The Power of Social Listening

Listening to your customers and potential customers is a huge part of marketing.

, The Power of Social Listening


But have you heard of social listening?

Brooke Sellas from B Squared Media explains what social listening is, why it’s a powerful tool, and what kind of insights you can glean to help decide what kind of content to create.

, The Power of Social Listening

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • What social listening is and how it works with AI and machine learning
  • The types of insights you can glean from social listening
  • How to set up a plan to get ROI out of the tool
  • Why clicks are an overlooked metric

Related Sites/Links:


Amanda:   Welcome to Cashing in on Content Marketing. Each week, marketing experts will explain how to measure your content marketing results and communicate that value to stakeholders. I’m your host Fractl Marketing Director, Amanda Milligan. I’m really excited this week to have Brooke Sellas on the show. She is the founder and CEO of a social media management and advertising agency called B Squared Media, and the co-host of The Marketing Companion podcast. Welcome to the show, Brooke.


Brooke:   Hey, Amanda, thanks so much for having me.


Amanda:   Of course, I’m really excited to get into some of the social side of things. What we’re going to talk about today is this concept of social listening that you have spoken about recently, and that I’m really excited to hear about and hopefully the listeners too, because I think that this is going to be an additional way that people can hopefully build a case for the work that they want to do, and help them themselves come up with a strategy in the first place. So to kick things off, what is social listening? How do you describe this concept to people?


Brooke:   Yeah, so that’s a great start. So when we think about social listening, I think the first thing that people need to understand is that social listening is a tool. It involves tools, and those tools utilize artificial intelligence. So I like to start with artificial intelligence and machine learning definitions. So if you don’t know what artificial intelligence is, you have been hiding under a rock, but it is software that mimics human intelligence. That’s the best way we can describe artificial intelligence. And when you dig deeper and you go into machine learning, machine learning is where the machine actually writes its own code based on the data that it’s given. So with artificial intelligence, we – the humans – are giving the machine a task. With machine learning, the machine is kind of taking those tasks that you’ve given it and saying, oh, based on these tasks that you’ve asked me to do, I’ve come up with this thing, which can be very helpful with these tasks, but it taught itself essentially how to bring that information back to you. So that’s how I start. 


But going back to social listening, it’s software that we use to gather data, analyze it, and learn from it with minimal human interaction. So if you think about your social media team, whether that’s one person or 20 people, the amount of time it would take them to go out and listen to conversations, which is essentially what the AI is doing for certain keywords or keyword phrases, would take basically 24/7/365, whereas we can ask the machine to go out and do it for us and it literally happens in seconds or in real time. So the AI is able to parse numerous social media databases, websites, forums, and for human marketers, it would be like drinking from a firehose. It would just literally be impossible for us to get all of that work done through human capital. So that’s why social listening is so important because it really makes the human team much smarter based on utilizing machines and their capabilities. Does that make sense? 


Amanda:   It does. Yeah. I mean, it certainly sounds like it makes it a lot easier, like this gigantic task is distilling it down to something that’s a little more palatable for people.


Brooke:   Yeah. So I mean, I think sometimes with the way AI is presented to us with some of the articles that have come out and what not, it sounds scary. Like a lot of articles are like AI is here to take your job and the robots are taking over. But that’s not really how I look at artificial intelligence. And really, the way we talk about artificial intelligence at B Squared Media is we call it human-centered AI, because what we believe is that yes, the machines are way faster. They’re way smarter, they can do a lot more than us, but they’re really just like data fetchers. We still have to be the data scientists, and we still have to look at what the machine is bringing back to us and then make that actionable for the client. So the human is very important in this process.


Amanda:   So what are some examples just for people who aren’t familiar with this concept of the types of insights you can glean from using something like this?


