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Social listening: Your launchpad to success on social media

Listen before you speak.

It’s something you were told growing up.

But while individuals have been trained to understand the importance of active listening and thoughtful communication, brands haven’t always had the strategies or tools to do so at scale.

Enter social listening.

You need to listen to your audience. What issues do they care about? How can you help solve their problems?
Heather Malec
Senior Manager of Content and Social Media at Spanning Cloud Apps

If we don’t listen to what our audience wants, we won’t be able to connect with them. We won’t be able to help or influence them. This rings true in our personal lives as well as in how we approach our audience on social and beyond.

All too often, we’re guessing, not listening. We’re making tactical moves, not strategic ones.

  • So who is your audience?
  • How do they feel about not just your organization, but topics related to what you do?
  • Which topics and trends are they passionate enough about to discuss online?
  • What do they truly want, and how can you connect with them more effectively?

If these are questions you’ve asked before, then social listening is for you.

What is social listening?

listening guide image 1

Social listening refers to analyzing the conversations and trends happening not just around your brand, but around your industry as a whole, and using those insights to make better marketing decisions.

Social listening helps you understand why, where and how these conversations are happening, and what people think—not just when they’re tagging or mentioning your brand.

This helps you form future campaigns, improve content strategy and messaging, outpace your competition, construct an effective influencer program and even build more impactful brand partnerships.

Social monitoring vs. social listening

Monitoring tells you what, listening tells you why.

Let’s use Moe’s Southwest Grill as an example. They have amazing tacos and amazing social customer service, too.

Social media monitoring

Social media monitoring involves tracking and responding to all of the messages sent to or about Moe’s restaurant or any of their products and services.

social monitoring example

The above example illustrates Moe taking the time to engage with a fan to create a real connection. That first message could have alluded to a poor or positive experience, but by monitoring and engaging, the entire interaction was positive.

Social listening

Moe’s could also use this interaction to draw some conclusions about audience sentiment for this specific store location. However, let’s say they want to get a high-level perspective on which store locations are performing well and which are performing poorly. They could track and aggregate these one-off social messages through monitoring, but that would be incredibly time-consuming and the results likely wouldn’t be very accurate.

Moe’s would be better off using social listening to aggregate that data for them. Listening is about understanding the bigger picture.

Sprout Social Product Image of Listening Demographics Location Map

Listening is about understanding the bigger picture.

Both social listening and social media monitoring are critical for brands, and there’s not a totally black and white distinction between the two–it’s a spectrum spanning the two.

social media listening spectrum

An analogy from Sprout’s Director of Brand Strategy

Our Director of Brand Strategy Lizz Kannenberg broke it down like this.

You have a stomach ache. You’ve had them before, but something about this particular stomach ache gets so bad that you decide to go and see the doctor. Upon arrival, the doctor gives you one of those shrugs as if to say, “really? You’re here for a tummy ache?”

Would you be comfortable with the doctor prescribing you a treatment based on that initial thought instead of running additional tests, asking you questions about your medical history or pursuing other theories to get to the heart of your stomach ache?

What if in treating the symptoms of indigestion they overlook something like an ulcer?

With social media monitoring, something additionally critical for marketers, it’s like the doctor just saying you have a stomach ache and treating those symptoms before sending you on your way. They are dealing reactively to the situation.

With social listening, the doctor analyzes all of the data at hand to figure out what caused your upset stomach and prescribes a regimen to address the root cause so you’re less likely to suffer from it again.

Read our in-depth article to learn even more about social listening vs. social monitoring.

The value of listening

listening guide image 02

Imagine you work as a writer or creative director for Netflix.

You might have access to data on content viewership rates, most popular genres, most watched actors/actresses and so much more that can significantly help you choose what to create next.

That’s part of how Netflix creates some of the most innovative content there is.

But what if you don’t have scores of user data at your fingertips?

That’s when you can turn to social listening to find all of that data and more

While social listening provides many amazing opportunities, at Sprout Social we’ve boiled it down to 5 key use cases that our customers leverage most frequently:

  • Brand health: Gauging the public perception of your brand or products.
  • Industry insights: Analyzing discussions or hashtags within an industry.
  • Competitive analysis: Analyze a competing brand or product.
  • Campaign analysis: Report on the how a campaign is resonating.
  • Event monitoring: Monitor audience response to a conference or event.

