Being smart about social: How to build a social listening strategy

25th Jun 2015

In the words of IT pioneer Mitchell Kapor, "Getting information off the internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant."

Social media hasn’t caused this, but it has certainly dramatically exacerbated the problem in recent years.

And therefore, while the social web represents an exciting source of information for brands, harnessing this overwhelming flood of data is a colossal challenge that demands robust preparation and organisation.

Put simply, a well-planned, strategic social listening programme can drive change across the organisation – a tactical approach cannot.

“Saying you’re just going to ‘listen’ to social media is a bit like saying you’re just going to ‘earn money’ instead of writing out a business plan,” warns John Brown, head of engagement at Hotwire. “Let’s just take one channel, Twitter. There are over 500 million tweets sent each day; it’s impossible to listen to all of them. In fact, the main purpose of having a robust social listening strategy is more about identifying  what you’re not going to listen to rather than just what you are.”

Luke Moore, EMEA sales director at Crimson Hexagon, adds: “Social listening in an ad-hoc, reactive way means companies miss out on the real value of social data. A consistent, strategic social listening programme will allow businesses to draw genuinely meaningful insight, and use this to inform business strategy and customer service.”

So how can organisations develop and implement a robust social listening strategy?

Strategic foundations

Unsurprisingly, the foundation of the strategy should involve establishing the goals and objectives of the programme. With social listening able to support a wide range of different disciplines – including human resources, customer service, marketing, PR and product development – it is important to map out precisely how the tools will be used.

“It’s very easy to simply say “let’s get social listening in place” with no real definition of what you want to achieve from the activity,” notes Mike Scott, client services director at Yomego. “Yes, you can get great individual insights and, when looked at in isolation, these can tell you what’s going on at any point in time during your campaign. The issue is these are isolated pieces of information. We advise our customers to set out clear objectives for the activity before starting any social listening project. Whether you are looking for daily real-time listening reports or quarterly market reports this applies.” 

Graeme Delap, social media consultant at Amaze, adds: “The starting point for any strategy is to align it against the businesses overall goals and objectives. For instance, what is it, exactly, that the business is trying to achieve by better understanding how people talk about its brand, products and services? And what do we need to know that allows us to make a practicable difference?

“Reporting for the sake of reporting is the worst thing an organisation can do. So, the data and insight that social media listening generates should not be restricted to simple volume of mentions over time.  It needs to be placed in context and assessed against other insights, industry benchmarks and targets to deliver actionable recommendations. This refined insight informs improvements to tactical activity and wider strategic initiatives and recommendations. Without developing that framework in detail, which is specific to an organisation, social media listening will rarely deliver on its objectives, however big its potential.”

Goals and objectives not only need to have business relevance, but they also need to be measurable, so that performance and ROI can be monitored.

Tools and content types

Other considerations that need to be made from the outset include the type of content that is monitored – “If you are monitoring outside of your brand terms you need to consider the types of content that will be most valuable therefore ensuring relevance in the report you receive rather than superfluous data that will skew your statistics,” says Scott.

And organisations must also consider the sources of data as well – in other words, what social networks to monitor. In this case, it is important that brands know which networks their customers do and don’t use.

“Things to think about are: where does your audience hang out, what do they talk about online, what are they saying about your brand, and which conversations matter most to your business?” says Rowan Evans, head of social media at Greenlight.

“If you cast your net too widely, the results you get back won’t be that useful. Take time to consider what you need to know now and to further your current objective. This could be how one product line is being discussed in relation to another, or your share of social conversations compared to a competitor, or which age group talk about you most. Focus on gathering the information that is most critical to you and build from there.”

As part of the strategy, organisations will need to decide which tools will be most appropriate. This may in part be influenced by the last point, as there are certain listening tools that are specifically designed for specific networks. There is also the issue of cost to take into consideration.

“Some will be free, some will need investment, and having a blend is essential as there isn’t one killer listening tool just yet,” advises Brown.

Also influencing the vendor selection process are the stakeholders that will be using the tools. These stakeholders could, of course, cover a variety of disciplines, so they need to feed their opinions into which tool is best for the business and aide the selection process.

As well as tackling the convoluted process of vendor selection, organisations will also need to establish an operational strategy for how the tool is used when drawing meaningful, actionable insight and recommendations. In particular, this concerns the issues of resources and structures.

