What Is Social Listening? A Definition, Tips & Best Practices

The name ‘social listening’ might be a slightly misleading. Because, while “listening” implies passive activity, social listening is a very active, very proactive, very strategic kind of deal.

Indeed, social listening might be one of the most important, most consistently active, most ever-evolving strategies your brand handles.

So, what is social listening?

What is social listening?

Social listening is proactive, overarching brand strategy

First, let’s say what it’s not: Social listening is not the same as social monitoring. It would be an easy leap, to assume that social listening is the practice of listening in on what people are saying on social media, but in social media industry parlance, that’s social monitoring.

Social listening, on the other hand, takes monitoring a few steps further: social listening analyzes what you’ve discovered in social monitoring, and expands this out into the macro social world, to develop a better social strategy for your brand.

Social monitoring is reactive, while social listening is proactive.

In other words, social media monitoring is micro-strategy – addressing your customers (and critics) on a case-by-case, individual basis – while social media listening is macro-strategy, using social monitoring to uncover trends and tendencies, and working to understand how your brand is viewed, discussed, and understood on social media.

Best practices in social listening

It can take some time to get a handle on social listening. After all, it’s macro-strategy, which takes time, understanding, practice, and more time to perfect.

While you’re waiting for all that time to pass, here are some best practices to fast-forward your wait:

  1. Listen on the right channels. There’s nothing worse than pouring your social efforts into a dead end, so before you devote your energies to a channel, be sure that channel fits your buyer personas – whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or some combination, you want to listen on the platforms where your target customers are hanging out.
  2. Collaborate. Think only a social media professional should converse on your brand’s social media? Wrong. Involve all your departments, from your product gurus and marketers, to your bloggers and customer service reps. Let everyone be the master of his or her own wheelhouse and boom! Your social accounts just became expert council.
  3. Monitor. We know, we just got through telling you that social listening is more than social monitoring. But monitoring is a big part of social listening, because it lets you know where the conversations are (and what they’re about). So, monitor your heart out and then, let the data direct your social listening efforts.
  4. Build benchmarks. Long-term (and even medium-term) social monitoring will help you establish your brand’s “normal,” in terms of social behaviors and interactions. Once you know where you are, you’ll be equipped to plot your path to new and better goals.
  5. Make it so. (aka, Engage.) Engagement is at the heart of any good social media strategy. So, do so – engage. But, do it well. Not all conversation opportunities should be taken. Yes, respond immediately to customer inquiries and complaints. Yes, apologize quickly when necessary. But, DO NOT immediately jump into the fray (aka a social inquiry) with blatant self-promotionDon’t get political, unless you’re willing to embrace the fallout. Don’t horn your way into every conversation. Be cool.
  6. Mimic the best. If imitation is the best form of flattery, then this is the moment to flatter your favorites. You can either mimic your competitors or hone in on the social accounts you really love – anyone who’s doing the whole shebang well, consistently, and over the long-term. Look to accounts that engage with their followers and, even more importantly, whose followers engage with them.

Tips to improve your social listening

What is social listening-min

Now that you understand why social listening matters, and what practices comprise a strong social media strategy, you may be wondering how to get started. There’s an app for that.

Enable social monitoring

No, really. Because our first tip is to get started with social monitoring, which is a built-in feature of many of the best social media management tools available today. Because before you can listen – that is, before you can use the data to develop a better social engagement strategy – you need to monitor, so you know where, what, and how social media users are discussing your brand.

Track metrics

Tracking numbers may feel tedious, but it’s an exceptionally important part of your social listening equation. Without numbers, you won’t have benchmarks. Without numbers, you won’t be able to track improvements. Without numbers, you won’t see what works and what doesn’t. Don’t neglect tools like Facebook Audience Insights and Instagram Analytics, which can provide valuable insight into what topics are resonating most with your audience based on likes, comments, and other engagement metrics.

Look at the big picture

Pull online and offline purchase behaviors. Talk to your marketing department. Check in with your webmaster (re: what content does best). Pull everything, from every relevant department, together to best understand how social (and people, in general) influences your bottom line.

Be timely

No, we’re not talking about in your responses. (Again, responding to specific users is a function of social monitoring.) Timeliness in social listening allows you to get ahead of holidays, festivals, trends and other time-sensitive moments, so your content reflects what people are searching for, before they even start searching.


The most important ingredient in the engagement recipe is meaningful connection: strive to connect with social media users on a human level. Don’t be a brand; be a person, first and foremost.

Be flexible

Above all, realize that social requires brands to be nimble. And we’re not talking about just quick typing; we mean that you may have to react to situations well – yes, quickly, but also with humor, empathy, and generosity. In everything you do, let your brand values shine through.

Just getting started with social listening?

If your brand is just jumping into the social listening game, you may not be ready to pony up for some of the pricey (but totally worth-their-cost) apps and tools available. If that’s where you’re at, then check out our list of the best free social media management tools, complete with robust social listening features. And be sure to let your social media following grow freely with follow buttons before you implement your best new social listening practices.

About ShareThis

ShareThis has unlocked the power of global digital behavior by synthesizing social share, interest, and intent data since 2007. Powered by consumer behavior on over three million global domains, ShareThis observes real-time actions from real people on real digital destinations.

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