Social listening: The opportunities and obstacles to know

22nd Jun 2015

In a few short years, social media monitoring has evolved from a technology dogged by consumer privacy concerns, to a booming market, adopted by half of all large enterprises.

When social media monitoring first emerged, alarmist headlines threw the future of the technology in doubt. Particularly infamous was the Daily Mail’s: ‘How 'BT Sarah' spies on your Facebook account: secret new software allows BT and other firms to trawl internet looking for disgruntled customers’. In an age when privacy is a delicate matter, the prospect of businesses eavesdropping on social media conversations was easily portrayed as being akin to Big Brother.

But as social media has matured with improved privacy settings, and users have become better acquainted with the very public nature of social, it has become accepted – and even expected – that brands are listening to their customers’ conversations.

There has subsequently been a surge in interest in monitoring tools, with Altimeter research estimating that nearly half of businesses are now using social media listening tools. With adoption gathering pace, a number of large vendors such as Microsoft, Oracle and Adobe have invested heavily to acquire social listening players, adding monitoring functionality to their offerings.

And the signs are that investment in this field will continue its upward trajectory. Forecasts from Markets and Markets, for instance, predict that global spending on combined social monitoring, social listening, social mapping and social management tools will rise from $2.2bn to $17.92 billion by 2019.

So what is driving this rapid adoption of social media monitoring tools and why are brands finding it so appealing?


Billions of conversations take place every day across the many social networks on the internet, with many related to brands, services and products. All public social data is aggregated by aggregators such as Data Sift and Topsy. While this data is unstructured, social listening platforms use their smart algorithms to enable brands to organise and collate it with keywords. And brands can use this functionality in a variety of ways. 

“Companies have woken up to the fact that they cannot only push out their own messages but need to know what customers and potential customers think about their products or services,” notes Lisa Barnett, social media services director at Emoderation.

“Social listening is not just about looking at your Facebook page or managing the @mentions on Twitter and Instagram, it is about collating all the data out there whenever your brand or product is mentioned. By listening to the entire social media universe, brands can obtain data on the volume, key topics or general sentiment of user-generated content.

“The data collated is vital to protect brand reputation, spot any serious business challenges or customer issues, as well as enable the company to reach new customer segments and continue to grow the business.”

Indeed, social media monitoring tools can be beneficial for many departments, and in many different ways.

  • Reputation management. It is now commonplace for brands use social listening tools to keep tables on what customers are saying about them.
  • Crisis management. PR and corporate communications departments utilise social listening to detect any emerging issues that may be harmful to the brand’s reputation. Social media monitoring during such a crisis can help companies to determine the scale of the problem, and provide steer regarding how best to respond.  
  • Human resources. HR departments can help organisations understand what current employees are saying about them, as well as ex-employees.
  • Customer service. Social media customer service is increasingly demanded by consumers, forcing brands to not only monitor social media for users in need of support, but also actively engaging with them to provide assistance. Major brands including Gatorade, Salesforce and Mastercard have recently invested in social command centres to change their customer support and marketing from a reactive to proactive environment, with social media monitoring placed at the heart of fostering new insights about customers.
  • Marketing programmes. The marketing department can use social listening to gain useful insights into what messages and offers will be successful with different customer segments.
  • Products/services. Social data can provide valuable information to support the development, testing and refining of new products and services, potentially saving brands R&D expense.
  • Market research. Social media monitoring can help the market research team to identify industry trends and customer wants and needs. It can also be used to keep tabs on the competition, helping organisations to understand the positioning of their rivals, examine their strategies, and understand how this is resonating with customers.
  • Influencer analysis. Social listening enables brands to identify influencers in a given field, and build influencer lists. Marketing through influencers is an increasingly popular way of reaching and engaging with potential customers.

The changing business landscape and software marketplace have also combined to nurture interest and access to social listening tools.

“The market has matured in a way that ensures it is part of the ‘Big Data’ wave/hype and has promises to reveal insights similar to that of Voice of Customer research, but at scale,” highlights Ben Saunders, senior measurement consultant at Seren. “The social listening vendor space is now as crowded as ever (key players include Sysomos, Brandwatch, Crimson Hexagon, Radian6), but some of the major players have been subject to buyouts (Salesforce acquired Radian6 as early as 2011), bolstering the offerings of large CRM vendor networks.

“This has helped to push prices down and increase accessibility for corporations, as part of larger CRM solutions. Large and medium sized corporations, driven by thought leadership around ‘data trumps intuition’ and inspired to embed consultative advice into their own operation are creating perfect conditions for the adoption of a corporate social listening strategy.”


Clearly there are a great many opportunities to derive value from social media monitoring tools – from improving customer service and satisfaction to identifying threats to the brand; from improving market research effectiveness to identifying new sales opportunities; and from improving marketing effectiveness to identifying unmet customer needs. And with prices falling, and the appetite to capitalise on social data rising, it is easy to see why social listening has become an increasingly popular discipline.

However, there are a number of obstacles and errors that can undermine social media monitoring projects, and conspire to limit the value that they can deliver. For this reason, it is important that organisations are well aware of the challenges they could encounter.

Having a clear objective.

First and foremost, organisations need to know why they are implementing social media monitoring. As we have outlined above, there are no shortage of uses.

Jenny Sussin, research director at Gartner, explains: “It is not unusual for people to not really define their business case. They invest tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in social applications but they never really figured out what they were going to do with them. They decided they were going to do marketing or service or sales, but they didn’t really think about what that would look like and they didn’t think about how they would measure that against any business metrics that would tell them anything.

“You end up with a lot of companies who say their project has been successful because it increased their number of Twitter followers by 75%, but that doesn’t really mean anything. You need to tie it back to metrics that already have business meaning. That might be something like measuring the number of impressions, if we’re looking at activity metrics.”