Brooke:   Yeah. So what’s really interesting about social listening is that it really takes you from what to why, so if we take a step back and we look at social monitoring, which is where you have a Twitter page and someone mentions your brand on Twitter, and then you respond. That’s monitoring what. That tells you the what of what’s happening online. Social listening can kind of go in and tell you the why, and it’s proactive versus reactive. So monitoring, we’re reactive. We’re waiting for people to reach out to us; listening is proactive. We’re going out and figuring out why people are talking to us. So think about it that way, the three areas that we really focus on with our clients and their social listening projects are brand intelligence, industry intelligence and competitive intelligence, or we say we use the BIC method, so BIC – brand, industry, and competitive, and we went through and we talked to a bunch of other marketers on each of those areas, and we asked them what are your top three concerns when it comes to brand, when it comes to industry, when it comes to competitors? And they gave us very commonly asked questions or themes around those certain sections, and then how we came up with our process for social listening. Of course, you can go beyond that, but we really looked at some of those FAQs based on those three areas to start a program for social listening, if that makes sense.


Amanda:   Yeah, I love this concept of being more proactive than reactive, right? It’s not like seeing the trends that are happening in real time or perhaps haven’t even happened yet, but you can see them starting, rather than seeing what’s already been popular.


Brooke:   Yeah, so like with brand intelligence, for instance, one of the number one questions I bet you could even guess, that people want to know is what kind of experience are our customers having? How do they feel about our brand? And so if we were to take that and turn it into an example, we have a client who is luxury appliance brand, and they sell very expensive coffee machines, so expensive that I don’t have one, and what we wanted to understand was how do people feel about this, not only about the brand, but about this particular product of the product line. Using social listening, what we started to see was that people were mentioning the products without necessarily mentioning the brand and this is why again –  I’ll just put this little golden nugget out there – this is why listening is so important because a lot of times people are already talking about your products or services online, but they’re not necessarily doing that by mentioning the brand or using your hashtag. So the machine is going out and finding these conversations for you, and then bringing them back so that you can be proactive about what’s being said. 


In this particular case, the coffee machine was being talked about negatively, but it hadn’t come to light yet on the brand side. We actually kind of found this very early on, and what we found was that people were having a really hard time changing the filter in their very expensive coffee machine. When we went back to the client, we said, Look, this is just starting to bubble up online. It’s a negative sentiment about this coffee maker. What are you currently doing to help people understand how to change the coffee filter? And they said, Oh, we have this really amazing service manual that goes out with every coffee machine. And we were like, Great, let’s see it, and it was about the size of the Yellow Pages books that had a phone number to everything pre-Internet, and we were like, hey, so that’s not really helpful. Nobody’s gonna read that. How about we create a video and put it on the product page on the website that shows how to change the coffee filter. And then once they were able to review with us and get this piece of content up, not only did we see the negative sentiment, – so sentiment, again, just in case you don’t know, is the positive, neutral or negative measurement of a conversation or a topic that’s happening online. So this particular topic was for this brand, and specifically about this coffee maker. And the sentiment was mostly negative because when we dug in, it had to do with this filter. 


So as we put the video out, what we saw was not only did the negative sentiment decrease, the positive sentiment increased, because it’s a lovely machine and it makes amazing coffee. They just had frustrations around this filter. So you can assume that not only did we solve this pain point for the customer through social listening by decreasing negative sentiment, but when people are talking about positively peer-to-peer about a product, what usually ends up happening is organic purchases through peer-to-peer recommendation. So we kind of solved the problem in several different ways for them, just with social listening. Does that make sense?


Amanda:   Yeah, it’s funny because when you were first talking about this, I was thinking about kind of a broad scale, like looking at trends and things that are talked about just in content, maybe more top of the funnel. So this is a really interesting example of how you can get really into product and brand and find specific things that can make a huge difference to the overall sentiment, like you’re saying. It’s very interesting.


Brooke:   Yeah, huge difference. So I mean, that’s just one example in brand intelligence, where people are constantly asking questions like how is my brand doing? How do people feel about my brand? What are customer experiences like? The campaigns that we’re running, which of those have had the most positive or the most negative impact on our customers? Things like that are things that we look for with social listening, inside of brand intelligence?


