Social listening: Best practices to examine and execute

16th Jul 2015

“If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” – a maxim that should be adhered to by every business in the land. If you’re not committed to best practices, then be prepared to fail.

Yet despite this, according to Gleanster Research’s Gleansight Benchark Report, benchmarking best practices is something of a low priority for organisations implementing and running social listening programmes.

Perhaps it is because objectives for social listening programmes vary dramatically according to objective, function and organisation. Or perhaps it is a reflection of the relative immaturity of the discipline.

Either way, clearly businesses need to step up their game. With this in mind, MyCustomer spoke with a number of experts to identify the best practices that organisations must keep in mind when rolling out a social listening programme – and also highlight some of the most common mistakes that can be made.

Establish your business objective

Researchers and analysts alike will express the importance of first establishing a research objective before any research is undertaken.

“The setting of questions and objectives plays a crucial role in what data is gathered to build analysis and to make creative recommendations,” says Ben Saunders, senior measurement consultant at Seren. “Using a Social Listening tool in practice demands this approach. At the beginning of any research the analyst or insight specialist needs to identify the best information/data for the job in hand.  When identifying this data there are a myriad of points to think about, some examples being…How to set up a text query string to capture a fair representation? Which networks and blogs to include? How to use verbs and adjectives in text filters? 

“Inclusive of data capture there is also a wide range of visual techniques that can be used when connecting relationships between user handles and words. The analyst also has the benefit, in some cases, where a tweet or Instagram post will have geolocation data including, enabling mapping (using Google Maps APi).” 

Understand the problem you’re trying to solve

Once you know the main objective of the social listening project, you can start to drill down into the specific problems/issues related to this objective that you’re trying to solve. This is important, as it will be nigh on impossible to identify the important conversations you should be listening for, if you don’t know what it is you’re looking for.

“By identifying key questions, queries, or trends, social listening can be an invaluable tool, as reports are tailored towards what they need from the service,” says Mike Scott, client services director at Yomego. “This will allow the team to stay focused on delivering exactly what the brand wants, in order to implement social strategy and make recommendations for the coming months.”

Jenny Sussin, research director at Gartner, adds: “If all you’re doing to do is monitor for a two-word mention of your brand name, you’re going to get a lot of crap and have to sift through it which will be time-consuming.

“I always tell me clients think about it in the form of a question. So maybe if you're Coca Cola, you might say something like “what do people like about Pepsi's flavour” and then you could set up a query that correlates to that question. So instead of just searching for the name Pepsi, instead of just searching for the term ‘better’, instead of just searching for a positive sentiment, you're looking for something very specific and you're looking for something that can help you with product development. Maybe another question that you may want to ask is “what do people like about Pepsi's brand name”. Then you'll start looking at things like colour and you'll start looking into the logo. These are very specific things that you're searching for that can bring you to a business action and so what I advise my clients is put it in the form of a question and set up your query to meet the demands of that question and that's the most important thing.”

This approach also ensures that the insights you generate are actionable – which takes us onto our next point

Ensure insights are actionable

You have to be able to gain actionable insight from the social listening data, and that actionable insight has to be within an area you have planned to explore and to which you are prepared to respond. Actionable insights could be anything from identifying unmet customer needs, to understanding customer sentiment about an aspect of a product or service, or gaining insight into the behaviours or preferences of target audiences.

“Actionable insight is the difference between a robust successful social listening strategy and a vanity project that has little value beyond mentions and sentiment,” emphasises Graeme Delap, social media consultant at Amaze.

“Building a simple measure where you can say we have increased mentions this month and it is X% positive is a common mistake that’s been in the industry as far back as I can remember and it needs to removed. How we remove it and gain actionable insight is by having the right people in place to interpret the data. This team can be from either a social or data intelligence background (preferable with experience of both) but they need to be able to take the data, gain the key lesson out of it and turn that into their next move whether that is on social media or as part of a wider digital strategy.”  

Know what ‘normal’ looks like

Measuring sentiment is a common application of social listening, but unless you have a baseline sentiment level to work from, it can be confusing.

Igniyte’s managing partner, Caroline Skipsey, explains: “You need to know what normal looks like. If, on average you receive 75% neutral comments, 20% positive comments and 5% negative, and this split starts to alter in any way on an on-going basis, you’ll need to show why this has happened and on which platforms.”

Rowan Evans, head of social media at Greenlight, adds: “From the get go, it’s important to establish a base line of your current activity, such as your current share of voice, sentiment score and engagement levels. Without this you will not know how well your social efforts are being received or be able to set realistic KPIs.”

But it is important to ensure you don’t just focus on the negative.

“Don’t just concentrate on negative posts - in reporting social activity and sentiment online, the objective should be to increase positive mentions,” continues Skipsey. “Negative mentions are often a symptom of poor customer service or business operations. If companies are looking to improve their processes and services, it’s likely that the same level of negative comment will remain or increase as the audience in grown online.”

Benchmark your performance

Once you’ve established what represents ‘normal’ for your organisation, then you can benchmark your performance. Scott recommends monthly or quarterly benchmarking.

“At regular intervals throughout the year it’s always helpful to take a look at overall brand performance against your main competitors,” he says. “This allows you to review the effectiveness of any activity, get a view on where ground is being gained or lost and determine a course action for the coming months.”

Look beyond your own brand

Don't only monitor mentions of your own brands/products - you should also be monitoring competitors and industry terms to seek out lead generation opportunities on social media.

“We often hear people say “We don’t have that many followers, so we don’t need to worry about a social listening strategy” or “We’re B2B, social media is not for us”. Statements like this show a deep ignorance of what social media is: the world’s largest source of unsolicited consumer opinion,” notes Luke Moore, EMEA sales director of Crimson Hexagon.

“If you sell to people you need to listen to what they are saying - about your competitors, your customer service, your type of products, your industry - and social media is the best source of this information. Fail to listen and you risk building products and messages that are don’t resonate with your target audience.”

Disseminate insights to the right individuals

Successful social listening involves systematically analysing the rapid flow of unstructured social data to create actionable insights. But generating these insights alone isn’t enough. They also need to be delivered to the appropriate decision-makers, wherever they are in the business, in a timely and contextualised way. However, you must ensure you don’t bombard key stakeholders with a vast report each week. Think about what you want them to know and present it in a concise and useful format.

Alexei Lee, head of social and promotion,, says: “It’s essential that resulting data and reports are shared and available to all relevant parties (marketing, R&D, sales, customer services, etc.) for the brand to receive full benefit from the insight gained. Each team should have an opportunity to provide their interpretation of what the data means, as well as using that interpretation to help inform the work they do.”

Integrate social data with other data sources

Social data shouldn’t be treated in isolation. As Evans notes: “One of the most common mistakes marketers make are not analysing the data in light of offline or other digital activity. All too often, marketers treat social media like it exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t. The conversations taking place are in direct response to the real world and should be treated as such.”

Lee adds: “It’s important to note that while social listening tools can be hugely beneficial for consumer and product insight, they should support, rather than replace, thorough product research and development practice (for instance focus groups, testing and surveying). This is because social media listening doesn’t offer as much control over data quality and method as other more traditional approaches to audience research.” 

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