In-Ear Insights: Social Media Listening

In this week’s In-Ear Insights, Katie and Chris talk about social media listening. What is it, and why does it sometimes fall very short of expectations? Learn what social media listening tools can and can’t do out of the box, and why expertise is mandatory to pair with even the best tools on the market. Tune in to find out more!


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In-Ear Insights: Social Media Listening

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Machine-Generated Transcript

What follows is an AI-generated transcript. The transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the episode.

Christopher Penn 0:00

In this week’s In-Ear Insights, it is that time of year when social media is all the rage, all the chatter is about it.

And this week, let’s talk about social media listening.

There’s two basic types of social media listening, there’s listening for yourself, people talking about you, and responding to them, obviously putting out fires where you need to, and then there’s listening, in general for topics of conversation to understand what your industry is thinking about, or specific topics, or what people are saying on those topics.

So Katie, when you think about the applications of social media listening, obviously, listening for yourself as is important, right? Because someone said something good.

So that’s something bad, do you want to know that, but talk more about what you look for as a stakeholder from social media listing tools, agencies, etc, that you think can provide that that next level of value, because the basic listening is sort of cover your butt stuff, right? Like, let’s make sure we didn’t do something dumb.

How do we take social media listing from basically a cost center to a value center?

Katie Robbert 1:08

“It’s not just surface-level; you have to go deeper. And so I think, at least in my experience (and admittedly limited experience) with social listening tools, you’re absolutely right.

A lot of it is just reputation management – how many mentions did I get this month? Okay, great, I must be doing something good. If people are talking about me, are they saying good things? Okay, are they saying bad things I need to respond? That’s a good use case of social listening.

But what I’m looking for is to go deeper into the conversation, and not just people who are talking about Google Analytics because it’s a hot topic right now, especially with Google Analytics 3 being decommissioned in July. Trust Insights is not a household name. I’m putting air quotes around this (if you’re listening), it’s not a household name in the sense that people are like, “Oh, Trust Insights, they do X, I know, I need to hire them.” We’re not a huge brand. We’re very small for all intents and purposes, like a boutique agency, in terms of size and recognition.

So when I think of social listening and the use cases, I’m trying to go deeper into the conversation and understand how people are talking about it, what questions they’re asking, what questions are going unanswered by Google and other experts. That’s where we can fill in some of those spots and say, “Well, we have the answer to that question,” or “We can help you with this.” Or even just understanding the terms and phrases, slang, or language people are using when they talk about these things so that we can mirror that. When people see the content, they immediately go, “Okay, this resonates with me.”

Part of it, too, is I want to understand what we don’t know. What I mean by that is, using Google Analytics as an example, we think we’re answering the right questions, but we may not be. So I also want to understand what people are struggling with that we aren’t aware of because we are well-versed in Google Analytics, so we may not see it from a different perspective.

Those are the two other use cases that I’m looking for when I think of social listening.”

Christopher Penn 3:55

Based on the experiences you’ve had so far, how are the tools and techniques delivering (or not delivering) those two cases?

Katie Robbert 4:08

Personally, I don’t think they’re delivering. The reason I say that is because the type of reporting that I think I’m looking for is not out-of-the-box for some of the systems I’ve had experience with. Sure, I can get a count of keywords that show up on any given day, week, or month. That doesn’t help me a whole lot. That just tells me there’s a lot of conversation. What I’m looking for is more of that qualitative approach – what is the conversation? Or I want to find the people actually having the conversation and dig deeper and talk to them and ask them more questions. And that’s just not something that the tools have been able to do for me, or give me enough data to pursue those channels.

Christopher Penn 4:57

It’s interesting you say that because what you’re asking for is the opposite of what these tools are designed to deliver.

Katie Robbert 5:04

That might be why I’m having such issues.

Christopher Penn 5:05

Well, think about it, right? If you take your average social listening tool, it’s designed to show you what’s hot, what’s trending, what’s true. So let me bring up an example. For those who are listening, I’m bringing up our friends over at Talkwalker, the Talkwalker conversational monitoring software that I just put in our domain name.

And what you see is it sorting by the most engaging, highest-reach content – the stuff with the biggest mentions. If I switch this over from just the domain name to something like Google Analytics (using Google Analytics 4 as an example), again, what it’s going to surface is the most popular, well-known content – the stuff that people like. If you’re looking for white space, blue ocean, or green fields (whichever analogy you prefer), this is not going to give you that because, by default, it’s giving you the most crowded spaces, the busiest topics.

So you’re right, the tools aren’t going to give you the answers you need. You would have to scroll down to page 5 million to get to all the stuff where people are asking questions and there are no answers.