Amanda:   So I think you’d mentioned in your talk that if you’re going to compare something like this to keyword research, for example, what kind of perks does this have over doing something a little more standard in terms of research, like searching for keywords and their volume and popularity?


Brooke:   Yeah. So this is definitely like keyword research; I would just say it’s keyword research on steroids, because usually when we’re talking about keyword research, where we’re using tools to help us based on certain keywords, keyword phrases, and they may or may not be able to bring back certain information from certain platforms, whereas listening is really looking at the Internet as a whole. I mean, some caveats would be and this would be the same with a research tool. Facebook has more of a private API. So depending on the person who it’s talking about, let’s just say the coffee filter, in a negative way, if they had their profile set to private and depending on their privacy settings, you may not be able to see that conversation. But if it wasn’t private, if that person’s profile was public, you would, and the proactiveness behind social listening, or at least the way we use it, we use Sprout Social for our listening platform. And because we use Sprout Social, and it’s also a management dashboard for social media, once those conversations come through, they immediately hit our inbox, and we can immediately join in on the conversation, flag it for something later, flag it to be added to a report, flag it as an influencer who needs following up on. So I think the smartest way I guess I would say to use social listening would be in conjunction with a management tool, because that then allows you to go full cycle on your social media efforts. Does that make sense?


Amanda:   Yeah, I’m glad you went in that direction, because I was going to ask if people are listening and they find this fascinating, what do they actually do? They’re like, AI is intimidating, but I really want to do this. What type of tool should they use or so? Sprout Social? That’s good to know that that’s one of the pieces of that. Is there anything else you would say to somebody who kind of wants to dive into this process?


Brooke:   Again, if you’re kind of comparing this to keyword research, one of the things that social listening can do that normal keyword research would not be able to do is to bring you that sentiment score on those particular keyword or keyword phrases. So again, you can drill into the positive, neutral and negative mentions that are happening around that keyword and keyword phrase, and then do things like adjust your content accordingly to make sure that you’re a larger part of the conversation in those positive areas. You can look at competitors and what their negative sentiment keyword and keyword phrases would be, so that you can start to come up with a campaign where you could differentiate yourself from your competitor. So if you were a shoe company, and you saw that a company who has similar shoes to you has terrible laces, and people are always complaining about the laces breaking or getting dirty or whatever it is, maybe you create a better lace for the similar shoe and it’s at a cheaper price point, and then that’s what you use as a differentiation campaign. So I mean, literally you could go in any direction with social listening. I don’t think there’s a direction we haven’t gone in. It can take you everywhere. So I think the powers of social listening are literally limitless.


Amanda:   I’m sure that’s very exciting for people to hear so much opportunity there. I think it’s obvious the implications they can have for building a strategy, like you’re saying, and covering some of these things that you’re discovering about your own brand and the way people see the brand, but also the way they see their competitors and finding those opportunities there. So in addition to building a strategy, I think part of why I was really excited to talk to you is because I think that this type of stuff can also be used to justify the strategy. There’s few things more compelling than being able to show evidence for why you’re deciding to go in a certain direction with your content. So have you had experience – probably with your own clients, so I would assume – explaining what you discovered, and why it’s so important and why that content needs to be developed?


Brooke:   Yeah. So one really great example I have is a jewelry client who we did an audience project with, and this was early on in their stages. It was a celebrity, and she had launched a jewelry line. And they just kind of wanted confirmation on who they said their audience was. And they called their audience their girl. And they swore up and down to us that their audience was 18 to 24. Their girl was 18 to 24. And so all of their messaging and content and imagery really was speaking to that 18 to 24 audience and as we dug into the product, we asked them, how did you figure out that this was your audience, and they told us that they had looked out on their social platforms, so they use Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, looked at all those platforms to look at their followers and figure out who the biggest age group was, which was 18 to 24. And if you use that information, and I’m not saying that’s bad information, that is wonderful information, but that’s not the whole picture. So if we’re looking at strategy and understanding audience is probably like the baseline of any strategy with social media, we really have to look at the whole picture. So using social listening information, we looked at who was actually talking about her jewelry line and her products using keywords and keyword phrases, and then we also because we were helping them with advertising, looked at their purchase information. When we stacked the follower information on top of the listening and conversation information on top of the purchase information, what we actually found was that only 10% of her audience was actually buying from her through social media at the 18 to 24 group. 90% of her social audience that were purchasers, so not only followers, but purchasers, were the two larger age groups of 35 to 44 and 25 to 34. So she was basically leaving out 90% of her audience just focusing on that younger messaging and imagery.


