cutting throught the noiseIn many ways, the social media experience is much like being in crowded train station at the end of a workday. There are countless people having revealing discussions, following trends, and sharing opinions that will shape the perceptions of entire industries. Because of the inherent chaos, however, cutting through that noise is practically impossible. If you’re a business that relies on social media data to plan new products, create cost-effective marketing or keep ahead of user trends, it’s all too easy to find “social listening” a deafening process.

But it doesn’t have to be.

In the right hands, social listening can provide you with new insights into your existing social media analytics. An effective social listening dashboard should be able to tell you, at a glance, exactly what people are saying. This isn’t just a matter of Twitter mentions and keyword results, it’s about providing a greater context so that your company can make intelligent, informed decisions based on real conversations across the social media landscape.

To make the most out of your social listening efforts, it pays to have a firm grasp on some of the core concepts. The following list is by no means comprehensive, but it will provide you with a solid foundation for building the right social listening strategy for your company.

1. Know your goals. It’s a lot easier to see meaningful results from social listening if you know what you are listening for. Are you hoping to follow the sentiment of your market? Are you looking for opportunities to engage with influencers? Is guarding your product’s reputation at the top of your list, or are you looking for an opportunity to tease out a previously hidden customer trend? Knowing what you want to accomplish makes it that much easier to set up your tools in a way that will give you the best results.

2. Get the right data. Even with the most targeted settings and searches, distortions will happen. Don’t jump to conclusions. Because we live in a hugely interconnected online community, it’s easy to mistake the wake of a totally unrelated trend for a wave in your area of focus. An uptick in discussions about “gingham” in 2012 could have sent fabric makers into a tizzy, even though it might just have been a side-effect of millions of people mistyping “Gangnam” because of a popular Korean rap song.

3. Don’t just analyze. Actually listen. There is a true beauty to seeing a complex, chaotic cloud of comments, opinions, and remarks broken down into a simple-to-follow graph or pie chart. Just remember that those gorgeous renderings of trends and sentiments represent an algorithm’s best guess at what the crowd is saying. It pays to wade into the source content, and to actually interact with the people who are shaping those trend lines in the first place.

4. Dissect the process. In the last year, a huge range of software tools for social listening have hit the market. Many of these systems provide great-looking dashboards and seemingly definitive results with clear percentage changes for even the most minor performance tweaks. On the surface, that seems wonderful. But how are they making those assumptions? What precisely are they searching for? How are they interpreting changes? Are they giving you real statistical results, or are they simply pretty toys for telling you how many people used a given hashtag? Most quality vendors will be more than happy to walk you through the nitty gritty details of their service.

5. Put the results to use. Even a casual experiment with social listening will quickly uncover a range of questions, complaints and strong sentiments about any topic, product or company. Making use of that data, however, requires taking action. This doesn’t mean tackling every Twitter user and YouTube commenter head-on. It means knowing your ultimate goals and forming a strategy to see real, measurable results. A simple exchange with the author of a skeptical blog post can yield hugely positive results, for instance, while sparring with random trolls on Reddit might just waste your day.

6. Test the results, challenge the assumptions. As you start to gather data from your social listening experiments, it becomes increasingly important to verify everything. You have specific goals in mind, and a clear strategy for attaining those goals. Now, it’s time to test if your strategy actually moves you closer to the results you want to see. Are those wildly popular Pinterest Boards actually moving the needle on your female buying demographic? Are your LinkedIn contributions resulting in more buzz among industry professionals?

7. Don’t SPAM. This should go without saying. If you’re using your social listening data to inform your engagement strategy, it can be tempting to go overboard with the replies, the “helpful” links and the thinly veiled marketing. People are smart enough to know when they’re being pitched, and if they’re not interested they’ll turn off like a light switch.

8. Influencers matter. As you start to see trends in your social listening dashboard, you’ll probably notice that influential people tend to steer the conversation. If a popular blogger or Twitter user starts posting about a company or a product, that same view tends to echo through the social media landscape. There are few more cost-effective ways to test sentiment than starting with the influencers first, and then watching the results ripple through the data.

9. Customize. Off-the-shelf social-listening tools are generally designed to provide the best data sets for selling social-listening software. While this data can be useful in a broad sense, it doesn’t always provide meaningful, actionable data that’s relevant to your goals. A good social listening system will allow you to fine-tune everything, tuning out as much noise as you can. Take advantage of this.

10. Don’t confuse inbound and outbound conversations. Social listening exists in the overlap between customer relations and marketing, blurring the traditional lines between the two. It’s important to remember, however, that there are still two fundamental kinds of conversations happening in any social media contest: You’re either responding to customers (individually or en masse) or broadcasting to them. Any social-listening system you put in place should differentiate between those two channels, allowing you to track the performance of each.

With the right tools in place, you can follow what the most influential people in your market are saying about your product, what the opinion-makers are saying about your competition, and how your potential customers feel about your industry. It’s now possible to find out who is steering the social media conversation about your topic, the direction they’re steering it in, who is listening, and even where those voices are physically located. While this may sound complex, with the right software behind it these metrics are as easy to follow as website traffic and ad conversions.

By using the best available social listening tools, you’ll be able to drill down to the pivotal moments and key interactions that both create and kill industry buzz. Instead of simply reacting to trends after they’ve already gained momentum, social listening tools allow you to see sentiment as it takes shape. This allows you to do more than simply monitor and measure these trends; it allows you to steer them in ways that were not possible before.

As you master the art and science of social listening, the roiling madness of the train station now becomes simply the set dressing of the narrative. You’re able to pick out those one or two meaningful interactions that result in positive buzz and improved sales, and be able to respond quickly when someone is writing naughty graffiti about your company on the bathroom walls. All of that noise quickly become filtered to pure signal, making it that much easier to focus on doing what your company does best.