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No matter how media savvy you are, social media is impossible to do alone. Every month we see new tools, techniques, and developments that constantly change the ways you can leverage social media for your business.

Everywhere you and your brand go—both on- and offline—you’re joined by supporters, influencers, customers, and sometimes critics. Social media listening plays a key role in learning how effective your service or product is, and it also yields a better understanding of how your target market interacts with it. Effective listening involves collecting and analyzing what people are saying about your company, brand, services, and product across not just one, but all social platforms.

The unstoppable rise of social media is giving way to a new king of the jungle–consumers. Social platforms serve as open forums where people can actively engage with their favorite people and brands. They encourage users–approximately 74% of online adults–to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This creates a unique position for businesses: they can receive the gift of consumer feedback while also giving consumers the gift of control.

 For some old-school businesses, this area of social media is completely new territory because it creates a transparency not known to these businesses before. That transparency offers consumers the opportunity to better understand a brand before engaging with it. In doing this, social listening heightens competition among businesses. Darwin got it right with “survival of the fittest:” the brands that choose to listen to what their consumers are saying will succeed over the brands that don’t.

Now that you know what it is, how can you effectively use social listening to benefit your company? All of your data may seem overwhelming, just looming on the Internet, waiting to be analyzed, but a social listening tool can help collect and quantify that data. Tools such as Microsoft Social Engagement, Crimson Hexagon, Sprout Social, Meltwater Buzz, Brandwatch Analytics, and Hootsuite can help you track and analyze social mentions. These monitoring-software tools work by crawling and continuously evaluating sites. They take specific words and phrases across the web and transpose them into measurable data, which can then be analyzed to yield insights. The software monitors each social media platform differently; some are recorded in real time (like Twitter, because of its quick pace) and others are recorded less frequently.

Now that you have the data, use it! Companies use this information to understand the public’s perception of their brand, and once you know that, you’ll have a better grasp on what you need to do to change or promote that perception. Social Media listening helps you understand how your target audience views you in comparison with your competition; brands like Starbucks really master this part.

Starbucks is a Twitter guru, responding to thousands of followers each day. They participate in long strings of playful banter and even tweet “Happy Birthday” to their followers. And they don’t stop there–when consumers have a problem, Starbucks fixes it. Just last week, Starbucks reached out to The Spark Group’s amazing Client Service Associate, Julianne Broderick, when she tweeted that she was dissatisfied with their  Bistro Box.

In addition to their excellent social listening skills, they also have accounts like @MyStarbucksIdea set up, where followers post their ideas on how to improve Starbucks. The ideas that are actually implemented are then listed on a separate blog—easily stretching their presence across platforms. When developing your own social media accounts, take heed in this example. Consumers know that there are brands out there that will listen to their views, and they prefer to engage with these brands.

If you’re not active on social media yet, don’t be too quick to create your social presence without fully understanding its purpose. Many companies are eager to create social identities to find out what those platforms can do for them, but the key to mastering digital media is to better understand what you can do for your consumers. Our founder, Daniela Cuevas, put it best: “If you’re not engaging with your consumers on the platforms they’re using, if you’re not reaching out to them in the ways that they’re looking to be reached out to, if you’re not making things as easy—as simple as humanly possible, for them…then, you’re going to be left behind.”  The key to this is social media listening.

Like our founder, Daniela, said: the pivotal part is engagement. Remember the PR disaster that took place in 2009, “United Breaks Guitars”?  A dissatisfied customer caused chaos for United Airlines after the airline broke his guitar on a connecting flight and would neither fix nor replace it. Naturally he turned to social media to criticize United Airlines, and he was quite successful. He created a YouTube video with catchy song and slogan and it went viral. United panicked. The airline tried to persuade the customer to take the content offline, but by that time he was already in control.

This is only part one of the story: the part where a company with weak social presence (and poor customer service policies) falls prey to social media. Part two shows how a company can use social media to have a positive impact. Taylor Guitars, the brand of guitar that was broken, gave the unhappy United costumer a new guitar.  Taylor Guitars also leveraged the situation by creating a YouTube video of their own discussing their repair services and tips for travelling safely with guitars. Through social listening, Taylor Guitars discovered an opportunity and was able to use it to their full advantage, creating a positive image for their brand.

In the United Airlines and Taylor Guitars situation, who would you have rather been? We think we know the answer. By using social media listening to learn how to effectively leverage uncontrolled communication and interact with influencers and consumers, you’ll be at the top of the food chain–your competitors below you. Once you understand what you can do for your customers, there’s a ton of untapped potential your business can uncover. Start digging.