An example from a franchise restaurant chain

Imagine you run the marketing for a franchise restaurant and really need to get a better sense of the food your customers love. You can create a social listening topic that monitors social channels for your brand name and then dig through the themes.

social listening exampleThis data came from Sprout Social Listening, and these are just some of the insights you can glean from it.

  • Burritos are the most mentioned item, and that includes a portion of negative mentions. It would be a good idea to listen to burritos specifically to see what folks like and don’t like.
  • Not only are quesadillas the most infrequently discussed, but they also have the highest percentage of negative mentions. Should the organization consider re-thinking the recipe or cutting them from the menu entirely?
  • Nachos aren’t discussed as frequently as other items, but have the highest percent of positive mentions compared to all mentions. It makes sense to launch a marketing campaign to get more awareness for nachos.

This is just one example from one report. Our next section demonstrates the value of listening by breaking down the most important use case strategies and examples for each.

Social listening strategies

listening guide image 03

Have a question about your product, customers or competition? Chances are, social listening can help you find your answer.

As we’ve mentioned, we frequently see customers lean on listening to maximize their insight around 5 types of key information: brand health, industry insight, competitive analysis, campaign analysis and event monitoring. 

That’s why we’ve made it easy for users to start building their strategies around those topics with new social listening templates in Sprout.

Read on to learn how to put listening to work in each of these areas.

Strategy 1: Brand health

Understanding where the public perception of your brand or your most important products is an essential starting point to taking your strategy to the next level. You’ll get insight into the positive or negative feelings people associate with your brand, and the specific traits and features that spark their attention. This can challenge you to rethink assumptions and lead to much more targeted marketing.

Answers that listening can uncover about your brand health include:

  • How do customers feel about my brand or product, and how big is the conversation?
  • Is perception trending up or down?
  • What kind of content do people share about my brand?
  • Does my social audience align with other channels?

By running social listening for your own organization, you can identify common customer questions, comments, complaints, demographics and general sentiment around your brand, and easily share those insights with the rest of your team.

social listening quote

Once you start absorbing your own social listening data, you can do these tactical things right away.

  • Find your most frequently asked questions. And create a FAQ document or chatbot to help answer questions at scale.
  • Find your customers’ most common issues. And figure out how to solve those issues or create talk tracks to respond quickly.
  • Figure out what your customers love about you. And leverage that information to build campaigns or content you know will resonate.
  • Identify your key social media customers. And figure out how you can utilize their traits to target new social audiences.
  • Get a sense of whether or not followers are positively or negatively mentioning your brand. If it turns out they skew more negative, figure out if those are issues with your social media presence or something you can surface to other parts of your organization, like your product or events teams.

You can also zoom out and look at your customers’ general sentiment.

From a thousand feet up, are your customers happy? If not, you may need to pivot your strategy.

Sprout Social Product Image of Listening Performance Sentiment Summary

It’s clear to see which days this organization fell out of favor with customers. Drill into those specific days to see what went wrong and learn how to avoid that happening again.

While sometimes your brand can be affected by issues outside of your control, there’s frequently a customer service solution that can mitigate or resolve issues impacting these brands. By digging into what the causes were of negative sentiment spikes, you can prepare and catch the next one before it happens. For example, if your online services had a slowdown during a major product launch, you can review customer complaints to pinpoint the changes you’ll need in place for the next one. If your customer service team is dealing with shipping complaints around a major sale, your organization can prepare in advance for the next logistical challenge.

As these examples indicate, it’s critical to share this social listening data internally – listening can uncover insights that go far beyond your social media marketing team.  Create entire reports for your team that show why your audience is unhappy and can help them remedy the situation, like the main themes, keywords, audiences and even locations. While it may seem trivial to you, it could lead outside teams like product or fulfillment to a major “aha” moment.

Sprout Social Product Image of Listening Demographics Location Map

Brand health: Dick’s Sporting Goods bans assault rifles

In March of 2018, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would stop selling assault-style rifles and raise the age of restriction on gun sales to 21.

