The future of ‘social listening’


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It’s no secret that social media can be used to follow conversations between consumers. To capitalize on this trend, many companies have invested in all manner of systems ranging from simple to complex. Monitoring online conversations is becoming common practice and many companies have adapted their organization so they are able to react quickly and efficiently to customer questions and complaints.

Social listening will come of age over the next few years and much can still be done to take social listening to the next level. This article examines the cornerstones of social listening in the future.

Putting theory into practice – in this article as well

In writing this article I wanted to try and put the theory into practice. I asked my followers on Twitter for feedback on the rough draft of this article. There was quite a bit of response and I wanted to share the input and reactions with you in this article.

I’d like to thank everyone who devoted their time and energy to helping me write this story. Thanks to Wilco Eindhoven (communication advisor Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment), Stefan Schippers (, Edwin Vlems (speaker), Lie Lauwers (Nieuw Administratief Centrum), Bart De Waele (Wijs), Frank Plehiers (ING), Anne van den Berg (Lumido Business Media BV), Leentje Chavatte (Telenet), Ruben van Loosbroek (Rabobank), Joyce Philippart (Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce), Katolina Dijkstra (ING), Jan Homble (VRT), Davy Kestens (Twitspark), Stijn Tanghe (Kortrijk City Council), Bob Rietveld (Oxyme), Erik Versteeg (Viamens Executive Management Services), Dado Van Peteghem (Dearmedia).

Setting your goals: why invest in social listening?

Social listening is interesting for any organization, be they profit or non-profit, or private or government. Online listening can bring a government closer to its citizens in the same way that a company gets closer to its customers. Regardless of the context, it is key to think about what you’re trying to achieve with social listening. Ruben Van Loosbroeck (Rabobank) rightly remarked that social listening often involves a significant investment, hence the importance of proving its relevancy and realizing its potential.
goals of social listening

The goals of social listening can be broken down into four distinct categories:

  • Enhancing knowledge. Online listening increases the level of knowledge within the organization. Collecting feedback and gaining new insights deepens your organization’s knowledge of the market. In turn, this should lead to better decision making.
  • Adding the C-feeling to your company culture. Frank Plehiers of ING is right in adding that social listening is not the responsibility of a team; the entire company should be listening in. Getting everyone involved heightens the C(onsumer)-feeling. Companies often make decisions based on gut feeling. Social listening introduces consumer-feeling in the decision process.
  • PR and building a reputation. Reactive and proactive listening and actually doing something with the feedback establish an emotional connection between company and customer. Simply being human and taking an interest in customers can make a valuable contribution to your organization’s reputation.
  • Lifting the customer service as a whole to a higher level. Today, the number of customer queries posted on Twitter and Facebook is still inferior to the number of mails and telephone calls. Thanks to improved service in the online channels, customers now also expect better service from the traditional channels. Davy Kestens (CEO Twitspark) states that, in the future, the evolution of social media will force all customer service channels to go real-time. In other words, online listening may act as an accelerant for an improved service throughout the company.

The future of social listening: 4 cornerstones

There are four different approaches to lifting social listening to the next level. All four fulfill different objectives and require a different approach.
4 approaches in social listening

Customer service & reputation management
Social listening is obviously just another form of customer service. Customers talk and complain about brands. They ask questions of and about brands. It goes without saying that the brand must reply. On the one hand, the object is to provide customer service but reputation management is also a big part of it. After all, the number of people putting questions to companies on social media is fairly limited in comparison with other channels. Customer service via social networks is not ready to replace the traditional service channels yet but it is a factor in building a company’s reputation. Katolina Dijkstra from ING webcare confirms that “offering customer service on social media does have a major impact on a company’s reputation. Apart from the mere presence on social media, speed is also important. A speedy reaction is not only a show of commitment but it also keeps things from escalating and it shows your customer (and all other onlookers) he/she is being taken seriously. Customer evaluations include exceptionally high scores (average NPS +30) and this definitely contributes to a positive word of mouth and, in turn, this has a positive effect on your reputation.” Edwin Vlems remarked that a more human and original brand of customer care can boost a company’s reputation. The recent cases of NS and KLM/Coolblue are the perfect example. Leentje Chavatte of Telenet adds an extra dimension to this objective. Companies can use online listening and webcare as an early warning system. The online listening team is often the first to hear about problems.

Structural collaboration

The final step consists of actively involving a portion of your customers in your organization. Not every customer is willing to give active feedback but some are. Inviting people to collaborate often yields surprising and enriching insights you would otherwise miss out on. Let the customers inspire and advise you. Last year, the Journal of Product Innovation Management published an article by Marion K. Poetz and Martin Schreier entitled “The Value of Crowdsourcing: Can Users Really Compete with Professionals in Generating New Product Ideas?”. The conclusion was clear: during an innovation cycle, consumers come up with ideas that are more innovative than those of the managers present. The managers were better at elaborating realistic ideas. With this in mind, it is extremely enriching to involve customers in the initial part of the innovation cycle.

This means that, as a company, you have to adopt a proactive attitude and take the initiative to find new insights. Katolina Dijkstra of ING sees untapped potential: “It is extremely useful to take an active approach to customers who are enthusiastic about your company and like to brainstorm about your products. Their input is very enriching and can lead to new insights. We had a fine example at our company recently when our CEO entered into a discussion with customers on the subject of online and mobile service. This resulted in practical tips that enabled us at ING to take the next step”.