Amanda:   That is such a huge discovery for a brand, obviously. That’s crazy. And I think that speaks really well to how you might know something or think you know something, it’s always good to have the data to back it up, and this is a really good method to achieving that because how could they argue with that at that point.


Brooke:   No, you can’t. Again, we had very big data sets and you have to use what you have. So listen, if you’re just starting out or if you don’t have the budget for tools or advertising, then absolutely, you have to go with follower data. You have to go with that low hanging fruit, but because she had the funds and the budget and really needed to understand her audience better to sell more jewelry through e-commerce, we really needed to understand if the problem is I need more people to buy, the solution is who is buying now. Finding out who is buying now and we couldn’t do that just through the follower information. We really wanted to look at that purchase data, and then stack that with who’s really talking the most. Through social listening and artificial intelligence, we were able to see who’s talking the most, not necessarily to her but about her, about her jewelry line and we set up keywords and keyword phrases on her jewelry products to find that out. 


So again, stacking those three data sets on top of each other is how we were able to get a bigger picture answer of hey, guess what? Your audience is much older so maybe we should start to talk about how you’re a mom, talk about how you’re a business owner, some of those things would really resonate very well with those older groups, and it’s information that you have in front of you right now. So it’s just tweaking the messaging a little bit to connect more with your buying audience, and then hopefully, that would turn into more purchases.


Amanda:   It sounds like from all of your examples, people aren’t going to just say like, Okay, I’m doing social listening now and just generally putting feelers out there for various things. It sounds like it might be more efficient to have these theories, but you already have in mind, or assumptions that you’ve already believed to be true, that maybe you can refute or prove or what have you, does that generally help guide the process?


Brooke:   Yeah, well, for me, anytime a client comes to us and they have a starting point, I always feel good. I always felt 10 times better about the project and the client because we have somewhere to go. We have something that we’re trying to prove or disprove or beat if you’re looking at increasing certain KPIs or what not, but I would say, yeah, you don’t want to be like social listening. It’s the cool new thing. I’m going to go use it and then not have a plan. Because it’s not inexpensive. It’s not extremely expensive, but I wouldn’t say it’s cheap. And so if you go in and you spend this money, you better have a plan to figure out how you’re going to use it to make sure that you capture your own return on investment on this tool, because again, it doesn’t cost nothing. So I want to know that if I’m spending XYZ on the tool, or if the client spending XYZ on the tool, that we’re able to show some sort of direct or indirect return on investment for using that tool. So we need to be solving some kind of problem or upping some kind of strategy or showing better audience numbers, and then once we found those audience members, helping them improve their return on ad spend kind of thing. So it may answer one thing right now, like the audience is not this, it’s this, and then hopefully after that, the proof would be direct dollar for dollar, because then we could take that information, switch our messaging around and see if ecommerce sales improved thereafter.


Amanda:   It’s like you said at the beginning, this is a tool or a tactic. It’s not going to immediately solve your problems. You have to use it in order to solve something that you’re already kind of have in mind. 