This was an important announcement, as the country was split on the debate of whether or not assault rifles should be banned, and Dick’s was clearly taking a stand that could impact their entire business.

This announcement garnered a massive social media response as people took to their keywords both to support and disapprove of Dick’s decision.

Sprout worked with Fast Company to analyze the data and found that:

  • Overall, Tweets mentioning Dick’s Sporting Goods jumped more than 12,000% from its average daily number of 278 between February 18-27.
  • Of almost 343,000 Tweets that included the @DICKS Twitter handle, 79% showed a positive sentiment.

This supports a recent survey we conducted that showed consumers want brands to take a stand on social channels.

consumer sentiment around brands taking a stand on social is more positive for liberal voters

These discussions lead to another report Sprout created with Fortune around the anti-NRA movement.

Sprout Social’s analytics tools, for instance, found that @Amazon and @FedEx were getting barraged with negative #boycottNRA messages yesterday—more than 20,000 messages each—while @FNBOmaha and @Hertz, which cut ties with the NRA, were receiving a flood of positive messages.

Strategy 2: Industry insights

Social listening helps you pick up on industry trends before they even become trends. By analyzing hashtags or discussions within your industry, you can get a better sense of where your market is headed. This can help you create or reposition products, content and general messaging that will become a key talking point as trends develop.

Dynamically adapting to your industry sets you leaps and bounds ahead of competitors.

  • Keep an eye on anything disrupting the space that may impact your organization.
  • Track key political and social issues to weigh in on if they’re relevant to your brand.
  • Find gaps in the industry that a new product, solution or workflow could solve.
  • Look for frequently asked questions to create content your audience needs.

A great example of this comes from the quickly rising eSports industry. ESports teams and websites are consistently looking for the next big streamer or game to add to their arsenal.

With social listening, they can find those up-and-comers before anyone else.

You can also use social listening to identify influencers who have clout in your industry. Influencer marketing has become increasingly popular as the number and impact of micro-influencers has continued to grow across every industry and social media network.

  • Find your current top influencers and figure out how to empower them to continue to advocate for you.
  • Find all of the influencers in your industry and create a list of those you may want to work with.
  • Find your competitor’s top influencers and attempt to win them over.
  • Figure out the best social networks for your influencer marketing and create more content for those channels.

Let’s say that you’re a craft beer organization and want to find all of the top YouTube influencers to partner with on your next product launch. Listen to the industry and find out who is the most engaged beer influencer and partner with them to increase your reach.

Strategy 3: Competitive analysis

Social media is a competitive channel for brands, and some of Sprout’s most popular social media reports are those that customers use to track their competition.

Now imagine you can monitor everything individuals are saying about your competition online. With social listening you can:

  • Get a sense of your share of the social media audience. And understand the volume of your messages vs. theirs.
  • Understand why their customers may not be satisfied with their product. And how you could create a better experience.
  • Find the content they share that outperforms your own. And analyze why it resonates with your shared audience.
  • Quickly identify the new products or solutions they are offering. Find out what the general market sentiment is towards those products and solutions, and set a goal to outperform them.

Let’s say you’re working at a new luxury hotel chain set to disrupt the current leaders. In such a well-established industry you need insights into what the audience is saying about the big players so you can take advantage of any shortcomings.

Dig deeper into the top competitors to find out the most frequently discussed topics to help inform your competitive content strategy.

listening wordcloud

Slice and dice this data to look at keywords, hashtags, emoticons and more. Then dig into each specific leading phrase to figure out why it’s so popular and how you can leverage those insights to influence your own campaigns.

Competitive analysis: White Walkers vs. Wonder Woman

Hot off the release of the second trailer for the upcoming season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, Quartz set out to identify the impact premium television content had on more conventional movie theaters.

Sprout pulled Twitter data from the month leading up the trailer’s release to figure out what users were discussing most. The data included “Game of Thrones” as well as major movie releases.

The study found that “Game of Thrones” was discussed more consistently than most of the summer’s biggest blockbusters apart from “Wonder Woman” (but really, who ever thought anything could dethrone Gal Gadot as Diana?)

