This woefully underused audience research tactic lets you spy on your competitors, monitor your industry space, and identify the voices in your sector.
The well-kept secret tool is social listening.
Now, brands are doing more on social media generally: 43% of B2C content marketers and 46% of B2B content marketers planned to invest more in their organic and paid content distribution efforts this year. In the first quarter of 2021, marketers spent 60% more on Facebook and Instagram advertising compared to the same period in 2020.
A ton of data exists, ripe for any marketer to extract and analyze through social listening. Yet, social listening is not on radars to the same extent as customer personas, web analytics, and keyword research. Only 8% of brands in a 2020 survey by Socialbakers indicated they used listening tools as research aids.
I’m on social media every day, and I don’t see many people talking about it. Without an “unpacking” of the social listening concept, many marketers may not be aware of all the potential purposes it can serve. They also may not have or want to invest in tools to conduct social listening.
That’s why social listening can be a differentiator for your brand.
What is social listening?
Social listening is an audience research method to monitor social media channels, websites, and forums for mentions of a particular topic, theme, brand, competitor, product name, or person using tailored query strings.
Here’s an example of a brief social listening search query:
But really, it is much more than finding mentions of words and phrases. You can bend and flex this tactic around different use cases to produce insight that helps you create outputs that:
- Identify industry influencers
- Conduct sentiment analysis
- Demonstrate success of your branded campaigns
As a full-time practitioner, I’m commonly asked to conduct social listening to provide constructive intelligence that marketers can then use to devise more impactful campaign concepts and content strategies.
Better understand your target audience
The beauty of social listening is that it provides brands with a relatively speedy route to find the evidence behind assumptions they might be making about their target audience.
Use a listening tool to collect social content matching certain keywords, parameters, and criteria. You can use that information to compile a snapshot of your customer – uncovering topics they’re interested in, what they’re talking about, and what kind of content they share and engage with.
Likewise, you also can use this approach to ascertain words and phrases that aren’t mentioned and avoid using them in new content.
You could also look through your data and evaluate elements such as:
- Messaging themes
- Phrases and words most used by target customers
- Tone of voice
Importantly, it’s the kind of intelligence that can allow your marketing team to make more confident decisions about any new content they plan to create.
Identify emerging trends and key topics
The pace of change about what’s topical, what people are thinking and talking about, and what emerging marketplace developments often happens too quickly to keep a handle on. But this current intel is invaluable for planning your content and even staying one step ahead of the competition by getting your finger firmly on your audience’s pulse.
That’s where social listening comes in. You could take multiple approaches to your research. Here are two:
- Build your search on a recent time period, using certain keywords and phrases.
- Target your search to pull data on the known voices and thought leaders in your industry.
You can use this social listening data to create a word cloud, which presents the findings in an easier-to-digest format:
Reduce the likelihood of sounding (and looking) like your competitors
It isn’t uncommon to see the marketplace saturated with similar-looking competitors regardless of the sector you play in. Brands also generally describe their products and services in similar ways (just think of sectors like software and financial services, for example).
When there’s not enough to differentiate brands, your audience can be confused by, or worse, ignore the brands’ content. Here are two ways social listening can remedy that:
- Create word clouds for your brand and each of your competitor’s social activity. This visual tool can help you see if (and where) you’re too similar in the use of language.
- Use social data from your competitors’ channels to contrast and compare creative aspects such as formatting style, language, messaging, visuals, etc.
Ultimately, this social listening analysis allows you to identify the “white space” in the marketplace: “What aren’t our competitors talking about which we know our audience is interested in?” or “Could we cover that in our next article/white paper/webcast?”
Equipped with this intelligence, your marketing team can build new content with the deliberate intention of fulfilling the possibly unmet needs of your target audience and, in the process, differentiate your brand from its competitors.
You can also use social listening to track, measure, and analyze mentions of competitors, such as:
- Collecting data on their frequency in industry publications, media, and customer-facing events
- Conducting a share-of-voice analysis of your competitors and your organization
- Gathering social data on customer responses to your competitors. What has delighted them? What has frustrated them?
- Identifying which thought leaders, third-party partners, and influencers are collaborating with your competitors.
All of this can provide incredible insight to inform your future content. For example, if you see their social polls aren’t attracting any engagement, you may opt to pass on using polls on your channel. And, compared to creating more content to see what performs well, it will probably be more cost-effective to use social listening to learn from your competitors.
These are just three types of insight you can arrive at when you deploy social listening as an audience research tactic. And while social listening can’t provide any iron-clad guarantees on what’s going to work, it does provide you more of a fighting chance when answering classic questions like, “What does our target audience want and need?” and “What are our competitors up to?”
I encourage you to give investing in social listening some serious thought. It’s 2021, and with the goldmine of social media content out there, it’s time to dedicate some time to wielding a more deep-dive approach.
All tools are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please add it in the comments.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute