How Much Listening Does Social Media Listening Really Offer?

More cool facts about social media

Social media listening. Social media monitoring. Social media tracking. Social media intelligence.

There are many descriptions of how we can use social media as a listening tool, to complement (or replace) our more interactive approach where we converse too.

While the idea behind social media listening is cool – after all, who doesn’t want to know what’s being said about them, by who and when? – the current tools don’t easily offer the kind of listening that would be really useful.

Listening Data is Still Keyword Driven

Whether it’s free tools (Twitter Search or Google Alerts) or premium offerings, the main issue with social media listening is that it’s still (primarily) driven by keywords.

So, for example, if you wanted to know about your brand, you’d type in something like “brand name”, or – if you want to filter a bit – “brand name + brand service + brand product reviews.”

The latter filter means you can narrow down the keywords to include the types of products or services you sell directly, or just the industry you’re in. This helps you keep tabs on competitors as well as customer pain points.

But it’s this approach where things fall down.

People Are Not Scripted Robots

In an ideal world, we’d be able to search for these keywords in social conversations, and they’d lead us to the Holy Grail of sales. After all, it works for Google on Search, right?

The problem is, people are not conducive when it comes to creating an ideal world for brands to operate in. We’re too human, for a start.

That means we don’t play nicely with scripted conversations and perfect keywords.

Instead, we talk naturally the same way we do offline, and in conversations that – at first glance – have nothing to do with the keywords that we may have keyed into our listening tools filter.

For instance, say my furnace breaks. If I wanted to find someone on search, I’d type in “HVAC companies in my hometown.” That would help me find the right people to get my issue fixed.

However, I’m not necessarily going to go onto Twitter and ask, since my followers probably don’t live in my town, so would struggle to advise me of a reputable company near me.

So, if I’m an HVAC company using listening tools to find new customers, a search for “broken furnace” may or may not be productive for me.

However, if I was smart and could look for natural conversations, I’d be much more likely to gain the lead.

Speaking Comes Naturally

Using the HVAC example, let’s say instead of using the term “my furnace is broken” on Facebook, we’re (as in my friends and I) having a conversation around the topic, but not coming out directly and saying it.

Instead, all I’m saying is “I hate having a cold house, I’m going to have to wear extra long johns!” (or words to that effect).

Having a cold house immediately suggests a heating issue: do I have heaters, can I not afford to switch them on, is my window broken, is my furnace broken (a-ha, the furnace!)?

By filtering a social search for these natural conversations, I’m zoning in on the real issue, versus what I’m hoping someone will be talking about.

I can then reach out and say, “Hi, USER X, we hate cold houses too! Anything we can help with (we’re out of blankets though!)?”

It’s a gentle way to join the conversation, and immediately asking for the sale if there’s a potential sale there.

By ignoring the obvious and scripted keywords, and instead being more intelligent and tracking the natural conversations, we can access so much more information (maybe even the Big Data that everyone is swooning over at the minute).

Additionally, we’re not limiting ourselves to one pain point.

Looking at the results, it could be an opportunity to provide heaters in the first place (retailer), help manage finances better (financial advisor/bank), or fix the window (glazier).

Four opportunities to get involved from one search? Yes please!

Is It This Simple?

It can be. Even without the advanced algorithms that these types of natural searches need to really decipher the content, you can put the legwork in to start identifying the true conversation behind the words.

The trouble with legwork is that many companies and business owners don’t have the resources for that. Nor do they have the finances to pay a solution provider the kind of money these smart algorithms would cost.

But this could be a wake-up call for vendors. After all, if you can provide this kind of smart learning that really benefits all sides (and not just those doing the listening)? Well, that’s the gold right there.

Challenge on.

This post originally appeared on Waxing Unlyrical.

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  1. says

    The fight to use tech to overcome limited resources is part of the issue. Productivity tools have hampered some of our ability to think about what we are doing and why. Scheduling tools help us check out and tune out.

    • says

       @TheJackB Do you think scheduling has hampered true interaction though, or helped increase it? i find myself having more time to engage (sorry, buzzword alert!) due to scheduling posts, as opposed to having to “be there” at every moment.

  2. says

    Interesting post, Danny.  I would have to ask at what expense would it be for a local business to monitor social media platforms versus the ROI time wise though.  Personally, I have found social media better used for interaction with existing customers than to generate new business (using your example, for instance, setting up a campaign for seasonal checkups for air conditioning and heating).