Strategy 4: Campaign analysis

Brands spend a good deal of their time coming up with new campaigns to launch, but without insight into whether or not that campaign succeeded, they have no information about how to improve or build upon those efforts.

Listening tactics boost your campaign success dramatically. Think through the following capabilities for your next campaign.

  • Track the impressions and engagements around your campaign posts.
  • Quickly gather general sentiment around specific campaigns.
  • Identify the top influencers discussing your campaigns.
  • Understand which of your audience demographics the campaign resonates with.
  • Figure out the key themes within the campaign that are being used and whether those are positive or negative.
  • Track collaborative campaigns from a single source of truth.

Social listening can finally prove to you the value of your marketing campaigns. Crafting listening topics to capture all of the conversations around your campaign hashtags or handles provides insights into countless metrics.

Sprout Social Product Image of Listening Performance Topic Summary

You can then break down all of these insights by:

  • Network
  • Content type
  • Message type
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Sentiment

Strategy 5: Event monitoring

While you may already be using a hashtag for your event or conference, you might miss out on mentions of your event by just the title or associated key terms like session titles, speakers and key themes. Setting up listening queries around your events ensures you get the full picture, including both positive feedback and areas of improvement, and that you maximize the business opportunities of your efforts, like identifying additional potential leads.

quote from jason keath of social fresh

Why use social listening for events?

Whether you’re tracking a recruiting event, conference, show or sporting event, you can get a complete understanding of whether the message that your audiences received resonated with your goals. Did the key areas that you invested the most effort into actually produce the most returns, or were opportunities overlooked? With social listening, you can get a deeper insight into audience reaction to events.

Event monitoring: Predicting the Oscars with social sentiment

Sprout worked with Inc. to predict who would win Oscars in three major categories: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role.

We pulled data on each individual nominee to find their total social mentions, the total positive mentions and the total negative mentions. Each nominee’s Net Positive Mentions was then used to predict winners.

While this type of report is fun for readers and us at Sprout, it should be noted that something like Oscar winners, which is inevitably decided by the 6,000 Academy members, is much tougher to predict than something that actually accounts audience votes. Still, it’s a powerful example of the potential in harnessing user sentiment online.

Social listening by industry

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1. Travel & hospitality

The Travel and hospitality industries are one of the biggest in our book of customers. To better understand their use case, we chose to look at the higher end luxury resorts.

Industry insight

Listening can give you a sense of the volume of demand around each popular season to ensure you staff your workforce accordingly. It can also reveal geographic locations starting to realize more mentions and travel, which may lend credibility in opening a new location.

You can also use listening to see the impact that weather has on users taking to social to find getaways. In Chicago, the #PolarVortex likely saw a lot of individuals looking to escape the sub-zero temperatures.

Sprout Social Product Image of Listening Demographics Location Map

Keywords used:

  • luxury AND hotel
  • luxury AND vacation
  • travel AND hotel
  • vacation AND hotel
  • vacation AND resort
  • travel AND resort

Brand health

Look at trends across all of your locations or dig into specific locations to find themes. You can then leverage that data to create localized content and promotions. If you see that you have certain geographic areas trending toward negative sentiment, it may be time to do an internal investigation.

Sprout Social Product Image of Listening Performance Sentiment Summary

You can also start to get a deeper understanding of how seasonality impacts your business. Travel to ski resorts increases during the winter months, but how does that impact you? How can you create a strategy to ride that wave and diminish the losses in volume during the off-season?

Sprout Social Product Image of Listening Performance Potential Impressions

Competitive research

Looking into each competitor’s share of voice and content strategy can give you additional insights into their marketing efforts. If notice sales start to slow on a specific day of the week, social listening may point to a discount that competitors are running to win the competition.

2. Consumer packaged goods (CPG)

The CPG category refers to goods used daily by the average consumer. For this example, we looked at a leading provider of packaged coffee.

Industry insight

Listening to these trends will signal changes in the industry and help identify whether or not you should push new flavors or types of beverages. It can also help you stay ahead of any issues with imported beans that may arise due to U.S. regulations.

Consider also looking at industry-wide data to see which hashtags are trending and take advantage of those relevant to your organization.