Katie Robbert 6:22

And that’s interesting because that’s exactly what I’m looking for. It’s not that the most popular content isn’t useful – it is useful to understand what is resonating. But that, to me, says, “Okay, this topic has been covered six ways to Sunday. I don’t need to keep talking about this. What else isn’t being talked about?” So maybe this does tell me what I need to know, but I’m just not looking at it correctly.

When I think of these tools that provide reporting, my first thought is, “Don’t make me work that hard. You are the system meant to provide the report.” And if I have to guess at what’s not there, then the report has not done its job. Does that make sense?

Christopher Penn 7:14

It makes sense, but I will disagree with you on that. Reporting tools can’t do that.

Katie Robbert 7:21

I have trouble with reports.

Christopher Penn 7:22


Well, we’ve always talked about the three what’s: what happened, so what, and now what, right? All the reporting tools can do is what happened. None of them can do so what, none of them can connect the dots.

And a good agency partner should be able to do that. One of the things we strive very hard to do when we provide reports to our clients is to say, “Here’s what this means.” Hey, this went down, here’s why, or even better, this went down, and here’s what you need to do to fix it. Because if you don’t, it’s going to keep going down, and you don’t want it going down. That is something that’s the value-add that a good partner should be bringing in on top of the reporting because the reporting by itself, you’re right, is just, “Here’s what happened.” And that’s okay. But it’s not amazing.

I had this experience over the weekend in one of my lucid moments when I wasn’t hacking up a lung. We were looking at the people who were participating early on in the Save Warrior Nun campaign, right, because thousands of things a day. And then the people the last 30 days, and you can get a data report from any system. But what I want to know is what’s the difference? What are the issues people have stuck with the campaign the whole time versus people who have come and gone? And it turns out, you know, there are very obvious things like they have the campaign hashtag in their bio, and these are a lot that they use a lot in their content, they tweet 16 times more than other people, and stuff like that. They also have slightly smaller audiences. So from that, the recommendation that I was able to give to the campaign is we need to hardcore focus on the loyalists, the people who have these campaign hashtags, and make sure we don’t lose any of them because they are the ones that are going to keep this thing going. So calling them out and in other tweets, featuring their work, highlighting them in the daily newsletter, all these things to retain that loyal audience.

And so, social listening provides you with the raw materials, but then to your point, you need the extra analysis tools that are not built-in to extract the value and say, “This is what you need to do.”

Katie Robbert 9:34

And I think that’s where I’m at a disadvantage because social media is not my area of expertise. I mean, I’ve been very open about that. I am not great at social. It’s not my favorite channel, and I’m just not invested in it the way I would like the company to be. That puts us, Trust Insights, at a disadvantage because when I look at the reports that come out of these tools, I’m very much the person sitting there going, “I don’t know what to do with this information.” I’m very much the client looking for that partner who can tell me, “Here’s what you need to do.” You know, very rarely, Chris, do I say, “I just want someone to tell me what to do.” That is just not my MO. I am all about being the one who’s telling, not being told. But in this instance, I want someone to tell me what to do, and I don’t know. You know, so I guess this is an interesting question in terms of social listening. So let’s say you’re a small business, and you’re trying to DIY pretty much everything, which is not an uncommon scenario. How do people like me figure out the “so what” when it’s not our area of expertise? We have the tools, we have the reports, Chris, what would you recommend someone do with this information to try to make it valuable when they don’t have that agency partner to do the value add?

Christopher Penn 11:00

The number one thing is to ask your customers: What, if anything, do you want from us via social media? Right? The answer may be nothing. The answer may be customers saying, “I am so sick of social media, I don’t want to be on it anymore. I just want to be in a place where I can talk to trusted colleagues,” like the free analytics community on Slack. If you go to for marketers, you can join the group over there. People may say, “Yeah, I don’t want anything on public social media.” And that’s a valuable insight in itself, that your audience may just stop you there. Asking people what they want, period, like what can we provide you, when we ask this to our Slack community, a lot of times it’s knowledge that I can’t get somewhere else. Like, what can you share that isn’t public? This is kind of where we started the conversation on social listening. What is out there that isn’t being answered? We do this a lot with things like taking apart academic papers and things. We did a walkthrough in our Slack community of Google’s attribution model, how it works, and things. We do a lot of stuff on this podcast of taking things apart and how things work. We’re going to do something on Chat GPT-2 new API and how it works and what we can learn from it. So those are the kinds of things that our community has said to us: “This is what I want.” Now, there’s always the Henry Ford problem, which is, you know, he once famously said, “If I ask customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” So there is always that element of, “What do we know that the community needs that they don’t know they need yet?” And, you know, obviously, we’ve done things like create courses for measurement strategies for agencies, Search Console, etc. But when it comes to social listening, it really is looking at what your audience wants, and can you provide that right on social media? Or should you provide it on social media, because there’s always the aspect of something really valuable? Probably just don’t give it away for free. And then, to what you were saying earlier, looking at what’s popular right now in the topic and saying, “Is there a unique take on it that we have value to add on top of what’s already known?” And sometimes the answer is no. So please do so. Yep, it’s all been said, there’s nothing else to say here.