Predicting consumer behavior
Every day, consumers leave clues on social networks as to their own consumption behavior and aspirations. The trick is being able to use these tips to predict future behavior. More and more companies try to assess the potential of a new product beforehand. Social listening also means managing online data and even linking it to the available offline data in order to predict the future. This also implies that social listening should not be hidden away in some digital department. Instead, the available data should be processed centrally. This way, the online data can be linked to sales parameters and this enhances the credibility of online listening.

Unmet needs

Companies must use social listening to look for answers to the questions they’re not asking. I don’t mean every conversation should be analyzed individually; instead this should be done on an aggregated level. Search for deeper connections in order to formulate new product ideas. Look for structural improvements to existing products. Eventually social listening should enable companies to discover unmet customer needs and thereby strengthen the bond with those customers. Bob Rietveld adds that the combination of qualitative data (reading individual comments) and quantitative data (statistical summary) is the best way of discovering unmet needs.

Stefaan Schippers (beep) divides them into two categories: explicit listening (customer service & collaboration) and implicit listening (predictable consumer & unmet needs). The latter two are undoubtedly the hardest forms of listening.

The difficulty: consumers don’t tell you everything

Social listening comes with one major flaw: people don’t tell you everything. This is how Bart De Waele (Wijs) describes it: “(Sometimes) there is a difference between what people say in public (on social media) and what they actually do. Take listening to and sharing of music, for instance. We share the music that is meant to make a statement to our network but secretly we also listen to music that is less accepted in our social circle (and which, therefore, we don’t share). I listen to R&B and hip hop on Spotify but every once in a while I disable my social sharing and listen to Bollywood music”.

Hence the necessity of adding Google as a source for our social listening strategy. Facebook may know what we’re saying but Google knows what we are thinking. The latter is probably just a tad more powerful. Add Google data to the listening data to also collect implicit knowledge.

Nevertheless, according to Jan Hombre (VRT), social listening cannot replace traditional market research: “Social media are not past their prime. I assume there is still room for growth, so it will be a challenge to handle these data properly and draw the right conclusions. Regardless, social media analysis can and should never replace thorough market research and the reality of sales figures”. This is a pertinent remark. Market research and social listening are complimentary sources to better understand the consumer. Still, Davy Kestens (Twitspark) qualifies that statement: “I think that, depending on your target audience, social listening can occasionally replace traditional market research on condition that your market is the same as the socially active market”.

The lack of a holistic approach to customer management is a threat

Social listening can only have an impact if a company’s organization is tailored to it. Many companies are already experimenting with one or several of the above-mentioned elements. Unfortunately, I can only think of a handful of companies that centralize the accumulated knowledge before translating their strategy into action. Leentje Chavatte is right in stating that often it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. For a company, social listening only offers a significant advantage when a more targeted approach to predictions can be taken. In other words, an untargeted search is less successful than a targeted one.

You need someone to follow up and manage customer relations through a holistic approach in order to make the investments pay off.

Success factor: action and feedback

There is one final, crucial success factor: taking action. Listening for the sake of listening is essentially pointless. Listening should lead to the kind of insight that allows a company to make better decisions. A C-level ambassador is obviously an enormous help in this respect. Once the importance of social listening (and customer-centric thinking) is adopted by the top level, the number of possibilities often grows.

Apart from taking action, giving feedback to customers is also important. When customers provide input – either directly or indirectly – the smart move is to let your customers know what you’ve done with that info. It gets customers more involved. Customers will feel that they have the company’s ear and this perception will strengthen the emotional bond. Moreover, it also cements your reputation. Companies with a reputation for openness and a willingness to listen to customers, often do quite well.

This last step may seem self-evident but in reality it is often forgotten. Companies invest heavily in data collection and analysis but not nearly enough in communication with the customer. Davy Kestens concludes that “it’s a pity that so many companies are willing to listen but fail to put the data they collect to good use. It gives them a comfortable feeling, as in ‘we’re listening so everything is fine'”.

Internal communication is also important

Communication with customers is obviously important but the impact of social listening is also boosted by communicating with staff. Dado Van Peteghem puts it as follows: “Taking action is indeed the crucial success factor. Social listening is not only important on a marketing and communication level but for all departments within an organization. Social media are a transversal activity and that is why it is crucial to also make the output of social listening tangible through a periodical ‘listening report’ that can be shared with all relevant staff within the organization, including the boardroom. That’s why I recommend making a template of some 15 to 20 slides with an overview of qualitative output (quotes, product ideas, recurring positive and negative remarks, …) and quantitative output (when, who, where, how often… are certain topics discussed?). A structural listening report will make the results of social media within the organization visible, thereby creating the impact necessary to take action.”

Feel free to put in your two cents!

Please feel free to add your comments to keep the discussion on this topic alive. Thanks in advance for your input.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steven Van Belleghem
Steven Van Belleghem is inspirator at B-Conversational. He is an inspirator, a coach and gives strategic advice to help companies better understand the world of conversations, social media and digital marketing. In 2010, he published his first book The Conversation Manager, which became a management literature bestseller and was awarded with the Marketing Literature Prize. In 2012, The Conversation Company was published. Steven is also part time Marketing Professor at the Vlerick Management School. He is a former managing partner of the innovative research agency InSites Consulting.


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