Ben Saunders, senior measurement consultant at Seren, explains: “With the vendor or vendors selected and the initial pegs laid for how a solution can be formulated for areas of the business involved, the business must consider resourcing personnel to realise the strategy.  This will involve either an investment in people or the upskilling of those with similar roles.  The business will need to allocate responsibility at a department or operations level, to ensure that the information can be gleaned, analysed and then combined with existing consumer insight and analytics data.”

Social listening responsibilities

This allocation of responsibility is vital, as you cannot develop a strategy for the use of social listening tools unless you are clear about who will be completing the analysis and who will be digesting it.

Saunders continues: “The ownership of the tool and of those best suited to conduct the research and analysis for company distribution is important when laying the groundwork for a social listening strategy.  Where does responsibility lie for the various elements operationally, e.g. ownership, deployment, query writing, analysis, reporting and insights?

“It has been suggested that consumer insight departments may be the best fit as tool owners and they may already have the experience in text analysis or have the tools or resource to perform such a task.  It can be argued they are in the best place to think in terms of group perceptions and sentiment. They may have the capability to exploit the full potential of social listening tools.”

Figure 2 below demonstrates how Saunders envisages social listening responsibilities could be organised within a business. Both marketing and PR departments will want to be close to the data and insights obtained from social listening tools, so any strategy should include these stakeholders. But other departments could also be factored into this structure if required, such as customer service and human resources.

(See Figure 2)

So if the structural model proposed by Saunders is most appropriate, it means appointing a social listening analyst – a task central to the social listening strategy.

Saunders continues: “The deployment, data capture configuration and analysis of social listening data requires a certain level of technical understanding, as well as a broad understanding of Social Listening data capture methods, The web and the myriad of touchpoints and behaviours that come with it. With this in mind an analyst or researcher must also have some of the qualities/skills belonging to a specialist in web analytics. This combination of skills is relativity rare. The specialist requires a grasp of human and social behaviour combined with a good knowledge of data, how to process text and, at a very high level, statistics.”

Ongoing process

With the groundwork done on the operational aspects of a social listening strategy, progress also needs to be made with the functional details. A process for analysis should be established, whether that would be to embed data extracted from the tool into an existing consumer insight schedule, the web analytics function or both.

“Another approach would be to centralise administration of the tool within either web analytics or consumer insight so that these teams can provide logins and training for departments identified as key usage stakeholders (e.g. PR or social marketing),” notes Saunders. 

Other important issues to address within a social listening strategy should include:

  • Setting parameters around the audience. “This is best done by developing generic personas that determine the type of person, the topics they’ll likely be interested in and the channels they’ll likely be using,” says Brown.
  • Establishing keywords and topics to monitor. “While determining the content you’ll listen to is crucial during this step, outlining what’s on the black list (i.e. what you’re not going to bother with) is equally as beneficial,” adds Brown.

But even with all of this baked into a strategy, it is important to note that the framework will almost certainly require some refinement and amendment over time.

“Creating a social listening strategy is not something that will be perfected in the first go,” warns Scott. “Often you need to make an educated guess on the terms and content that you want to follow and then refine this content set as the data comes in. Much like when you are creating a PPC campaign you will learn which terms need to be excluded and what terms are perfect for measurement. 

“Once you have defined the content that you want to monitor (this can be anything from the entire marketplace, specific verticals, specific competitors or simply your brand/product) we then need to set the goals for the activity. These goals will in turn determine the frequency of reporting being either daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly.” 

Nonetheless, even the first iteration will give organisations the best possible platform on which to build a successful social listening programme.

Adam Lee, data and CRM consultant at Amaze, notes: “If you don’t have an over-arching social media strategy, how can you be certain that you’re identifying the right volume and type of information that’s really going to make the most positive difference to your business? 

“With the right framework in place, you can understand what works and what doesn’t and how to connect the opportunities you’ve identified, with those areas of your business that you know have particular strength.

There are many excellent reasons that some of the biggest businesses in the world are developing their social media listening strategies and approaches. They wouldn’t invest time, resource and money if they didn’t fully understand the true value of social media listening and the insight and data it can bring to the entire business, not just certain departments.”

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