In the good old days of social media – years ago (like 2007) – we called all these tools that went out and found conversations about your brand social monitoring platforms. Today, most of them call themselves social listening platforms. On the surface, you’d think there’s no difference. But there is.

And in my opinion, neither label is 100 percent accurate. Let me explain.

The Definition of Social Monitoring

Social media monitoring is the practice of using a social technology platform to notify you of a conversation so you can react to it. Someone says your name, the tool notifies you and you respond to the post. This is how 90 percent of companies use social technology platforms that offer indexing and notifications of when certain keywords are mentioned online.

This is a very basic use of the technology. It’s very customer service and reputation management-oriented. But it is important for most companies to use technology this way.

The Definition of Social Listening

Social media listening is the practice of using a social technology platform to investigate what is being said in online conversations to learn, question, explore and glean insights to be more informed. It is a proactive practice. You look at conversations around your brand or competitor to see how customers categorize or qualify each. Or you find conversations around your product category to see what improvements or feature sets consumers might be interested in.

This is an advanced use of the technology and one that few brands are leveraging. And frankly, almost none of the tools are equipped to do this well because of their keyword-centric approach. To do market research well, you need to focus on an audience, not something a certain group of people said.

Why These Definitions Aren’t Accurate

None of the platforms out there who call themselves social monitoring or social listening platforms actually do either of those things. You, the user of the software, do it. They are machines programmed to execute a command line. Go find mentions of X and display them on this page in this order. You are the one who consumes that data, does the monitoring or listening, and uses it however it needs to be used.

The platforms in question are data gathering platforms. They go out and fish for conversations that meet the search criteria you prescribe. You can suggest that data is to be used for monitoring. Or listening. Or the new, hip word – “Intelligence.” That one is probably more accurate because it’s not a verb. The machine delivers data which certainly can be intelligence if used appropriately.

But it’s up to you to use it that way.

My position is that very few brands or businesses are set up to use these tools this way, which is why I so enjoy telling people that I do and can help them. Exploring online conversations as a listener, a questioner, a researcher … it’s one of the handful of exercises in the social media space that absolutely excites me to no end.

Why? Because I learn something new every time I do it and I don’t have to be right or wrong. I don’t have to be judged. I’m simply presenting the data and offering up various interpretations of it (hopefully presenting all the different sides of it, if there are sides to be had). The data is generally untouchable in terms of integrity. It is what it is.

So what are you using these technologies for? Are you monitoring? Are you listening? Are you analyzing? I’d love to hear more in the comments.

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