Katie Robbert 13:26

So it sounds like, if I’m someone, and admittedly, I am someone who’s just not as invested in social media, but I’m trying to make it work, I need to understand social listening first. I really need to understand, like, why am I going after social listening? I probably need to have a really strong purpose and know what it is I’m trying to accomplish. And so this always comes back to the same starting point of the five P’s. So what is the purpose? Who are the people? What is the process? Which platforms? And how do I measure performance and success? With that purpose, as I was going through the social listening tools, I admit, I struggled to put together a really solid use case, other than I just want to see what’s in the box, which sometimes is okay, but then I have to be okay with wasting time and resources to do that. And so when I was starting with the purpose, I started with the user story, which is, “As a persona, I want to use social listening so that I can understand the conversations happening on social media and participate.” That’s a good starting point, but still kind of weak, because how do you measure that? Did you participate or not? Congratulations, you get a gold star. You need to understand, does that participation lead to something? Does it lead to more awareness, more traffic to your website, more customers, more conversions, more loyalists? And so I was able to recognize that my use cases were pretty weak.

Christopher Penn 15:12

Yeah, and I think you hit the nail on the head. You really do need to have some kind of outcome to benchmark it against, even if it’s just, you know, if you were to look in, say, your attribution model, say, “Okay, well, we want to see social media move from the bottom to within the top 10 referring sources,” right? That would at least be better for new user conversion. So that would be something that would fit that purpose better. In this case, for Trust Insights, LinkedIn last month was 3.5% of our new users. That to me would say, “Hey, there’s something there, right? There’s something worth doing.” So maybe, as part of that purpose, we say, “Okay, well, we want to improve our visibility on LinkedIn so that it represents 5% of new users to the Trust Insights website.” I think that’s pretty tangible. When we look further down the list, we see things like Facebook, but we’ve decided we’re not going to do business on that platform. That’s fine. But Slack is pretty low on here for this past month. And in past months, that’s been stronger. So we might say, “As a marketer, I want to improve Slack’s contribution to new user participation by 5%, so that it generates more new user traffic to the website or achieves whatever other objective.” But having that outcome in the user story makes it a little easier to measure.

Katie Robbert 16:54

But to your earlier point, this doesn’t tell me the “so what.” It tells me that LinkedIn is a channel that is starting to show up in terms of new users. And so as someone who’s maybe further away from this data, if you were to hand this to me, I’d be like, “Okay, but what does that mean? What do I do? Do I do more on LinkedIn? Do I do the same? Do I find out what exactly I need to do?” And this goes back to the point of, “Someone, for the love of God, please tell me what I need to do.” And that’s what these reports aren’t doing. And that’s where I think I’m struggling with the whole social media piece because it’s the channel that I know the least about.

Christopher Penn 17:38

Right? And this is where I would say, “Yep, warm up your brand new Chat GPT-2 Plus account.” And you’ll start with the prompt like, “You will act as a social media manager. You have expertise in writing thought-provoking conversational pieces about marketing analytics for LinkedIn. You have subject matter expertise in marketing, analytics, Google Analytics, management, consulting, etc. Your first task is to write five short posts ready for LinkedIn about social media listening (this example) and have it do those first drafts.” And as long as they’re coherent, start copying and pasting, schedule one a day, and just see if you can provoke some of those conversations to get people to actually have a discussion with you on LinkedIn.

Katie Robbert 18:38

But that’s only one part of it. You then need to actively participate. You need to participate in conversations that are yours. And this goes back to what I was trying to understand from social listening in the first place – where are the conversations that I need to be participating in? And I feel like that’s just not what I’m getting from the reporting. So I feel like we’ve come full circle.

Christopher Penn 19:00


The reporting will not tell you that. What you need to do is go back. If you head on over to the Trust Insights YouTube channel, go back to our lives from about a month ago on social media algorithms. We did an entire episode on deconstructing LinkedIn’s algorithm. To make the most of these networks, you’ve got to understand how they work, and then you can craft a strategy around them.

