It's great to be customer-centric, and frankly, there have been a number of companies that have been chomping at the bit to talk about how customer-centric they are. Over the last few years, we've seen every company from Amazon to Zappos tout their customer-centric approach. But being truly customer-centric is more than just a press release, says Justyn Howard, CEO of Sprout Social, a company that provides social media management software (that Firebrand Group has been using for years).

Howard believes that brands need to be paying attention to the feedback customers send them directly, but also what people are saying on social media. After all, as billions of people freely share their opinions and recommendations on social on a daily basis, listening data has become richer and more impactful for brands.

As the founder of a futureproofing agency, I have seen many organizations, from beauty brands to CPG companies, employ social listening as a cornerstone of their business intelligence. Social listening, according to Howard, "enables brands to improve their customer experience, create more successful marketing campaigns and develop even better products." What this means is that social data shouldn't just be within the domain of the marketing department; it can drive meaningful change across multiple departments. "Better R&D, better customer care and better offerings are all possible when you have better data about what your customers want--and social is an incredible source for just that," says Howard.

Social Listening vs. Social Media Monitoring

However, he is quick to point out that there are some misconceptions regarding social listening that need to be cleared up. People throw around the term "social listening" all the time, Howard explains, but often what they're really referring to is social media monitoring, which is simply paying attention to inbound messages that mention your brand or related keywords, so that you can act on those messages.

That's not to say social media monitoring is unimportant. In fact, it's imperative for effective and timely customer care, crisis management and finding opportunities to engage with your audience in an intimate, one-on-one manner.

Social listening, on the other hand, is when brands zoom out and look at the trends shown by all of those messages in aggregate. In my conversation with Howard, he takes the example of New Balance, the popular footwear brand. Monitoring allows New Balance to surface that a customer is having an issue with the arch of their new shoe, and thus respond accordingly. Listening can also uncover the fact that hundreds of customers are replacing their white laces with green ones, which then empowers the brand to adjust their product development efforts to capitalize on that insight. Both monitoring and listening are crucial for better understanding your customers, making informed business decisions and delivering on the promise of a customer-centric brand. Think of social media monitoring as micro, and social listening as macro, letting you take a look at the big picture.  

Social Listening in 2018

What's a good brand to follow to learn how to do social listening right? As Howard points out, it can be tricky to say who's doing social listening right unless they come out and talk about it publicly. From my experience in the beauty sector with brands such as Kiehl's, Mally, Evolution of Smooth, Kerastase, and more, I can say that the beauty industry has in fact incorporated social listening as part of its macro playbook by paying attention to user-generated content such as product reviews, unboxing videos, and makeup tutorials. "Brands like L'Oreal have been at the forefront of using social listening to inform product development," agrees Howard. "Social challenges global brands like L'Oreal to stay agile and quickly respond to trends in their space."

From my experience, I can see social listening taking a major step forward in 2018. While the technology has been around for some time now, according to Howard, "the insights brands can derive from listening have more recently been recognized as a driver of strategic decisions."

That assertion makes sense, when you think about it. We can say with absolute certainty that the amount of available data is only going to grow, and the platforms that we use for social listening (Howard's Sprout Social among them) are only going to get more robust. While some platforms might be too costly for some businesses, companies of all sizes should be able to incorporate social listening in some shape or form.