The Five Ws of Social Media Listening - Social Media Explorer
The Five Ws of Social Media Listening
The Five Ws of Social Media Listening

Listening Post
Image by Fenchurch! via Flickr

Note: The following is a guest post from Chuck Hemann, the research manager at Dix & Eaton, an agency in Cleveland, Ohio. It is the first in what I hope becomes a series of guest posts from social media thinkers working in agencies and firms around the world. Perspective from the front lines, if you will. It is 100-percent inspired by Chuck’s persistence in pitching the idea of the five Ws of social media listening concept to me. I finally just said, “Why don’t you write it?” He did. Here it is.

Whether you are new to social media or have been around the virtual block a few times with social networks, you will have likely heard the term “listening.” Check out any of the many posts on Jason’s blog on the topic if you need a refresher on it. (Recent List Below)

Although many people understand what it is, few truly understand how to apply listening to the social media process. It’s not something that you apply once at the beginning of an engagement. It is something we do throughout the process – ad infinitum. If you are not listening at every step of the way, there’s a good chance you’ll end up facing the same brand crises that confronted United Airlines and Domino’s recently in the social media theater.

What’s most striking is the stark contrast between the strategic nature of social media listening and the more tactical traditional media monitoring. In the case of the latter, a company would place a story in XYZ trade publication, and then set up the mechanisms to track that story. For that reason (among many others), it is often seen as low value, and very low-priority work by clients (read: something they aren’t interested in paying for). As PR professionals, we need to be better at describing what we can use traditional media listening to do – message development/identification, identification of potential outlets for placement, an understanding of what reporters are truly interested in writing about, etc.

But I digress.

Just because social media listening can be used for more strategic purposes and often is, that doesn’t mean clients are always willing to pay for it upfront. We all know, and have seen the blog posts lamenting the lack of listening by corporations before engaging in social networks. It really is a critical step, but many companies feel that they “know” their stakeholders, and hence don’t need to spend any time at the beginning figuring out what those people are saying.

So how do we turn that trend around to ensure listening is part of the beginning, middle and end of a company’s social media efforts? At Dix & Eaton we position it with clients as an integral part of the overall program To help that explanation resonate, we’ve developed the “five W’s” of social media listening: who, what, when, where and why.

  • Who – This is perhaps the most fundamental of all the “W’s.” You need to understand who is talking about you or your products. Are they an “influencer” (think Chris Brogan)? Does that person or person’s recommendation influence other people’s opinions of you and your products? When they write about you on their blog do they receive hundreds of comments confirming that POV or saying they are going to rethink their opinion of the company? These are the people you want to keep tabs on as you develop your engagement strategy. Even if they are not considered an “influencer,” you should not dismiss their commentary as it is important to understand people’s concerns in general.
  • What – What are your stakeholders saying about you? Are they reacting to an experience they’ve had with your product or service? Or is it just a passing mention of your company? That isn’t to say that the answer to one of these questions is more important than the other, but if people are reacting to an experience with your product it is often much easier to determine the strategy by which you fit yourself into that conversation. Also critical to answering the “what” is sentiment. Are the conversations positive, negative or neutral? Finally, included in the answer to this question is what your peers are doing. Are they active in social networks? Can you identify what, if anything, they are doing to be successful? What are people saying about them?
  • Where – Specifically, where are the conversations happening about you and your products? Are they taking place on forums? Are they taking place on blogs? Remember, it is much easier to join a conversation than to create and nurture one. This isn’t to say that if all of the conversations about your brand are taking place on blogs that you should create a blog. But creating conversation where none existed before is a time-consuming process, and one that many companies may not have the patience to see through to the finish line.
  • When – When are they talking about you? Are the conversations taking place in a vacuum (often not the case)? Are they event-driven? For example, in the case of many public companies (particularly, B2B) you often see spikes in conversation around specific corporate events, like earnings announcements. Are the conversations cyclical? A good example of this is a company that sees a tremendous amount of its overall revenue from a specific time of the year, such as back-to-school season. This type of company presents an interesting challenge to developing your social media strategy – how do you keep the conversation going during the off-season?
  • Why – This is probably the most critical part of this equation, and guess what? It probably cannot be totally solved through listening only. As my friend Don Bartholomew pointed out to me, answering the why with only listening just begins to scratch the surface. To truly understand the “why,” you need to ask your stakeholders directly. However, if you aren’t going to invest in primary research (though, I’d suggest you do), you can at least begin to understand the “why” by further examining the answers you’ve obtained by answering the “when” questions above.

As Michael Brito recently noted, listening for listening sake is overrated. What’s more important is how you utilize this listening to develop a cohesive social media strategy. Additionally, just because we’ve answered these questions at the beginning of the process doesn’t mean we are done with it. In many cases the answers to these questions, as you’ve begun to engage, can change. If you aren’t actively listening throughout your effort you will likely miss that shift. You want to ensure that you are where your stakeholders are, and ultimately want you to be.

We’ve had considerable success in talking to clients about social media listening with the five W’s. Have you had any issues when talking about listening with your clients or colleagues? What are some other things that you like to try and answer before the engagement stage?

Chuck Hemann is the research manager at Dix & Eaton, a communications consultancy with specialized expertise in social media strategies and tools. You can connect with Chuck on Twitter and at his blog on PR measurement. The views in this post belong to Chuck Hemann and do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of his employer.

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About the Author

Jason Falls
Jason Falls is the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at

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