included in the Professional and Enterprise plans. You can track mentions and conversations, respond to posts, and more accurately track ROI as consumers move through your HubSpot funnel. Pricing starts at $800/month.
  6. Keyhole: Keyhole has a more refined focus than other social listening tools. It analyzes hashtag performance on Twitter and Instagram. You’ll also get insights into brand mentions and influencers. Pricing starts at $179/month.
  7. Mention: You can do all the standard brand and keyword tracking and alerts with Mention, as well as view your competitors’ activity, publish posts, and view analytics reports. Pricing is free for one basic alert, one social account, and 250 mentions.
  8. Mentionlytics: This social media listening tool is mostly centered on reputation tracking and management. With it, track mentions, competitors, keywords, and sentiment across social media and sites like Reddit and Imgur. Pricing starts at $39/month.
  9. NetBase: Offering a robust list of products, NetBase has solutions for crisis management, brand sentiment, influencer marketing, and social media analytics. Pricing information not available
  10. ReviewTrackers: Manage and respond to reviews from more than 100 sites with ReviewTrackers. The tool also allows to proactively collect more reviews. Everything is instant, so you can act quickly if a review warrants it. Pricing information not available.
  11. Sprout Social: Like Hootsuite, Sprout Social is meant to be a comprehensive social media management and post scheduling software. With it, you can track keywords, mentions, influencers, and trends, as well as recommendations on how to engage with those posts. Pricing starts at $99/month.
  12. SumAll: SumAll is a free platform, which makes it a great place to start. With it, you can do basic keyword tracking, as well as schedule posts and view analytics report. SumAll is free.
  13. Synthesio: Synthesio’s social listening tools can track conversations in more than 80 languages from more than 195 countries. Monitor views, likes, favorites, replies, retweets, shares, sentiment, and brand health on social media and YouTube. Pricing information not available.
  14. Talkwalker: Focused on audience insights and influencer identification, Talkwalker scans not only social media but also forums, news publications, blogs, and review sites. It also features shareable dashboard reporting. Pricing starts at $9600/year.
  15. TrackReddit: Whether you consider reddit a social network or not, it’s rife with customer insights. Get alerts for keywords via email or SMS, and export and share the reports with other team members. Pricing is free for two campaigns and up to 100 mentions.
  16. TweetReach: Originally Twitter-specific, TweetReach now tracks conversations across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram too. Optimize posting time, compared earned and organic mentions, and discover new hashtags. Pricing starts at $49/month.


Social listening is a valuable tool to help you learn more about your customers, your brand, and your competitors. With it, you can stay ahead of trends, improve the customer experience, and build lasting, meaningful connections. 

To start with your own social listening endeavors, first ask yourself what you hope to accomplish or learn from the exercise. Once you have a vision, find the right tool to use to set up keyword tracking for your brand, products, competitors, and industry. 

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