Despite my professional involvement in online marketing for over a decade, it was not until 2008 that I fully recognized social media was here to stay and would disrupt our existing media landscape. In 2008, I was captivated by how the Obama campaign changed the rules of running a modern political campaign.
In true entrepreneurial spirit, the Obama campaign placed a big bet on uncharted territory by relying heavily on digital media. It was a beautifully executed campaign strategy, creating a movement and leveraging social networks to rally the masses in order to first win the democratic primaries and then later the presidential election.
The presidential campaign not only secured Barack Obama a spot in the White House, but in October 2008, Obama was also voted “Marketer of the Year” by the Association of National Advertisers—surpassing savvy marketing teams from companies like Apple.
As a marketer, I am all too familiar with using digital media to spread my message and convert people. But most of us were taught at a young age that it is equally—if not more important—to listen. And there is no shortage of conversations to listen to. Social-media networks are liberalizing the digital zeitgeist that previously was Google’s well-guarded treasure. The thoughts and desires of our generation are now broadcast live for everyone to see.
Social listening must be a critical part of the job function for product management and marketing professionals. Observing social streams allows you to discover market trends early on and provides a glimpse of what your competition is up to. I’ve identified five steps for effectively gathering social intelligence to rise above your competition.
Identify Social-Media Streams That Matter to You
During the past decade, hundreds of new companies have entered the social-media landscape. Some—like Friendster, MySpace and Google+—have struggled to manifest their position, while others have exponentially grown their user base. In April 2016, Facebook counted a staggering 1.59 billion monthly active users, according to Statistica.
It’s impossible to effectively observe all those conversations across hundreds of networks. You have to identify and observe social-media streams that are important to you, then narrow in on the conversations that matter most to your company or product.
At ProductPlan, for example, our important social-media networks include LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium, Quora and Slack (yes, Slack is not just a messaging application). If you sell to consumers, your most important social-media networks may look quite different and might include channels like Instagram or YouTube. And if you target buyers in Asia, you will want to ensure that WeChat is on your list.
Not sure where to start? Take a look at the social-media networks your competitors are most active on. Do a Google search for a competitor’s brand name and look for the social networks that are listed on the top page results. If they are active on the given network, your competitor’s social-media accounts will probably rank high in Google.
Create a Game Plan and Break Through the Noise
The nature of social media is lots of chatter; it is easy to get lost in the noise. That is why it’s important to pay attention only to what matters to your company. To become an effective social listener, you must first create a game plan. Your social listening plan will outline how to observe the social-media streams that are important to you. It must also define your process and how you keep track of your findings. Finally, it should answer these five questions:
• What are my top social listening goals?
• What social-media channels do I observe?
• Which competitors or influencers am I keeping close tabs on?
• How much time am I investing and how do I track my findings?
• What is my social listening use case?
The reasons for social listening vary from company to company. Think about the use cases that will help with your product or marketing strategies. Do you want to observe social-media channels to keep close tabs on your competitors? Or, do you want to listen in on the conversations of your target market to validate future product features?
It is easy to get lost in the weeds; a lot of companies share information that has little or no value. I like to pay extra attention to the founders or CEOs of our competition because they are busy and don’t have any time to waste. As a result, they tend to speak their mind.
To avoid getting too granular, focus on social conversations about the following topics:
• Competitive positioning statements
• Business-model changes from your competition
• New competitors and interest in their offerings
• Frequency of social engagements
• Offer types (e.g., webinars, eBooks, free trial, etc.)
• Influencer endorsements
• Consumer feature requests
• Consumer sentiments on specific trends
• Product support conversations
You also need to tune out blatant sales and marketing messages. Often, marketing teams treat social media purely as a promotional channel. A large percentage of what they share is “buy my product” or “try my service.” Instead, narrow in on messages that offer concrete insights into your competition’s marketing strategies or tactics.
Track Your Observations and Take Action
At ProductPlan, we are lucky to be part of a vibrant product management market and we have a healthy competitive landscape. I follow most of our competitors, enjoy reading their social streams and keeping up with the latest market trends in product management.
Spending a few hours each month browsing through social-media channels can give you a great deal of insight into your competition. For example, a competitor’s article posted on Medium provided specifics about company size and team composition. And articles on LinkedIn Pulse helped me recognize early on that another competitor had changed its business model from offering a free plan to offering a time-limited trial.
Reading through your competitor’s social-media streams can be insightful and fun, but you also need to track your findings and come up with action items based on those findings. For example, social listening can help you adjust the priority on future features or revise your competitive landscape. It also can help calibrate your positioning statement, introduce new marketing strategies and identify new market opportunities. After all, the greatest insights are no good if they don’t impact your product and marketing strategies.
Create a Social Listening Toolkit
Now that you have a good idea about what to look for and how to track your findings, let’s talk about tools to help track your social-media streams more effectively. But first, a word of caution.
Although I like some aspects of existing tools, in my opinion there isn’t any one solution on the market that offers a comprehensive toolset specifically for social listening. Most vendors focus on feature sets that allow marketers to share messages more effectively, not on listening.
That said, with so many conversations at hand, it is great to automate some of the process to save time. Below are a few examples of social listening tools I have used:
• Mention lets you monitor your competitors’ social-media accounts and your own in one place. It notifies you whenever someone mentions, shares or links to your content, and you can reply directly from within the app.
• TweetDeck is a dashboard that helps monitor notifications, messages and activities from multiple Twitter accounts. You can also keep tabs on influencers and monitor keywords that are important for your business.
• Flipboard is a great way to consolidate several websites and social-media streams in one place. I usually read my Flipboard compilation on my iPad.
• Twitonomy tracks social-media performance metrics, such as number of followers.
• Hootsuite allows you to effectively manage your social-media accounts, such as scheduling posts.
• BuzzSumo gauges your content, as well as that of your competitors, and can help you find influencers.
In addition to these tools, I use Google Sheets to keep track of social-media metrics, and I find a simple Google Doc remains the best way to keep track of your findings and share them with the rest of your team. Remember, tools may save you time, but they can’t automate everything. It is equally important to sit down and thoroughly read your competitors’ posts.
Make Sense of Social Streams
Let me leave you with the following advice: Do not think about social media as simply a promotional channel where you can share your message. Effective social listening provides a great deal of insight into your competitors. But that doesn’t mean you should blindly follow the competition; there’s a good chance that what they share today does not accurately reflect what they are working on.
Historically, companies hired market research consultants. But today, consumers freely share their thoughts and desires publicly. It is no longer difficult to get market and competitive data; the challenge is to make sense of the flood of data and break through the noise.
Although social listening tools allow you to automate some of the process, the tools available today can only partially assist you. Ultimately, product and marketing teams must use their smarts to effectively interpret social-media streams to rise above the competition.