Brooke:   Right. And that’s why the humans so important. I mean, this is why we call it human centered AI, because the machine is wonderful, and it can go and bring us all of this information, but it took our super smart humans working with the super smart machines to kind of go back and say, okay, and based on what the data is telling us, here’s where we think you should go. You should tweak your messaging and how about this, this and this. The machine doesn’t come back and go, Oh, yeah, she should totally talk about how she’s a mom or how she owns a business, or how to juggle being a mom and owning a business. The creative side isn’t going to come from the machine. You have to have the data scientists or the creative people on the back end to help make the machines as wonderful as they are,


Amanda:   Which is a relief, you know? I actually have kind of a more zoomed-out question for you. 


Brooke:   Sure. 


Amanda:   Because something you said earlier about if all you have to work with are the followers, that’s good, but if you can dig deeper, that’s probably better. And that got me thinking just in general, since you specialize in social and we don’t do as much social at our agency, so I’m always fascinated by this stuff. Do you think that there are social metrics that are often overlooked when it comes to proving the ROI of a campaign or piece of content, or what have you that could provide more value than people realize?


Brooke:   Yes, I definitely do. So you know, I feel like this is probably very well known that typically clients and people using social media marketing in their marketing strategy, or as a part of their marketing strategy are always focused on or very often focused on vanity metrics. So how many followers, how many likes, how many comments, how many shares, and those – other than followers? You know, yes, engagement is very important, so likes, comments, shares, but a lot of people tend to forget how important clicks are. And when you think about certain industries, clicks are actually more important, because I’ll give you an example. 


We have a client who is a gastro group. It’s a group of doctors who deal with things like cirrhosis of the liver, colon cancer, hemorrhoids, conversations that you’re not going to be sitting there sharing and engaging, and liking and having a conversation about these types of problems on your Facebook page. So engagement rate is very low for this particular client. However, because we share such informative content, what we really look at is clicks and they have an extremely high amount of people clicking through the content to go read the information that we’re putting out there, which is very good, because their whole purpose is about educating their community about these particular diseases and what not that come along with gastro stuff. So I think you really have to sit back and understand not only your brand and what you’re trying to achieve, but then also understanding that audience. So understanding that people aren’t going to feel comfortable talking about Hep C. publicly on a Facebook page, but if they’re clicking through to read the information, and then clicking through on that to do a form fill, or call the office to book an appointment for a colonoscopy or whatever it may be, that is still very, very, very important and it’s showing that our strategy is working,


Amanda:   Right. It’s the classic thing that we say in marketing, or it depends and you have to customize it based on your own brand, because it’s true and it’s hard too. You can’t just blanket say these are the things you need to look at.


Brooke:   But it is true. I mean, if they would have come to me and said we want 10,000 followers, I would be like you’re a very small gastro group in Huntington County, New Jersey. We’re not going to get you to 10,000 actual followers from this community because there aren’t 10,000 people in this community. They were smart enough to say, Look, we know. We’re probably not going to be talking to people about their acid reflux right here on the Facebook page. However, we would like to be as informative as possible, and to give enough great information that people book an appointment with us or call us, or at least fill out a form for more information kind of thing, and so we were able to then create all of our KPIs around those guidelines and then prove success for the client. Even though they have a very small following and engagement rate wise, it doesn’t look like they’re very active. They’re getting crazy amounts of clicks, which is exactly what we know we need.


Amanda:   No, it’s a great reminder. You really don’t hear clicks talked about as much as social. You hear a lot like you said those vanity metrics. So it’s a good reminder that it really depends on what your goal is through social, what are you trying to achieve with it, and how are you going to measure that.  Definitely a good baseline to have.


Brooke:   Yeah, like if you’re Charmin and you’re selling toilet paper, you may not have a ton of conversation happening about your toilet paper. I mean, maybe you can. I’m not saying you can’t try, but it may be more about clicks versus all out conversations about ripples or no ripples.


Amanda:   Now I want to go check one of their Facebook pages and see what’s happening over there.


Brooke:   This is interesting. Yeah, I was just thinking to myself, I wonder if there is conversation. I mean, there may be, because I’m very particular about my toilet paper, but I don’t know that I would have like a full on conversation about it.


