You’re on board with blogging, you make regular appearances on industry message boards, and you’ve gotten on the social media train: your bases are covered, right?

Yes and no. Blogging, forums and social media are all essential in today’s business environment, but the digital marketing picture remains incomplete without social listening, the single most important tool in your online arsenal. Social listening is the missing piece – the element that takes online conversations from one-way to interactive.

What is Social Listening?

Wikipedia defines social listening (a.k.a. conversational listening, social media measurement, and social media monitoring) as,

“[The] active monitoring of social media channels for information about a company or organization, usually tracking of various social media content such as blogs, wikis, news sites, micro-blogs such as Twitter, social networking sites, video/photo sharing websites, forums, message boards, blogs and user-generated content in general as a way to determine the volume and sentiment of online conversation about a brand or topic.”

In other words, conversational listening is following social media for specific phrases, brands, topics or conversations related to, or involving your business or industry. For example, if your company makes a productivity app, one act of social listening would be to monitor the social sphere for people complaining about procrastination. In response, you might link to your blog (if it covers topics on productivity), provide advice, or offer solutions.

Social listening involves more than passive listening, however. In many cases, businesses also reach out to industry influencers – people who are well known in your field, or who have a strong following from your potential clients or customers. For example, earning a blog link or Twitter mention from an established blogger or well-liked Twitterer can earn you followers, boost your company profile, and earn you business.

Social Listening for Business

The above covers the general principles of social listening, but the details are even more important. How, specifically, can you leverage social media monitoring to better your business?

1)    Listening for lead generation: The productivity app example above is a type of conversational listening for lead generation. Essentially, with this type of social listening, you follow online conversations about certain topics, keywords, cities/towns (if your product is location-specific), or phrases, and then join in with opinions, advice and help.

2)    Listening for reputation management: If you don’t know what the world is saying about #yourbusiness, you should. (See what I did there?) Social listening for reputation management is all about monitoring Facebook, Twitter, blogs, online review sites, and the entire web for mentions of your company name or brand. Then, you respond with thoughtful replies to negative reviews, appreciation for brand evangelists, and other appropriate responses.

3)    Listening for competitive edge: Social media measurement also gives you incredible insight into your competitors. As you monitor the social landscape for mentions of your brand, you can also set up listening for competing companies. Track their successes and missteps, and get the inside track on new products, offerings, policies, and other notable changes from your competitors.

4)    Listening for trends and emerging ideas: Similar to tracking your competitors, you can also set up social alerts for emerging trends and new ideas in your industry, so you can keep your products or services cutting-edge and up-to-date with consumer needs and desires.

How to Do Social Listening – the Easy Way

Now that you have the what, you’re probably wondering about the how? Social listening sounds complicated, but it’s pretty simple in practice. Several apps (e.g. Hootsuite) make it easy to track keywords, phrases and mentions across social channels. All you have to do is set up your alerts, and then monitor social conversations on a daily basis.

But here’s the deal: simple doesn’t mean fast. Social listening requires a touch of know-how and a daily time commitment, usually 30+ minutes on top of your regular social media activities. Add to that email alerts, social pings, and other conversational listening musts, and you have a recipe for distraction from your other activities for the day.

If you want to save time while doing social listening right, hand over these responsibilities to your social media virtual assistant. After an initial discussion to develop your social listening guidelines – what phrases are relevant to your industry, who your competitors are, etc. – your virtual assistant will take over conversational listening. Choose whether you want daily reports, weekly digests, instant alerts on certain topics, or other notifications – whatever works best for you.

However you do conversational listening, be sure to do it. In the digital age, to stay competitive you must know what your clients, competitors, and the Internet at large is saying about your company and your industry.