Most companies know they need to pay attention to social media, because it provides the richest data sets of consumer information that have ever existed. So brands know there's an opportunity, and they fear being left out if they aren't tapped in.

But what's the difference between monitoring social media and listening to social media?

Many times those terms are confused or used interchangeably. Scores of solution providers and technologies have sprung up, all promising to help companies understand what people are saying about their brands online.

What do you really need to know? We'll explore the differences between monitoring and listening analytics, with emphasis on the value of true listening.

In short: Monitoring sees trees; listening sees the forest.

To borrow an analogy from public health, imagine that a mysterious illness has struck your city. The equivalent of a monitoring solution is to find as many sick people as you can and treat them. You could "monitor," going door to door, checking each person for signs of sickness and then treating each one. You would have an effect, but it would take many doctors and nurses—and a lot of time. And if you don't get at the root cause, another outbreak could occur across town.

The listening analytics approach looks for themes and patterns in the data. A listening approach would discover what caused the illness—"Aha! They all were exposed to the leak!"—how it spreads, which treatments are working, and (perhaps) how to prevent it in the future.

Effective epidemiology requires finding patterns that lead to an overall response—even a cure—not finding one more sick person.

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Dan Neely is the CEO of Networked Insights ( and has been instrumental in the creation of the Networked Insights social-media listening platform SocialSense.