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Social Media Monitoring vs. Social Listening: There's a Difference

“Geez! I heard you, Mom!”

“Yes, but were you actually listening?”

Ah, this is a conversation some of us may have had with our parents (or kids!). And it’s true. There’s a nuance between “hearing” and “listening.” In communication classes, you may have discussed these differences.

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Hearing: Perceiving sound.

Listening: Giving one’s attention to a sound; making an effort to hear something.

Another way to look at this is active vs. passive listening:

Active listening: Mindfully hearing and attempting to comprehend a message; providing feedback and acknowledgement to show a message was heard/understood.

Passive listening: Hearing what’s said without necessarily understanding or retaining the information.

Technically, active listening in interpersonal communication also includes nonverbal signals, but this general idea is a fitting analogy for social media management. That’s because there’s certainly a difference between social media monitoring and social listening. In one, you’re tracking what’s being said. In the other, you’re processing the messages. One is more automatic, while the other takes a little more effort.

Let’s break things down a bit more. In social media monitoring, “hearing” means you might:

  • Look at notifications on your social accounts (replies, comments, likes, etc.)
  • Track conversations by keywords/hashtags
  • Pay attention to entities you “own” (e.g., your official social accounts)
  • Reply to pressing mentions/questions/comments

In listening, you’re doing all of the above, but you’re also more strategic because you’re attempting to understand what you hear. When you listen closely, you:

  • Pay attention to broader conversations, not just individual messages
  • Gain context of conversations by looking holistically
  • Spot trends that emerge over time
  • Look beyond notifications, mentions, and tags with broader (and, sometimes, more specific) searches and queries
  • Search more than your official social accounts, such as message boards, blogs, groups, comment sections of local media, etc.
  • Move past institution-related searches and explore those for majors/programs/centers/initiatives you’re actively promoting or trying to grow
  • Proactively engage with your audience
  • Share information helpful to other on-campus parties

Most importantly, through all of these facets of listening, you’re collecting and analyzing data. Then, you can use the valuable insights to report out to others or make business decisions, large and small.

Leveraging Your Listening

Listening, of course, leads to better audience engagement. But it can go even further because you can connect what you’re hearing to your institutions’ goals and initiatives. For example, how might listening solve (or even discover) problems? How can it create opportunities? As you dive into your listening more actively, you might be able to:

  • Find words/phrases your followers are using that you weren’t aware of, which can help you speak their language
  • Understand how your audience interacts with others online, which may provide cues on what to do and how to interact with them
  • Uncover social issues or other concerns your audiences care about
  • See what pain points pop up frequently, which may help drive internal change of processes
  • Discover the types of content your audience shares and creates
  • Decide which platforms are best for your brand or specific segments of your audience

By tracking changes and trends over time, you develop historical data so you can see how sentiment or engagement levels change over time. Can you compare dates with what was happening on campus? Since higher ed is cyclical, you can see how you fare year to year for those important campus events: move-in, graduation, decision day, homecoming, etc.

Listening to Tame the Noise

Sometimes we hear a lot of noise, but when we really listen, we can find what’s most relevant or important. For example, my former institution shared a (similar) name with a community college in another state. Occasionally (with some spurts of often) the other school appeared in my automated searches on TweetDeck and Sprout Social. Many social media managers may experience this, as colleges and universities often share initials, abbreviations, school colors, or mascots, which could lead to (accidental) duplicate user-created hashtags. Using more specific queries in these cases, such as geographic location, might be extremely beneficial to your listening efforts.

Along with noise cluttering the message, we can also miss what’s being said when we’re not actively listening. The most obvious way to listen more closely is to go beyond mentions and tags. Instead, search for your institution’s name and any nicknames (with and without quotes), as many people aren’t proactively looking to engage with you and won’t tag you. But it goes beyond that. If you’re just monitoring “the usuals,” you may miss messages in which your institution name is misspelled or when folks use variations or outdated versions of your institution’s name. My former institution’s official editorial style guide called for a hyphen in our nickname (E-town), but you can bet I searched for mentions with and without the punctuation.

Being Proactive: A Benefit of Listening

Perhaps one of the best parts of social listening vs. social media monitoring is the ability to be proactive. It’s always necessary to react and respond to people who are trying to gain your attention, however, when you’re actively listening, you can stumble upon opportunities to interact with—and even surprise—people. This, in turn, could lead to successful marketing campaigns.

I’ll share an example. This goes back many years, but when searching for my institution's name on Twitter in 2011, I found a photo of a student with an acceptance letter. This inspired me to proactively search for the institution’s name with the words “accepted” or “applied/apply” to find prospective students that I (meaning the institution) could congratulate or encourage. This led to our “Share Your Moment” campaign, which tied into a spiffy and newly redesigned acceptance packet to send out the following year... a piece of mail that created a more emotional experience for the students. This led to sharing the “share your moment” idea with my industry peers in presentations, articles, and webinars. (Of course, the campaign was more newsworthy at the time since social listening was still kinda of new and experimental.)

Overall, since I was new in the position and, at the time, our social accounts were also fairly new, this proactiveness set the tone for a helpful and friendly personality (often with a bit of surprise and delight!) during the years I managed the accounts.

A more recent example occurred with a writing conference I plan in conjunction with a literary magazine and small press I run. I searched for the conference name, not just the hashtag, and I found a tweet from someone who said that she really wanted to attend, but wasn’t sure she could afford it. I reached out to her via direct message and offered her a promo code: she signed up that day. The discount wasn’t insane by any means, but I firmly believe it was the thought—the show of care, that I was paying attention—that did it.


Often, we’re really good at monitoring, especially during major campus events and milestones or during a crisis. But many higher education marketing shops are small and don’t always have the time and tools to listen well or analyze and use the data to its fullest potential. This often means many of us hear more than we listen and may, in turn, be more reactive than proactive. Don’t miss opportunities for engagement, growth, customer service, lead generation, and research—listen up.

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The post Social Media Monitoring vs. Social Listening: There's a Difference originally appeared on the Campus Sonar Brain Waves blog.

Donna Talarico

Donna Talarico is an independent content writer and journalist focusing on higher education and publishing. A former director of communications at a small liberal arts college, she’s been published in The Writer, mental_floss, Wiley’s Recruiting and Retaining Adults Learners, CASE Currents, Guardian Higher Education, and a number of alumni magazines. Donna lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and is founder and publisher of Hippocampus Magazine.

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