Social listening enables brands to understand what their customers truly think about the brand's products and services. By "listening" for mentions of the brand's name, products, and services on social media, brands can remove pain points in the customer journey, resolve customer complaints, learn what customers like and what they don't, and even learn what customers think about the brand's competitors. That said, there are several things that brands should avoid doing when using social listening. This article will discuss the pitfalls of social listening and how to avoid them. 

What Is Social Listening?

Social listening is a marketing practice in which brands “listen” for keywords, typically the brand name, the brand’s products and services, and its competitor’s brand names, products and services, on social media outlets. By actively listening for those terms, brands are able to rapidly respond to customer complaints, determine where the pain points are in the customer journey, understand what they are doing right, and where they are going wrong. Additionally, brands can learn the things that customers like or dislike about the brand’s competitor’s products and services. 

Research by SmartInsights revealed that as of October 2021, 57.6% of the world's population (4.55 billion people) use social media. The leading social media outlets are, in order, Facebook (2.8 billion users), YouTube (2.2 billion users), WhatsApp (2 billion users), Instagram (1.3 billion users), and farther down the list, TikTok (732 million users), Pinterest (478 million users), and Twitter (397 million users).

A report from GlobalWebIndex showed that up to 50% of social media users use social networks to do research on products and services. Additionally, a report from Statista indicated that 33% of those polled from the United States said that they have used social media to complain about a brand or its customer service. Given these statistics, brands have a huge opportunity to learn more about their customers through social listening. 

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Don’t Fail to Listen to How People Feel

Dean Browell, PhD, Professor of Digital Ethnography and Social Listening at the VCU School of Business, shared his thoughts on the true benefit of social listening: gaining a much clearer picture of the personalities, behaviors, and feelings of customers. “Social listening provides deep behavioral insights into the decision making of the online public while also providing the landscape through which peers find when they are information gathering,” explained professor Browell. “It helps to illustrate the personalities and behaviors of audiences and can be used to follow trends and patterns in both the audiences and their feelings toward brands, services, products, facilities, and more. Social listening seeks to provide the voice of the consumer and understand the volume and timber of that voice and how it influences others.”

Brands often get caught up on metrics, rather than paying attention to the feelings that their customers are expressing on social media. These customers are representative of all the other customers that feel the same way but haven’t taken the time to post on social media. “Listen to them — they’re telling you what products they want, how they want to be treated, and who they trust. And if you think those are just the loudest voices, then understand the power of those loud voices for all the lurkers looking for answers. Social listening can help you understand the customer experience and their perception of it — and how it influences others. That’s very different than simply how they navigate your website or find products in store (although they might talk about that too),” said professor Browell.

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Don’t Focus on the Brand’s Official Social Channels

When brands focus on social media, they often turn to their own official channels, focusing on what customers post there, or how they respond to what the brand has posted. Often, however, the most revealing aspects of social listening will show up on customer’s own profile pages, or within other groups or communities.

“It’s understandable that brands would be focused on the channels they own first, but there’s a real issue with thinking that by mostly paying attention to who shows up at your official channels represents how people actually feel about you,” said professor Browell. “Yes, there’s things to be revealed in those interactions, but the context of those interactions is incredibly important — and showing how people speak to peers when you’re not around is crucial to understanding why some segment shows up at all on your digital doorstep. It’s too small of a focus group.”

According to Davitha Ghiassi, executive vice president of Social and Integration at Red Havas, a merged media public relations and communication agency, going beyond the comments that come to brands is vital to gain a fuller understanding of their customers. “Whilst much of your customer feedback may come to you directly via branded channels — research shows that 96% of the people that discuss brands online do not follow those brands’ owned profiles,” said Ghiassi. “Therefore, looking beyond the comments that come to you is crucial in order to see the complete picture; and social listening enables you to do just that by tracking conversations including relevant keywords, brand mentions and even visual mentions of your brand (i.e. logo, product through visual intelligence tools like Talkwalker).”

Learning Opportunities

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Don’t Just Listen, Participate

The 2020 Sprout Social Index report revealed that 79% of customers expect a response within the first 24 hours after they have reached out to a brand through social media, and 40% expect brands to respond within an hour. Although social listening is about just that — listening — it also provides opportunities for brands to interact and respond to customers. 

When customers create a post extolling the virtues of a brand’s products, that brand should step in and reply, thanking them for their feedback. When customers leave negative comments about a product or service, it’s the perfect time for the brand to resolve a problem and gain a loyal customer. Social listening is not just about listening to what customers are saying — it’s about participating, and having conversations with customers, showing them that the brand cares about them, and is grateful to be able to learn how they feel about the brand. 

Brands must avoid being confrontational or defensive when they reply to what may appear to be negative comments left by customers on social media. They should leave a well thought out reply explaining that they are sorry that the customer had an issue, along with a way for the customer to contact them directly to resolve the issue. If the issue cannot be resolved, they should offer to immediately reimburse the customer for the entirety of what they paid. Once the offer has been resolved, there is always the opportunity to provide the customer with a special discount, buy one get one free, or something extra that shows that the brand cares about the customer’s feelings. 

“Social listening not only offers a powerful means of identifying and directly addressing comments, questions or concerns surrounding your brand or product — it also allows you to look to them for insights that can help improve the overall customer service strategy,” explained Ghiassi. “For example, by creating pro-active content that can live across channels and addresses frequently asked questions sourced via social.”

Don’t Fail to Set Goals for Social Listening Initiatives

Many brands begin social listening initiatives without setting any specific goals or KPIs. Not only do specific goals require different practices, but without goals or KPIs it becomes impossible to gauge the effectiveness of social listening initiatives. 

Depending on the goals that have been set for social listening initiatives, brands can gain a much deeper understanding of their customers’ needs and desires, how they feel about the brand in general, or how they feel about specific products and services, than they can through other channels. “Goals of social listening can be incredibly varied,” said professor Browell. “Social listening could help inform a brand of their actual brand health, it could provide insight into how their target audiences (B2C or B2B) make decisions and therefore inform decision paths, it can help validate and enhance personas, it can help with recruitment and retention, it can illuminate crucial geographic differences, it can enrich other research including making big data more valuable with rich insights, it can help in product development and adoption…honestly, the applications are as endless as a market research tool, the only difference is social listening also informs you on what the public will find when they look for peer input — something that a survey or focus group can’t fundamentally confirm.” 

Final Thoughts

Social listening can be a very effective tool that enables brands to get to know their customers on a more personal, emotional level — when it is done correctly. Brands must set goals for their social listening initiatives in order to reap the most benefits, listen to how their customers feel, and learn to empathize with what they are hearing. They must not make the mistake of only listening to what is posted on the brand’s own official social media channels, and they must participate, rather than just listen, responding to customers when appropriate. Finally, brands must take action based on the insights that social listening has revealed, and ultimately, improve the customer journey.