    • says

       @LeoDiMilo There’s a small business here in Ontario, canpetconn , that uses social media very effectively to monitor and track potential opportunities. I guess it comes down to the goal and commitment – does the extra legwork make sense, or can it be spent elsewhere? As the Canadian Pet Connection guys are showing, it can definitely bring results.

  3. benbyu says

    Danny, we heard similar comments from our customers when they tried to listen to or monitor social media for their brand or products. For your example of “HVAC companies in my hometown”, you can use geographic search to get results for your local area only. Your last example is more challenging. Our suggestion to our customers is to start with search. Try different keywords and get a better idea of keywords before monitoring. There is no silver bullet for this and human needs to be part of the game. Well, ROI is a different story, as it needs more some time to understand the conversations.

    • says

       @benbyu That’s definitely the biggest challenge – we will always need humans for the emotion behind a conversation (which determines interest or possible purchase), but the technology is getting there for sure. How advanced and natural it’ll be is another conversation. 😉

  4. says

    The challenge with listening is that we can only listen in on a microfraction of communication. That microfraction is still sizeable and actionable as you bring up some great ways to do so. My view on this is there are ways to gain customers and leads with listening, while maybe not enough to drive your business, it will impact it.
    The real value I find is insights into your business, customers, and competition. With simple listening tools you can see quickly a need for something by your customers, a problem with your product or service, or moves your competition are making allowing you to react faster.

    • says

       @HowieSPM Exactly, mate. So many businesses are using listening for the “wrong” reasons – think to how humans listen (sometimes intently, sometimes slyly, sometimes with selective filters on), and use that information.
      That’s where the next level of sophistication comes into play – the delicacies of emotion and intent based on leading a conversation by subtle wordplay, once you find the initial conversation. Game on. :)

  5. fairuse says

    @skypulsemedia @DannyBrown P.S. Only because listening in social arena requires talking too. Zero talking implies no social interaction.

    • skypulsemedia says

      @fairuse @DannyBrown it can be magic. Like when @Keurig sent me 25lbs of primo @GreenMtnCoffee to stop me from complaining abut the cups jk!

  6. says

    Fascinating subject. And it’s not simple. Some very clever people have been trying to crack semantic understanding for quite a while now, but the vagaries of language are challenging. We don’t do “listening” as such, but we are interested in relevance and influence which allows us to look at a much larger sample of text from a particular person/blog/organisation. Then it is possible to use machine learning techniques to get beyond simple keyword search producing a much better result, but one that could still be very simple for the end user.

    • says

       @HughAnderson Hey there mate,
      It’s these vagaries you mention that are the tricky buggers! Defining whether “sick” is negative and portrays illness, or sick as in “awesome!”. Then you have the slang and unrelated (by search definition) terms…
      But yes, the technology to dive beyond the top 5-6 layers of conversation and really get into the nitty gritty aren’t quite there. Yet… 😉

  7. says

     @Danny Brown I think it is a double edged sword that has helped some people do a better job of being present while making it really easy for others to just check out.

  8. LinesGroup says

    When we talk social listening we know it sounds right and that it’s a buzz word to potential clients but we need to ensure we know what we mean and what we’re delivering. 
    You’re right keywords are it’s basis and this can sometimes be misleading. To take to another level, the level it needs to be on will take time and money. I hear you loud and clear that it works and you site a company who does this very well.
    I’m very aware that we’ve jumped the hurdle of demonstrating the reason ‘why’ to listen and very much hope as an industry we’re skilled enough to show why that listening needs to be taken to the higher level you discuss.

    • says

       @LinesGroup That’s the thing that’s missing currently – the “What Next?” part of the equation, where true Lead Gen and customer acquisition comes into play. Look out for more on this soon… 😉

  9. says

    In short, the lesson is to stop thinking in keywords and to think in phrases that people actually use when engaging in conversations that fit with your products and services. That opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
    I would also suggest using sentence fragments. So someone might not tweet exactly “I’m really fucking cold today” however they might say “cold today”. Granted you’d have to separate the need for cold medicine from an HVAC service, however this gets you closer to your goal.