Keywords used:

  • coffee
  • #coffee
  • mocha
  • #mocha

Brand health

One major use for listening for CPG is to monitor and manage product quality.  Use listening to track conversations and organize data by complaint categories, such as burnt, tastes like soap, etc. Use this data to update your recipes or tailor your messaging.

Competitive research

Comparative data surrounding major coffee companies could indicate where to expand your reach and which stores to partner with to increase volume.

3. Retail

Just like fashion trends, your retail social media should constantly evolve. This example looks at the social listening information surrounding a major sportswear provider.

Industry insight

Fashion is both seasonal and cyclical, with new trends emerging all the time. By keeping an eye on the industry at large, your brand can identify emerging trends to help influence your product development.

The retail industry also has one of the most compelling use-cases for social media influencers. Many social channels have a myriad of fashion influencers to tap into, and social listening provides a fantastic way to find those leaders at scale.

Keywords used

  • sportswear
  • #sportswear

Brand health

A retailer can start to dig into their own social media data to figure out which types of products have the bulk of the social media conversation and can use that insight to guide product promotion.

Competitive research

With information about how four major retailers stack up against each other, retailers can drill into which competitors are out-performing them on social and analyze competitive campaigns.

  • under armour
  • #underarmour
  • nike
  • #nike
  • adidas
  • #adidas
  • reebok
  • #reebok

4. Higher education

Higher education institutions have a social audience more active than most other industries.

Industry insight

Higher education has several seasonal factors, including summer and winter breaks, registration periods, graduation periods and more. By getting general industry insights around these events, universities can better prepare entire campaigns.

Keywords used

  • graduation
  • #graduation
  • registration
  • #registration

Brand health

Throughout each specific period of the school year, your institution will likely face varying levels of audience sentiment. Perhaps you receive an influx of positive mentions during graduation, but when acceptance letters go out, it’s a mixed bag.


You also may want to get a sense of which specific department gets the most social media engagement. That will help you decide which departments, teams and schools require their own social media presence.

Competitive research

Schools can also study the social presence of other institutions. With this data, they can figure out who applicants compare them to, and how they perform compared to other institutions.

Social listening tools

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At the end of 2017, Sprout announced the acquisition of the industry-leading social listening tool Simply Measured.

Since then, our teams, products and customers have become a family, and we couldn’t be happier.

It’s thanks to that acquisition and the diligent work of our teams that we can now offer Sprout’s social media marketing and social listening tools within one single platform.

Sprout’s social listening tools

In chapter two, we discussed how social listening is a spectrum, one that spans brand monitoring and marketing insights gained from deep social data. As a result, it can be hard to pin down, especially since no industry-wide agreement exists to define what social listening entails. We can agree that “real-time brand monitoring and social data for marketing insights” provides a solid attempt.

Sprout’s tools span this entire spectrum, including advanced listening. They also cover both engagement- and analytics-focused use cases. And while “listening topics” represents the more advanced analytical use cases, you can see how the idea of listening spans the entire spectrum.

All of the screenshots that you’ve seen up to this point come from within the Sprout platform. We did this to demonstrate what social listening looks like in practice as well as in theory. Let’s dive deeper into how each of Sprout’s social listening tools can help you keep a pulse on your brand, competition and industry.

1. Smart Inbox

The Smart Inbox is the place to keep track of every conversation with and about your brand.

Sprout Social’s unified Smart Inbox helps businesses engage and foster authentic conversations with their audiences. It also helps them monitor their social channels to find and respond to every important message.

Sprout Social Product Image of Engagement Smart Inbox with Tag Filters Selected

Use the Smart Inbox to:

  • Create a one-stop shop for social engagement: Stop logging in and out of each social network and profile whenever you need to check to see if you have new messages that require responding to. The Smart Inbox aggregates all of those messages into a single stream.
  • Stay focused and never miss a message: By adding all of your social media networks to a single location, you ensure you never miss an inbound message. Take it a step further and add Brand Keywords (discussed next) to your Smart Inbox and pull in relevant conversations.
  • Maintain engagement as a team: The Smart Inbox was built with team collaboration in mind. Invite your team to help you respond to inbound messages and find new conversations without ever worrying about duplicating efforts.

