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Social media 101: The purpose, planning and tools of listening online

3rd Feb 2011
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Listening should be part of everyone’s social media marketing machine and the options for doing so are myriad. Monica Shaw of Market Sentinel explores what listening is all about, from purpose to planning to tools.

"Conversations are going to occur whether you like it or not. Do you want to be part of that or not? My argument is you absolutely do. You can learn from them. You can improve your reaction time. And you can be a better company by listening and being involved in that conversation."
- Michael Dell, Business Week

When Dell was founded in 1984, it was the first company to sell custom-built PCs directly to customers. In those days, the concept of home computing was still in its infancy and, undoubtedly, Dell was the subject of much conversation. You can imagine it: savvy programmers would banter about their Dell setup at the office while moms and dads would marvel at their new purchase at the family dinner table (or complain about lack of support or repair issues).

Back then, Dell had no way of listening to what those people were saying. But in 2005, all that changed.

By 2005, blogs had become mainstream and Dell set out to discover what bloggers were saying about the brand. To their dismay, at least 50% of online conversation about Dell was negative. So what did Dell do? Dell launched the Direct2Dell blog to reach out to other bloggers and solicit feedback. At the same time, they proactively set out to find dissatisfied customers in the blogosphere and connect them with someone at Dell who could help. By 2007, negative online conversation was down 23%: the power of listening was obvious.

That same year, Dell took listening to the next level by launching the highly successful IdeaStorm, an "online suggestion box" inviting people to offer ideas on how Dell can improve. And the listening continues to this day: last December, Dell revealed its Social Media Listening Command Center, a geeked-out control room for tracking online conversations and internalizing the feedback – good and bad.

Dell listens to online conversations because they know that what people say has a huge impact on how Dell is perceived by the rest of the world. But you don’t need a special "command centre" to listen to online conversations. All you need is a purpose, a plan and a few tools.

What is listening?

Listening is the broad term we use for social media monitoring. As the word suggests, listening describes the act of hearing what’s being said about you online. To listen, you need to monitor web pages on an ongoing basis that contain mentions of your brand, and read those mentions to "hear" what people say about you.

Listening should be part of any reputation management activity. It not only lets you better understand how you are perceived, it also lets you put out any fires before they become an inferno.

What should I be listening to?

Dell not only listens to conversations about "Dell", they also listen to conversations about laptops, servers, educational computers and pretty much any topic that is relevant to their business. Remember, listening isn’t just about you – it’s about you and all of the issues related to you, such as people, companies, products and ideas related to your brand.

The key word here is "relevance". Listening online to conversations about you AND topics related to you helps you stay relevant to your industry.

WHERE these conversations are happening is another story – this will depend on you and your business. But remember, the internet is a big place, so make sure you’re tuned in to

  • Forums
  • Blogs
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • YouTube comments
  • News articles
  • Any web page

Over time, you may discover that most conversations are centralized in a few places (e.g. blogs and Twitter), which will allow you to narrow your focus (and perhaps identify a target for future campaigns). But don’t be too narrow – cast your listening net wide. The Internet is a rapidly evolving sea of conversation; who knows where they’ll wind up next.

How do I listen?

There are a growing number of tools that let you listen to social media. Most of these tools operate on the same basis:

  1. Collect a list of phrases and keywords that describe your brand. This could be your company name, business units, names of important people, nicknames, abbreviations, and pretty much any word that uniquely describes your brand.
  2. Use a web crawler to search for these phrases and collect pages that contain those phrases.
  3. Organise those pages in a logical, browseable way.

One of the simplest (and freest) listening tools is Google Alerts. Google Alerts lets you specify a search term and sends you email updates whenever that term appears in any of Google’s results (web, news, etc.).

Another free option is Social Mention, much like Google Alerts but for social media. Social Mention monitors over 100 social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, and emails you an alert whenever your search term is found on any of those social media sites.

There are also plenty of not-so-free options with more sophisticated features like sentiment tracking, engagement metrics and influence analysis. But if none of those words make sense to you, don’t worry. Social media listening needn’t be complex – it’s as simple as tuning into your audience and paying attention to the words, topics and expressions they use when they talk about your brand. Even something as simple as Twitter Search can give you a pretty good idea of what people are saying and what the big issues are. If you can figure that out, then you’re in a great position to use social media listening to better understand your customers, and your brand.

A framework for listening

The reason listening works for Dell is because they have a systematic process within their organisation for listening. You, too, need a plan to make the most of online conversations.

The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) recently laid out an excellent framework for measuring social media effectiveness.

In a nutshell, the measurement framework is as follows:

  • Intent – Establish intentions and objectives in order to determine which KPIs are most pertinent. Without clearly defined objectives we have absolutely no criteria on which to evaluate success.
  • Awareness, appreciation, action, advocacy – Define and measure core KPI metrics by social media platform (soft metrics and hard financials).
  • Benchmark – compare benchmarks with other social media activity, channels and industry averages. Without comparative benchmarking, most metrics are completely meaningless.
The three parameters for defining KPIs are:
  1. By social media platform (blog, community forum, social network, fanpage, video sharing site, branded channel widget/application, etc).
  2. By the four As - Awareness of social media platform; engagement and appreciation of social media platform; solicits a response or influences purchase behaviour in some way; creates word of mouth or stimulates advocacy.
  3. And by soft metrics and hard financials – awareness (cost per impression); appreciation (cost per engagement); action (cost per lead); advocacy (cost per referral).

Whether you choose to follow their system or make up your own, be sure your framework for listening addresses these questions:

  • What are your goals and objectives?
  • How will you measure how successful you are in achieving those goals?
  • What tools will you use?
  • Who is responsible?

Whatever framework you choose, start simple with realistic goals and tools that fit your budget. Your framework for listening will grow as you become more proactive with social media.

Monica Shaw is writer and product developer at Market Sentinel.

Replies (1)

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By adrianhalley
03rd Feb 2011 12:43

Without a doubt, it's important to monitor what customers are saying about your company/brand via multiple channels, and to join the conversation as and when appropriate. What's sometimes overlooked is the importance of making it easy for customers to let you know what they think via your own website, as that will be the first port of call for many. Showing your customers that you do listen and are willing to engage with them directly can help to head off much negative criticism, before it ever gets aired in public.

Adrian Halley,
CEO, Feedbackify

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