    • says

       @RobertDempsey We’re doing some stuff over at Jugnoo at the minute that looks at the very suggestions you make here, mate – the fractured conversation is an interesting puzzle, but definitely one that can yield so much. Fun times! :)

  10. JordanSkole says

    @DaveMurr I like it too – but i think he forgets to mention that one needs to be careful not to come off as the @buckle of the internet…

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  13. says

    The only problem with this type of social listening is that it dangerously borders on social eavesdropping and the difference between the two is entirely in the mind of the customer. In the HVAC example you used, if the person has a legitimate furnace issue, you might have a new customer on your hands. But let’s say they’re having a financial crisis instead and their gas is shut off. Coming in and offering your services is going to look slightly predatory in this case and it’s not going to lead to any new customers anyway because the furnace is not the issue at hand and the customer is not in a financial position to have any new work done to their home anyway. You have to be really sure that the customer is going to positively respond to this kind of approach and that means putting on your best detective hat and uncovering as much as you can about the customer and the situation before engaging. I know if I was approached out of the blue by a company, even online, they’d need to offer me something valuable to get my attention or otherwise they’re going to come off as a spammer. 

  14. says

    Can I use the same response I used over there? Of course, you didn’t respond to that one so maybe if I correct the misspelled words this time it might be more inviting, huh?
    Can I concur w/ Gini? Although I probably won’t screen grab anything…..
    How does it look when you wear long johns under your kilt; is that like a new fashion statement or something? 
    Good luck w/ your gig this weekend. 

  15. rdempsey says

    @mjgottlieb @DannyBrown is one guy to pay some attention to for sure. I say “some” because, well, it’s just like that :). Hes’ good people.

  16. says

    I think listening to the buzz around your niche or especially brand is imperative, but scripting auto replies is so far from “social” it’s ridiculous.  I don’t mind and love when I say I have a problem with something and a company contacts me personally and lets me know what they can do, or to give them a try when a “human” contacts me and I always know the difference.  I had a problem with Mailchimp lately and Simplycast noticed my complaints and stepped in on Twitter to offer assistance and see if I could look at their service and see if it met my needs, I did and guess what I now subscribe to them instead of Mailchimp.  So bam, one contact with me over Twitter via reply and they turned me into a customer all because I was frustrated with Mailchimp.  Sure I could have went to “aweber” which everyone else uses, but it was Simplycast who noticed me and reached out, connected and I tend to like trying new things rather than joining the masses anyway.  Why we use Livefyre right? :)Danny, question about your blog, what are you using for the social share on the homepage, where you click and it brings up the ajax with all share and showing how many times, it is incredible and the best I have seen, if it’s a plugin I want to use it, if it’s custom I still want to use it :) 

  17. says

    Listening to the conversation on social media is always going to be less productive than joining in the conversation will be. Search engines will eventually produce more semantic results that can find the synonyms and slang terms that we use in common language. Until it does, this sort of social media marketing strategy will still be just fishing for leads.

  18. says

     @CompanyFolders Completely agree, and this is where educating brands becomes so important (as much as getting buy-in from consumers). The great thing is, it can happen – as @Dragon Blogger mentions in his comment. Best approach? Softly, softly wins the marathon.
    Of course, there could also be another option, where there’s a private community / social bazaar, where users log-in and know that they could be contacted based on conversation. Though that would defeat the purpose of smarter search.

  19. wmougayar says

    I’m not sure I totally agree with that approach. Listening to social media to respond to support issues or customer complaints is one thing, and it’s straight forward, but trying to read the tea leaves from user intent (especially at 140 chars) is a bit risky and subject to a lot of mis-interpretations. You can’t totally rely on software intelligence to do that, and you can’t have a business based on snooping on people’s conversations. The returns are very marginal and fringe related at best. 

    • says

       @wmougayar I’d say Yes and No. 😉
      It’s true – I’m a firm believer that software still needs programming by a human, and often context and the nuances of context can be missed.
      However, I also know that the software is getting better. With the ability to dig into archival data, you can start to build true personas, understand slang and colloquialisms, etc. Once you have that, then modeling the information becomes easier, and the Holy Grail of natural language processing becomes a closer reality.

  20. says

    You’re right. Keyword driven technology is flawed for sure. When it comes down to it, effectively managing a social media campaign is a lot of work, and you’re going to spend a lot of time doing it regardless of the tools and technology you use.

  21. wmougayar says

     @Danny Brown Don’t get me wrong…What you have described is an honorable goal to achieve and there are companies focused on this type of analysis. My company (Engagio) is focused on exposing the social and online conversations from engaged users, so if you put the keyword-search paradigm aside, the starting point is the communities and people that are discussing the related topics. Then, serendipity leads you to building relationships that matter.