Social listening has been on many social team wish lists for some time now. Almost once a year it’s no doubt been retrieved, dusted off and reconsidered. But so often the idea has more allure than the function and the idea of allocating budget to something which will then take some additional resource to operate/manage – often with less than perfect results – means it’s last on the list for actual implementation. Over the last year however we’ve seen a step change in the functions available. Increased automation, increased usability and wider acceptance that social media needs to be used with social interaction at its core. As a result, our seventh and final Social Media Trend of 2015 is Social Listening.

Throughout this series we’ve tried to highlight the practices, techniques and platforms that we see taking off throughout the year – each of them another rung on the ever-evolving ladder of social media innovation.

If you have anything to add please leave a comment below, or if you would like to discuss how we might help you introduce these functions as part of your wider marketing strategy, please feel free to get in touch at:

7) Social listening

Social listening has been pitched at brands and agencies alike over the last five years or so. In the beginning there was a huge amount of sales spiel about accuracy and technical capability that sounded as if the whole of the internet would be at our fingertips. Unfortunately, after some careful testing it was often found that the depth of historical data was limited to just a week or a month – and even then it was unlikely to be historical data which related to the industry sectors you wanted to explore. Some platforms only offered monitoring and analysis of terms from the point of subscription onwards – which ultimately meant you were paying for them to begin to build your relevant database of data for later use. The upshot of real-time monitoring was often diminished by the tricky nature of a well-engineered search term. For instance, to use the brand ‘Virgin’ as a hypothetical test case, you would often return a huge amount of unwanted posts – all mentioning your search term but completely unrelated. This often made the exercise more effort than it was worth, or worse, it made the resulting reports completely incorrect, skewed by rogue posts.

Other use-cases presented similar issues. For instance, crisis monitoring for negative sentiment relied on the platform returning genuinely negative sentiment. Often this wasn’t the case and in the worst case scenarios they even failed to miss very obviously negative sentiment – as such failing the objective completely. Languages also presented a huge challenge, not least languages which have roots beyond Latin. Often, searching Arabic script would return nothing but nonsense and, again, often miss important posts of note for no apparent reason.

For a long time the only consistency available from online monitoring tools was inconsistency itself.

Today however, the majority of these challenges have been conquered. Languages have become less segmented online – most browsers even allow for the translation of whichever language your desired content happens to be written in. Sentiment remains tricky for algorithms to detect – especially when it comes to wry English wit, and always when it comes to plain old sarcasm – but those platforms that are still going strong have at least managed to allow quick and simple ways to train their AI capacity. Although this is a manual task it still allows for ongoing tracking of particular negative or positive sentiments, so you can be safe in the knowledge that if a red-flagged phrase appears you’ll be notified.

All of these incremental improvements in the technology itself have ensured that what we now have available is a solid set of platforms to choose from when it comes to listening to conversation and opinion online. The years that have passed have allowed for vast databases of posts to be captured and made available (to a degree) for historical analysis. The social media channels themselves have grown exponentially meaning that there is more data to be tracked in the first place, ensuring that more niche topics have relevant material rather than just the mainstream brands.

But perhaps the most relevant change in social networks is the way the masses have begun to adopt them as legitimate platforms for communication. When social listening first began, MySpace was a musical-pin-badge used to show off your ‘bloody awesome’ taste in UK Garage. Twitter was only just up and running and generally populated by coders and journalists. These weren’t real people – these weren’t genuine demographic targets. Today though, we see day-to-day conversation taking place between all kinds of social groups, whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook or in the comments section of a video on YouTube. Real people, stating their views in real conversations.

Suddenly the initial function of real-time monitoring has become relevant.
Indeed, at this year’s Social Media Week London, the ‘brand newsroom’ was a persistent buzzword. The ability to run an effective communications control centre was cited by all as the defining feature of an innovative and engaged social media team. LEGO have proved the point perfectly through their commitment to listening to their fans on social and providing them with content to illustrate or encourage at almost every point of contact. Whether it’s an animated Hollywood release or a platform for people to suggest ideas for future model products. At every available opportunity LEGO fans are encouraged to build with LEGO and at every available opportunity, creations from fans – which are quite often nothing less than ‘awesome’ – are shared with the wider fan base in order to inspire and excite.

The fact is, the maturation of the monitoring platform technologies and the maturation of the social network user base have collided to provide brands with a real opportunity for personalized, real-time engagement. Brands can research their audiences like never before by listening to their related conversations. They can interject with meaningful insight, they can resolve customer service issues before an official complaint has been logged. They can interact and discuss the world around them with the people who matter to them most and develop relationships that far exceed the transactional relationship the buyer and seller.

Brands in 2015 will need listen to their markets to inform their social strategy. Beyond that, further listening can help them stand out on a one-to-one basis and allow them to integrate with their most valuable communities. As with video, native advertising and social media as a whole – this is the year that social listening can provide a very real advantage to the brands that choose to use it.

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