Editor’s note: Investor and serial entrepreneur Donald Thompson writes a weekly column for WRAL TechWire each Wednesday.

RALEIGH – COVID-19 has changed the face of business more rapidly than anyone could have predicted. As a result, the commercial landscape is faster-paced, more competitive and more inventive than ever. 

To keep our businesses alive and thriving, C-suite leaders must be agile and innovative. We must listen to, learn from and work with our customers in a way that feels responsive and personalized to their needs. These last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about how we listen and learn from social media and what we can do as business leaders to drive competitive advantage in this new economy.

A great resource for understanding how to leverage social media to create a competitive advantage is this recently released white paper, Social Media Strategy in a Shifting World, by my good friend Lizzie Newton. She’s one of the smartest people I know on social media strategy and has been helping brands tell their stories across channels for more than a decade. Now she and her team are leaders in social listening, helping create more value for clients.

Social engagement is up. Personal spending is down. 

The data here is overwhelmingly clear. Media consumption is higher than ever as consumers spend more time at home in front of screens and digital devices. Participation in social media has skyrocketed over the last six months, and Black Lives Matter has driven engagement from all directions. 

At the same time, consumers are spending less money in an effort to save for essential items and guard against an uncertain economic future. Recession, job losses and a volatile market mean stiff competition in every industry across the country and the world. 

The intersection of these powerful forces might sound scary or intimidating at first, but I choose to see it as a hopeful opportunity instead. This year has opened the door for businesses to build closer and more personal connections with consumers. If you hope to compete and stand out in this environment, now is the time to listen and learn what customers actually want from your business.

Use social listening for the fastest return on investment. 

You’re probably already familiar with social monitoring, but social listening is more than that. It’s more dynamic, more proactive and more powerful. Social monitoring means you are measuring the core metrics of your online presence (like hashtags, direct mentions and general industry trends) to avoid potential problems. While it does include conversations and replies, it only applies to comments and posts that intentionally tag you or your brand. Most of the organizations that I work with are already engaged in social monitoring to track their paid media return on investment and performance on A/B testing. 

Social listening, on the other hand, is not simply auditing; it’s identifying and listening to the conversations happening around you and your brand where you are not always tagged. By employing social listening, you are not only responding to your mentions, criticisms and compliments on your own social media platforms, you are engaging your audience outside of your company-controlled platforms and pages to gather insights into behaviour that’s occurring across the internet. 

You’ll build a real relationship that goes beyond the traditional one-sided marketing monologue. Social listening identifies trends and content in real time, capturing the full spectrum of conversations occurring around you, your industry and your brand. In essence, it helps you understand how consumers feel about your brand, competitors, industry, team, marketing and product. We call that feeling your social media sentiment. It is a powerful tool for developing content. 

Take full advantage of social media by engaging with your audience. 

Understanding your social media sentiment will help you gather product feedback, manage your company’s reputation, analyze your competitors and respond more quickly to customer service issues. By identifying your customer’s pain points, you can respond and adapt to them instantly, proving that your business is not just agile and innovative but also curious, helpful and human. 

My businesses use social listening as part of everyday operations, so I was stunned to learn that, according to a March 2020 study by Gartner, only 51% of marketing leaders use social listening platforms for “rapid information about consumers’ changing preferences, habits and expectations during the COVID-19 crisis.” Frankly, the other 49% are leaving too much on the table.

Create better content, response and brand engagement. 

Listening and responding to your customer’s needs will help you create a better social media strategy. I love the example of KitchenAid appliances. In 2018, their social media strategy was, honestly, pretty flat. They wanted to encourage consumer engagement but most of their content was a one-way street: a monologue and not a dialogue. Over time, they saw more and more customers using social media as a path to technical support. 

By listening to that need and responding quickly, KitchenAid managed an 85% growth in social media engagement, a 90% increase in social media fan base and a 143% increase in social interactions. They were able to shift their customer service strategy, tweak some of their product designs and reduce the pain points for KitchenAid users. 

Another example comes from Wasabi Cloud Storage, one of my favorite brands. For 48 hours after launching their Migrate with Nate campaign, they used real-time social listening on all their social platforms to identify key conversations about the video and make immediate changes to the campaign content. 

That way, they could see where conversations were happening as they unfolded, not just respond to tags and mentions on Wasabi’s pages. The results were immediate and significant: 1 million impressions, 450 total social engagements and 31,400 total video views. 

That brings me to another point; make sure to diversify the platforms where you are listening. KitchenAid might see huge engagement through visual platforms like Instagram, but Wasabi works more efficiently with IT experts who are using LinkedIn. It’s important to know not only what your customers are saying but also where they are engaging one another.

Increase revenue with better business strategy. 

The insights you gain from social listening should reach beyond your social media and marketing strategies to inform your comprehensive brand strategy as well. Take what you learn and be ready to bend. 

For instance in the KitchenAid example, social listening drove their team to integrate customer service and support with product design, sales and marketing so they could reduce technical frustrations, expand their global distribution and reorganize staffing needs to meet consumer demand. The result was better products, a stronger team and increased revenue. 

By listening and responding to customer concerns, you show them that you are helpful and human. In the shifting landscape of 2020, those two qualities make all the difference. 


With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald Thompson is a thought leader on business growth strategy, personal goal achievement and the C-suite role in influencing company culture. A serial entrepreneur and Certified Diversity Executive, Donald is CEO of Walk West, which was named one of the fastest-growing companies in the US by Inc. in 2018, 2019 and 2020. He’s also the co-founder of The Diversity Movement, a data-driven and technology-enabled diversity and inclusion consultancy. Download the full white paper on social listening here: Social Media Strategy in a Shifting World: How to Craft a Message that Stands Out

Learn more by visiting donaldthompson.com.

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