Editor’s note: Joanna Jones is cofounder of InterQ Learning Labs, Mill Valley, Calif. 

In this post, Jones shares a Q&A with Kate Minkner, head of Social Insights and InterQ Research, and an instructor at InterQ Learning Labs who teaches a class on how to use social listening for market research. The two discuss social listening, how it’s different from social monitoring and how researchers can benefit from this methodology.

Joanna Jones: Thanks so much for sitting down with me, Kate. Social listening is definitely your wheelhouse – and you’ve now developed a course on how researchers can use it. I’d love for you to educate other researchers about this practice. Let’s get started. 

Social listening has become more and more popular among researchers these days. Before we dive into the specifics, can you give us a synopsis of what social listening is?

Kate Minkner: Sure. Social listening is simply observing conversations happening online. Researchers look at these unfiltered conversations to uncover insights that can drive change within organizations. 

Considering there are approximately 4.5 billion – and growing – social media users today, which is about 60% of the Earth's population, and we all spend an average of two-to-three hours per day on social media, that’s data goldmine for researchers. 

Jones: Wow, it sure is. I've heard about social monitoring, as well. Can you explain the difference between social listening and social monitoring?

Minkner: Social monitoring is a slice. Social listening is the whole pie. That’s one way to think of it.

Social media monitoring identifies brand mentions on a micro scale, while social media listening occurs on a macro scale to see how customers are talking about your brand, products and industry – including competitors. 

Jones: That’s a great analogy and helps clarify the difference. What is an example of when you would use social monitoring?

Minkner: Think of social monitoring as a narrow focus on a specific company, brand, product or campaign. A social media manager or team would use social monitoring to respond to consumer mentions, jump into trending topics, answer questions or complaints, watch for crisis or track the success of a hashtag campaign.

Jones: And then what types of research situations is social listening good for?

Minkner: Social listening allows you to understand how people are talking about your brand, your competitors, and the overall landscape. It’s great for finding market gaps and opportunities, new audiences, crossover interests, potential influencers, partners or understanding how to set your brand apart from competitors.

Social network monitoring abstract concept

Jones: In a nutshell, what value does social listening add to brands?

Minkner: Whereas I see monitoring as more reactive, listening is proactive. It’s less about immediate issues, and it’s more about big picture opportunities to meet customer needs. Social listening is ideal for brands and companies interested in looking forward and creatively imagining their future state.

Organizations that listen to the billions of users and harness their feedback to drive consumer-centric decisions are differentiated from their competitors. It’s also a great way to develop digital marketing strategies – identifying potential brand or influencer partners, for example. 

Jones: That makes sense. What can social listening do that researchers are unable to get from surveys?

Minkner: The scale is larger. Social conversations are captured everywhere, all the time. And that data is real-time, available instantly and 24/7. The amount of information at your fingertips is both exciting and overwhelming, but once you know how to harness it, it’s a valuable add-on to any research project. No vendor partners, no incentives – social listening only requires the researcher’s know-how.

Jones: It really is the world’s biggest platform for consumer conversations. Would you say social listening is more qualitative or quantitative in nature?

Minkner: It’s both. Quantitively, social listening gives you that large scope – the actual volume of conversation about your brand or category, how it trends over time, whether it’s positive or negative. Also, demographic breakouts of who is talking about your brand – gender, age and geography data. 

Qualitatively, you can see nuance from completely unfiltered conversation. In reading online chatter, you might discover a new audience or identify a product gap or an opportunity. You can quickly understand the category landscape, and how you stack up against competitors. 

I think it’s helpful to use social listening as a complement to any traditional research approach – not just for validation when it dovetails, but to further explore areas where research is contradictory. This is why social listening, on some level, should be a part of all research projects.

Jones: What types of tools do you need for social listening? What about social monitoring tools?

Minkner: Well, you can search keywords on all social platforms with no tools at all. If you require more detail – like volume numbers, demographics – there are many free tools that offer a sampling of conversations. Enterprise tools with annual subscriptions cost the most, from $5-20k annually, but offer the most depth with easy-to-read dashboards. These tools are important for the full firehose, all conversation, on across the internet and historical data – to really analyze trends over time or conduct a conversation deep-dive. 

Jones: What type of expertise does one need to have to be able to set up social listening?

Minkner: Organizations have to decide on the resources – time, money, people – to dedicate to their social presence. Some hire agencies, others train in-house teams to learn how to read and understand social data. It depends on the size of your organization and the priority given to social presence, consumer data and digital strategy.

Jones: Classes can be a valuable resource for market researchers and qualitative researchers who haven’t been formerly trained at agencies, but they’d like to add social listening to their quiver. Now, if a team doesn't want to go through the time to train someone internally to be able to learn how to do social listening, what are some alternatives for researchers? In other words, how can they get this data?

Minkner: You can set up Google alerts to see brand chatter, look at Google search trends and search individual social sites by keyword. There are many free tools and trials that are user friendly, and data goes back up to three months. But listening – and interpreting data in a way that adds value – requires some level of knowledge.

Jones: That makes sense – it does require training in tools and the know-how of how to interpret this data.