Amanda:   Well, now I have homework after this.


Brooke:   Running out to get an increase on Google on toilet paper social media.


Amanda:   So we’re already nearing the end of the episode. Something I ask every guest that’s on the show is, do you think there’s a common mistake that people often make when they’re pitching a content idea or content strategy to their stakeholders? Do you think that there’s something that people often overlook when they try to make the case like that?


Brooke:   I mean, I think for me, with content, especially – and don’t get mad at me, everybody listening – but I think a lot of people make content decisions based on gut and not enough data. So for us, it’s really about – even if the client is not using listening and we use our own listeners to really like dig in and find out what’s being said in the conversations that are happening, looking at the brand, the industry and their competitors to dig it and find out where are some of those sweet spots with content, because everybody knows this, I think content so saturated, it’s so hard to break through. So you really can’t make any decisions on content based on gut. It really has to be data driven, and that’s I think just another really great reason to potentially use social listening. If content is really important to you, you’re going to have to try to find a way to get your content seen, which is becoming harder and harder and harder. And so I think using tools like artificial intelligence or social listening can really help you get more data to help you make more data-driven decisions with your content and then help you complete that KPI. 


Amanda:   Absolutely. So the other thing I ask everybody is knowing the objective of the show, do you have any recommendations for people who should be future guests?


Brooke:   Oh my gosh, I have so many.


Amanda:   I’d love to hear that.


Brooke:   The top two that are top of mind for me right now, and they have a podcast together, are Katie Robbert and Kerry Gorgone, and they do Punch Out podcast with Katie and Kerry, and they are just… I I love their podcast, but separately and together, they’re just two of the most lovely ladies and they’re so smart. You know, Kerry works for Marketingprofs, and Katie is the CEO of Trust Insights and they do a lot of AI work and predictive analytics. So I just think they’re at the forefront of everything that’s going on. They know a bunch of people; they know a bunch of things; they are super smart and they’re funny. They’re fun to be around – smart and fun. That’s the best combination. 


Amanda:   Yeah, it really is, especially for a podcast. You’ve been wonderful. I would love to have future guests here.  It’s just fun having conversations.


Brooke:   Yeah, agreed. And I think more conversations need to be had. We get in our little bubble and we have our head down and we’re working so hard, and then the next shiny thing pops up, which happens like every other minute and it’s hard sometimes to find the time, but I think it’s important have these conversations with other people because they’re going to tell you what they’re seeing in their bubble. And then if you put enough bubbles together, you can get a better view of what’s happening in our space. 


Amanda:   I know. It’s good to poke your head above the water every now and then. I think conferences are good for that, too. I think that’s the whole podcast feel for a lot of people. They’re like, What the hell’s going on anywhere else? I haven’t looked in a while. And it’s just like a quick way to hear these really great insights from people who work in all different aspects of marketing. So thank you so much for being on the show. You’ve provided a lot of really great insight. 


Brooke:   Thank you so much. Appreciate it. Thank you for having me. And you know, if you have any social listening questions, hit me up on Twitter is my favorite platform. So I prefer you hit me up there, but you can literally Google my name Brooke Sellas, S-E-L-L-A-S, and there’s an E on the end of Brooke, or you can go to You can find where I am and like I said, hit me up. Pepper me away with questions and I’ll be sure to set it straight for you.


Amanda:   And I’ll be sure to link to your social profiles in the show notes. So thank you again Brooke. It was a pleasure having you. 


Brooke:   Thanks, Amanda. 


Amanda:   For more insights and exclusive resources on how to justify content marketing, join our email newsletter by going to F-R-A-C. T-L, clicking on our work, and then podcast. See you next week.

One thought on “The Power of Social Listening

  1. Angela Benford says:

    I just listened to this cast on social listening for a writing project I am researching, and I just found it “funny” that the discussion went to toilet paper companies not really having a social media presence, and how the laughter was so genuine. And then… It would be interesting to see how the “talk” started and expanded about toilet paper. 🙂

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