2. Brand Keywords

Brand Keywords help you capture more conversations that are relevant to your brand, industry or competition.

Oftentimes, people will talk about your brand, a product you sell or a hashtag campaign you’re running without taking the time to mention you directly on social.

If you aren’t actively searching for these types of messages, you may miss out on important conversations.

Brand Keywords are custom searches that run constantly and display results in your Smart Inbox, which you can interact with just like any other message.

Use Brand Keywords to:

  • Find all important messages: Add Brand Keywords mentioning your company, your products or common misspellings of those to find conversations discussing you that don’t tag you.
  • Find new opportunities: By tracking phrases, hashtags or keywords that mention your competition or terms that show interest, you can quickly jump into relevant conversations.

3. Trends Report

The Trends Report automatically surfaces the most popular topics and hashtags mentioned about your brand.

The Twitter Trends Report shows the hashtags and topics that are trending across the mentions and replies for your connected profile(s). It also shows the people and brands that most frequently talk about and get mentioned with your business.

Sprout Social Product Image of Analytics Twitter Trends Report

Use the Trends Report to:

  • Take the guesswork out of content creation: Quickly filter campaign and demographic data to identify content that resonates with specific audiences, then tailor your strategy accordingly.
  • Identify trending topics to reach new audiences: With deep access to social conversation data across channels, you can easily identify emerging trends and the top content relevant to your brand, competitors or industry.
  • Leverage hashtag listening and reporting: Perform quantitative and qualitative analysis of keywords and hashtags to track and compare campaign success, analyze share of voice and determine market share and growth.

4. Keyword Report

The Keyword Report reveals share of volume for basic keywords related to your brand, competition and industry.

The Twitter Keyword report instantly uncovers trends in Twitter traffic for any keyword, hashtag or complex search query across any date range. It’s available on Professional and Advanced plans.

Sprout Social Product Image of Analytics Twitter Keyword Report

Use the Keyword Report to:

  • Keep tabs on your market: Track your brand against the competition.
  • Track effectiveness: Of your past and current hashtag or marketing campaigns.
  • Discover patterns in keyword usage: Then adjust your marketing efforts accordingly.
  • Track your brand’s products: Against each other or against competitors’ products.

5. Sprout’s premium listening solutions

Advanced Listening uncovers emerging trends, thought leaders and sentiment for specified topics about your brand, competition and industry.

And with template to help you get started with listening it’s easier than ever.

Our listening tool is a powerful complement to Sprout’s extensive social monitoring features, enabling you to get a comprehensive view of keywords, campaigns, brands, industries and multimedia content to uncover trends on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr and the web.

Listening gives you a window into the candid thoughts and feelings of an audience in aggregate to illuminate trends, uncover patterns and gauge emotional response around any topic.

These broad insights inform the larger picture and broader business decisions, while monitoring tools, such as the Smart Inbox, help you monitor for and engage with conversations happening specifically about your brand.

  • Let listening lead: Sprout’s listening data takes your team beyond social, with insights to influence every part of the organization.
  • Cut time to insight and action: Learn and act at the speed of social with social listening insights now alongside the sophisticated engagement and publishing tools you use daily.
  • All the functionality you need, under one roof: Streamline your workflow by eliminating jumps from point solution to point solution.
  • Research with intention: Harness the power of social conversation data with filtering options made to get your answers fast.
  • Create targeted Topics with ease: The Topic Builder makes it simple to set up complex, relevant queries that exclude distracting noise.

Listening for small business

listening guide image 08

Several examples within this article come from larger organizations, but that doesn’t mean small businesses can’t benefit from social listening.

On the contrary, smaller organizations should think of social listening as a way to directly compete with larger organizations.

Every strategy we’ve mentioned can and should be considered by smaller businesses, but below we’ve highlighted a few specific ways small businesses can use listening to grow.

Growing your following

Sprout helps more than 10,000 small and growing businesses manage their social media marketing. One of the questions we get most frequently from this audience is:

How do I get more followers?

