The idea of listening to customers and potential customers is nothing new. But as is the case with many pursuits in the digital age, the tools people use are in a steady state of change. This is especially the case in social media, which many businesses have turned to for direct access to customers. As a result, social listening is now important business.
"People are listening because they want to engage directly with customers, they're listening because they want to drive insights that they want to use to make decisions, and they're listening for sales leads," said Altimeter analyst Susan Etlinger.
And that's just scratching the surface. Companies are listening to see how well their marketing campaigns are performing, to get ideas or feedback on products or services, and understand any service issues or product issues.
Here are six key factors to keep in mind when engaging in social listening.
1. Listening must have an outcome
Insight without the ability to act doesn't do much good. Etlinger said it's important to make sure that your toolset or your organization are set up to actually do something with the information gleaned.
"If it stays trapped to the organization, it stays trapped inside your marketing department, it's not going to help," she said.
Jared Feldman, CEO of social insight firm Mashwork calls the current climate the "era of insight." When tackling data, Mashwork emphasizes focusing on a theory to either prove or disprove, and parsing out not only what the data means, but how that information can be used to make decisions within a company.
2. Get the best text processing analytics you can
Language is a tricky thing. Try and explain the logic of being able to use the word "bad" to describe something in a negative or positive sense. Etlinger recommends getting the best text and language processing analytics you can in order to avoid manually coding comments.
"If somebody says, 'Great, I bricked my iPhone,' you don't want to have to pay somebody money to have to code that as negative, when in fact most tools will code it immediately as positive, or they'll code the phrase 'outstanding debt' as positive," she said.
Tampa-based digital marketing agency YMMY Marketing has proprietary scripts that seek out what they call "extraordinary instances," said Digital Marketing & Creative Director Alex Rodríguez.
"They seek those out and create a little bit more of an analysis," he said. YMMY has analysts that check samples to make sure the classifications are reflective of the reality of the comments.
3. Plan to scale
"You have to plan for the reality that people are going to want to see this data who are outside of marketing and corporate communications," Etlinger said. That can include field sales, human resources, clients. She referenced Altimeter research that showed that in enterprises, at least 13 departments can be actively engaged in social media.
"You have a lot of stakeholders already, and you're going to have more," she said.
Feldman said that in his experience, it's also important to consider how to present the data to different departments, keeping in mind that each one might need a different context.
"A big part of data being portable is personalization," he said.
4. Also listen about your competitors
"Part of marketing is never forgetting that there is competition out there," Rodriguez said.
Keeping an eye on how customers are talking about competitors can help you figure out how to turn their weaknesses into your strengths, and that can influence how how you position your business in the market.
For example, Etlinger also suggests monitoring industry conversation. "If you're a small, local community bank, you may not have a lot of mentions of your particular bank name, but people, issues with mortgage lending, and retirement are universal," she said.
5. Broaden your definition of language
Communication is by no means limited to English, and increasingly, it's not even limited to words at all. Abbreviations, emoticons, and other graphics can express a range and depth of opinion that shouldn't be ignored when practicing social listening.
"That's really important, especially if you want to understand what people under the age of 21 are talking about," Etlinger said. Also, she noted that the tendency for people to use visuals means to communicate is not something that's going to fizzle.
"However overwhelmed you are now and however fast it's coming to you now, it's going to be faster," she said.
6. Have a governance policy
Etlinger said companies should make sure that the listening tools aren't scraping websites in unauthorized ways. For example, she said, "You need to make sure they're not collecting personally identifiable information from minors because the government will not take kindly to that."
Along those lines, Rodriguez said YMMY is always careful to make sure the data they collect is what's publically available. "We're not getting our noses into people's private data," he said.
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.