Having the right expertise.

While it is important to implement the right social listening tool, businesses will still be unable to derive value from the investment if they don’t have the right skills within their team. Gleanster Research’s Gleansight Benchark Report recommends that experts are hired/trained to be able to understand search structures and linguistic constructs; to identify patterns; to find meaning, even in the meta data that surrounds different types of content; to conduct quantitative and qualitative analysis; and have a good understanding of various research methodologies. In some cases this expertise may be in-house, or it may be that sourcing these skills from a third party is more appealing.

“You can’t rely on the tool to present meaningful insights and conclusions,” emphasises Barnett. “This is where you need business analysts that are able to sift through all this data and identify the key trends and issues.

“Not having the correct social listening team in place is a big mistake. The huge amounts of data that companies can acquire can be overwhelming to an inexperienced team. This is where business analysts bridge the gap by looking at this data and identifying key trends, issues and patterns. This isn’t a job that is done by your social media manager or someone in their spare time. This is a dedicated and experienced person that is able to crunch the data and give the business meaningful recommendations and analysis that matches the company’s KPIs.

“A good social listening team can filter, categorise and tag data, and provide insightful analysis into the market and competitors to keep the company ahead of the curve. By processing social data, the social listening team can inform marketing efforts to ensure they are correctly targeted and result in supporting the company’s business goals.”

Generating actionable insights.

There’s no point investing in social media monitoring tools if nothing is going to be done with the data and insights gathered.

Barnett notes: “A good social listening tool does not come cheap so what is the business sense in making this investment when the company doesn’t listen to what is being said about it. Social listening is able to be the eyes and ears of what is going on in the market and provide valuable insights that the company can actually implement in its business. How many times have we seen costly marketing campaigns fail because companies failed to listen to what their customers are saying.”

This means that organisations need to be set up to act on the findings where appropriate, by implementing a formalised feedback process. But it also means ensuring that the insights gathered are actionable in the first place. For instance, sentiment analysis doesn’t necessarily provide you with anything in and of itself – some like your brand and others don’t. But by picking deeper, more actionable insights can be identified. Why is sentiment improving/worsening? What are the causal antecedents? Is it a particular segment that is disproportionately influencing the sentiment? What is motivating them to voice their opinions?

Integrating with other data.

If businesses do not integrate their social data with other data sources, they will fail to capitalise on the potential of social media monitoring.

Sussin explains: “One of the biggest issues is that companies are not integrating their social applications with any of their legacy applications. In a lot of companies, social media and social strategy is developed in somewhat of a silo, maybe in the digital team or the social team, sometimes in the marketing team more broadly, although a lot of time IT doesn’t get involved. So what happens is you have this new application where none of the data is either being stored in a central data warehouse or integrated with existing CRM records. And so you’re creating duplicate sets of records that have no ties back to cross-channel history. Therefore, you’re actually creating a very component-based customer experience, where you don’t actually know them.”

Getting the right information to the right people.

As we have outlined above, social listening can be used to benefit a great many different departments, from customer service, to marketing, to human resources, to product development. When collecting and analysing the data that comes in, this means that it is vital that the relevant insights are disseminated to the right decision-makers in a timely and contextualised fashion.

“A lot of companies have social listening sitting in their corporate communications team but does this data ever make it outside of that department? Social listening needs to sit across the company as a whole. Everyone from all departments should be taking advantage of the insights that social listening offers,” says Barnett.


Also an issue to take into consideration is the changing vendor landscape. There has already been a lot of activity in this space in recent years, as Saunders has highlighted previously. But this state of flux is something that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, according to Sussin.

“You’re going to see a lot of consolidation,” she predicts. “There have been a lot of acquisitions. Years ago, acquired Radian6, which was the beginning of it all. Oracle acquired a company called Collective Intellect. Adobe acquired a company called Context Optional. More recently Cision and Vocus – which is a PR communications technology company – acquired one of the prominent players in this space, Visible Technologies. So there’s a lot of volatility in this space, and we’re going to continue to see that volatility, and as acquisitions come into play, vendors will start selling these things as part of a package. But the interest isn’t going to wane.”

Indeed, despite the aforementioned challenges, investment into social listening technology continues to rise. As Barnett notes: “Social media is still such a young industry that it is constantly evolving. As companies embrace social media at the heart of the business, not as a separate department, then social listening will become the norm for all companies.”

And there are already signs that businesses are becoming more sophisticated with their use of social listening tools, something that Gartner’s Sussin has noticed in her dealings with clients.

“We have found that people are super interested in social listening but haven’t really figured out their goal, and what happens then is they say this tool isn’t useful,” she explains. “But actually, it isn’t the solution that isn’t useful, it’s your strategy for the solution that isn’t useful, because technology doesn’t solve the problem, your people solve the problem and technology helps you.

“That has been where some companies have been going wrong. But actually we’re seeing that phase has passed a bit now, and people are being a little bit smarter about what they’re trying to do with social analytics. I’m impressed by a lot of my clients in their specific use cases of social data, everything ranging from market research to law enforcement clients who are using social analytics to identifying areas of risk to hospitals who frequently deal with celebrity clients and try to identify when a celebrity is on the way to their establishment.”

For those organisations taking a strategic approach to social listening, and who aren’t shy in tackling the aforementioned obstacles head on, social media monitoring can clearly be a powerful driver of business value.

“Social media creates new challenges, but also offers huge opportunities for business to reach customers in new ways,” concludes Jessica Love, product marketing manager at Microsoft Dynamics CRM. “Social insight is valuable to all aspects of a business; across sales, service, and marketing.

“Social savvy business can use social media as the engines of discovery and insight, to power their entire business.”

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