While increasing your following is a good goal, it’s important to remember to do so thoughtfully. Social networks can detect which users attempt to game the system to grow their audience.

Social listening can help 

  • Find the most relevant and popular hashtags to leverage in your posts to increase reach.
  • Find new trends to write about when they first come to light, solidifying you as a thought leader.
  • Identify your key social audiences by network to ensure your messages resonate with top audiences.
  • Identify the top influencers in your industry and try and coordinate partnerships for additional boost.
  • Pinpoint your biggest audience opportunities geographically and increase reach with paid spend in those regions.

These are just a few tactics to help grow your audience. But remember that there is much more to social marketing than amassing a giant following, like creating real connections with your audience and providing amazing customer service.

Finding product-market fit

Product-market fit refers to proving that an audience exists for your product. It legitimizes your organization.

Whether you’re a local retailer planning an expansion, or a software company striving to become the next unicorn, finding your product-market fit is critical, and social listening can help.

While you can build extremely advanced listening queries to parse out the data, one simple example is to just look at your organizations’ social sentiment. Do people regard what you’re doing positively or negatively?

Keeping your product nimble

It’s critical to keep your business nimble. This is something that can get more difficult as your business scales and you need additional inputs or permissions.

Whether you have yet to find product-market fit, or would just like to consistently update your product to meet the needs of your growing audience, social media channels are a great focus group for coming up with new product ideas.

Say you have a restaurant and want to know the dishes that customers love as well as those they don’t.

Looking through general items and comparing how frequently they get mentioned, as well as the sentiment of those mentions, can help.

Defining your ideal customer profile

If you’re just starting out as a business, or if you’re a business that never identified your ideal customer, social listening can help you tackle this at scale.

Pulling key audience demographic data around your brand, your industry or your competitors will help you paint a picture of your target audience.

Think through questions like:

  • What is the average age of my audience?
  • What does my biggest audience identify their gender as?
  • Does my audience typically use mobile or web applications?
  • If they’re on the web, do they use Android or iOS?
  • What countries, states or cities are popular with my audience?

This can help you build better social content to suit your audience, but it can also help you across every other marketing or product channel. Share this information internally and you may be surprised how many benefit from the insights.

Deciding where and when to grow

The above chart shows how effective social listening is when deciding in which direction to scale your business.

For instance, a brick-and-mortar store may use social listening to build a list of possible locations for their next store.

A software company or e-commerce business may use the above data to decide where to focus their paid marketing budget.

Beating the big brands

In general, social listening gives small businesses the tools they need to directly compete and beat out big brands on social media.

  • Find and create content that resonates with a fraction of the budget.
  • Quickly make changes to your offering to please your audience which may take larger organizations months of decisions and approvals.
  • Craft and hone a brand voice that your audience enjoys.
  • Track when competitors stumble and quickly jump on new opportunities.
  • Directly find potential customers to start forging relationships with.

How to get started

listening guide image 09

1. Choose a social listening tool

One core benefit of social listening is that it takes and makes sense of millions of social messages. Synthesizing all that data requires good tools.

So the first question you need to answer is: build or buy?

Do you want to build and maintain your own internal social listening tool, or should you purchase a subscription from a third-party provider?

2. Determine your initial goals

What interests you about social listening? Did a specific strategy in this guide that make the connection for you?

What’s your goal?

  • Run a deep analysis on your brand to understand what customers and prospects think.
  • Monitor your industry or niche to keep a pulse on what’s new and what would make good content.
  • Keep an eye on your competitors’ products, audiences and marketing tactics.
  • Figure out what kind of content to share based on trends and data.
  • Identify your key social media audiences to better inform your targeting strategy.
  • All of these and more.

3. Infuse your plans with strategies

Think of your goals as the destination and your strategy as the route to get there. Would you take off on that route without a map or GPS?

Social listening poses limitless potential, so it’s possible to get lost or caught up in the raw possibilities as you search to hit your goals. That’s why we at Sprout have started offering consultative services for those who purchase social listening.

No matter what tool you go with, it’s incredibly beneficial to have someone in your corner to talk out all of the strategies and the tactical steps you need to take to find data.

4. Choose your data sources

One important decision to make when building your social listening strategy is which networks to pull data from.