And again, a listening tool is not going to know that. A listening tool has no idea what works and what does not work. Your agency partners should know those things, and your internal social media team should know those things and should be able to tell you, “Yeah, here’s how to find five people in the space that I’m talking about.” With LinkedIn, it’s fairly straightforward. You can search for specific hashtags and then start jumping in on conversations where you see an opportunity to add value. Also, you have your list of five to 10 people that you interact with regularly on LinkedIn, like friends, colleagues, and things. And again, you jump into those things. You follow a pretty commonly known program where you spend 15 minutes, twice a day, just going through conversations and things to see where there are opportunities.

Katie Robbert 20:18

And I think that that is the key. You can automate it to a point, but at the end of the day, you, the person, need to be actively participating. All the social listening tools in the world can’t mimic that for you. You still have to do the work. I think social listening is a good starting point for a lot of people to understand the landscape of what’s going on in a social media platform in terms of the things that they care about. But it’s just a starting point. You need to dig deeper. My frustration with these tools lies in not having the time or expertise to do so. After this conversation, I now know that’s exactly what I need to do. So, I just need to prioritize it if I’m seeing through our data that social is a channel we need to care about.

Christopher Penn 21:11

Exactly. For anyone who is a social media manager, reporting often falls on deaf ears because it doesn’t tell stakeholders, including the CIO, what to do next. The report should include actionable steps to get more of what we want and less of what we don’t want. The tools will not do that, so don’t rely on them. They cannot understand your business, your unique employees, or the capabilities they have or don’t have to bring to the table.

Katie Robbert 21:54

I think that’s going to continue to be the differentiator between agencies that succeed during this uprising of AI versus agencies that fall short. Yes, you can automate a lot of things, and AI is going to write a bunch of stuff for you. But at the end of the day, you need to understand what your clients want. For example, if I’m an agency’s client, I want to know that the data exists, but I’m more interested in you telling me what I need to do about it. Don’t waste my time showing me the data; I trust that it exists. I want to know what I need to do and how to measure success. If you’re just giving me automated reports out of the system, I’m probably going to give you notice because it’s not helpful or valuable. Work with your customers and really understand what can’t be automated, that 1% that’s going to make a huge difference in their lives.

Christopher Penn 22:54

Exactly! It’s funny. I love the software that we work with, like Talkwalker, for example, which is one of my favorites. Not because their interface or reports are great, because I don’t actually use the interface at all. I just use the Export button because I know that to get what I want out of social media data, I have to put it through my own tools. So, one of the deciding factors for me in choosing a vendor is how good the data export is. I don’t really care what’s heartbreaking to the software engineers who spent their lives assembling these software products, I have to be able to work with the data in its raw form to get the insights I want for my specific use cases. For social listening, it’s about what’s being said and, to your point, Katie, what’s not being said. There are very specific types of natural language processing that can do this, and again, it’s not built into these tools because almost no one knows to ask for it. It’s like a secret ingredient that only a few chefs in the world know exists, and they’re not going to tell anyone about this particular type of truffle.

Katie Robbert 24:08

Well, I’m putting them all on notice. I’m asking for it, and I want it. And while I like truffles, I want to know what the other thing is.

Christopher Penn 24:18

So, with the social listening efforts that have been done so far and what we’ve talked about, what will you do differently from now on?

Katie Robbert 24:34

You know, honestly, I’m not sure. I think the first thing I’ll do is decommission some of the automated reports that have been filling up my inbox because they’re a distraction. I keep hoping to find that bright idea inside these reports, but it’s just not there. So, I’ll rethink how these tools are being used for me personally and whether they’re the right thing to answer the question, and it sounds like they’re not. From there, I’ll come up with a different plan, but it seems like social listening isn’t what I need.

Christopher Penn 25:14

It’s not in its raw form. It’s like ingredients, right? And you want someone to have cooked dinner, and that’s the disconnect. Yeah, every day, a new truck of ingredients rolls up into your inbox, and you’re like, ‘Well, somebody please just make me a frickin’ steak already!

Katie Robbert 25:31

Yeah, I’m not the one you want cooking dinner. So, I think that’s a great analogy.

Christopher Penn 25:38

If you have stories about how you’re using social listening that you’d like to share, pop on over to our free Slack group. Go to, where you and over 3,000 other marketers are asking and answering each other’s questions every single day. And wherever you watch or listen to the show, if there’s a challenge, we’d rather have it on. Instead, go to, where we have the show on pretty much every platform that still does podcasting. And while there, please leave us a rating or review on the channel of your choice. It does help to share the show. Thanks for tuning in!

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