While it may seem like a good idea to pull data from every possible source, that could overwhelm you with data you don’t necessarily need.

Sprout Social Product Image of Listening Topic Builder

However, regardless of whether your business has a presence on Twitter or not, we recommend you pull data from the network. Remember that it traffics in frequent social media messages—with millions of users sharing their feedback, there are bound to be conversations surrounding your organization.

There are a couple of reasons why Twitter audiences are so valuable. Twitter reaches hundreds of millions of users around the world and contains insights on specific people, businesses, industries, trends and more. People are on Twitter to discover what’s new, and over two-thirds of Twitter users influence the purchasing decisions of their friends and family.

Diana Helander
Head of Marketing, Data and Enterprise Solutions at Twitter

5. Build your topics and themes

Now for the fun part: the actual building of your listening topics. You need to build specific queries to start finding and pulling relevant data, including the things you do and do not want to listen for.

What to query:

  • Keywords or phrases
  • Hashtags
  • Cashtags
  • Mentions of user
  • Mentions from user
  • Mentions to user

Sprout Social Product Image of Listening Query Builder

And/or logic

Once you enter your first set of keywords, phrases, hashtags or handles, you can continue to refine the logic of the search by adding additional and/or parameters.

For example, say you want to track sentiment around Chicago-style pizza. Your query may end up looking more like below.

Now all sorts of variations will register:

  • chicago pizza
  • chi-town pizza
  • chicago deep dish
  • chi-town deep dish
  • chicago pie


You may think to yourself, “well, Chicago pie could mean pizza, but it could also mean baked goods,.”  That’s when you would start to build out your exclusions.

You may start to add in some pie flavors to make sure the scope of your search is limited to pizza.

Now your keywords won’t show any data around peach or apple pies.

6. Optimize your topics and themes

As you can imagine from the previous step, you’ll often discover variations of your keywords or hashtags that you didn’t anticipate. For instance, as you run your Chicago-style pizza query, cherry pie shows up.

You can quickly add that to the list of exclusionary terms, and you might also consider whether or not “pie” is too ambiguous.

There are a number of other filters that you can layer in as well. Maybe you just want posts that are close to Chicago to get the best answers?

You could also check “Show only Tweets from Verified Users” in order to turn these social insights into a new blog post called “What Celebrities Think of Chicago Style Pizza, Backed by Data.”

7. Gather data to inform your strategies

After refining your topics, you can start collecting data to inform your strategies. To continue with the Chicago-style pizza example, here’s a word cloud of the frequently mentioned keywords based on the query.

You can click into each keyword to get a better sense of what the messages mean. In this manner, you might notice that a lot of the messages mention the recent “Polar Vortex” in Chicago, where temperatures dropped well below zero. What can you do with this information?

  • Create social posts about whether or not you’re open during these cold times.
  • Write an interesting article about how pizza sales increase/decrease based on temperatures.
  • Come up with a special “Polar Vortex” coupon encouraging delivery orders to offset a lack of foot traffic.
  • Think altruistically! See if there are any Chicago shelters that would benefit from extra pizzas.

8. Measure results relative to goals

After you have spent time building topics, collecting data and leveraging all of that information to inform strategies, you can start to look at success. This is when you want to pair your social listening data with social media analytics information.

Sprout Social Product Image of Analytics Cross-Channel Group Report Impressions

Your metrics of interest will depend on the goals of your campaign, but here are a few to get started:

  • Clicks
  • Reach
  • New followers
  • Profile visits
  • Engagement rates
  • Engagement speed

9. Cut, continue and expand

After you have spent time listening, incorporating that data into your strategy and running your analytics, you should have a good sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Remember that if one particular strategy doesn’t work out the way you wanted, it’s not a failure or waste of time. If you’re not taking risks and testing ideas, you will never grow.

Just make sure that you nix the strategies that don’t work and build on those that do.

Additional resources

The only limit to the insights you can discover through social listening is your own imagination.

If you’d like to learn more about how Sprout can help you tackle all of this and more, get in touch with our team of experts today.

If you’re interested in more resources, check out all the other content we have on social listening.