Social listening, or social media monitoring, is a growing focus for small businesses that are serious about connecting with their customers.

That focus centers on taking the massive amount of social media posts from places like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and even personal blogs and finding out what customers and potential customers are saying about your company. This is a simple concept that has multiple applications in helping you grow your organization. Here are a few free tools to get you started in your journey to being a good social listener.

Hootsuite might be one of the best free social listening tools. Although it is not used solely for that purpose, the platform allows you to login simply with your Facebook or Twitter account. You can observe your streams of posts from multiple social media outlets all in one place. Hootsuite estimates that this can save you about 20 minutes a day. That might not sound like a lot, but it adds up to five days a year!

To keep it simpler sign up for Google Alerts. Google allows you to get alerts on your web devices whenever the word or phrase comes up in new results. This can be meant for keeping up on topics of interest, but it also can be used to help you learn what’s being said about your brand on the internet.

SocialMention is a free web service that allows you to type in your company’s name and find out how it is doing based on four measurements–strength, sentiment, passion and reach. This site uses algorithms to determine how your brand is doing in the eyes of others. It also reveals the average seconds per mention, when the last mention was, and how many unique sources they came from.

If you want more in depth analysis of your online customers there are companies willing to help you, for a price. Microsoft offers its Social Engagement platform to those who are seeking a one-stop social-listening tool to those who are willing to pay $50 to $65 a month. But the more economical business person might find they can get all that they needs for social listening from the variety of free tools that exist through the web without paying a dime. Some social listening services offer both free and paid versions with different features.

So social listening is a trending topic, but why should you care? Here are five ways that paying attention to what your online customer base has to say about your brand can make a difference.

  • Connect with sales prospects in a way that is better than cold calling. You know these followers are talking about your business already. That gives you a possible foot in the door. Reach out to them and talk back.
  • Find the conduits to your customers. There are fans of your service or product and then there are super-fans. Find out who the movers and shakers are when it comes to your companies online presence and make them a priority.
  • Learn the demographics of your customer base. Learn what social media your customers and potential customers are using. You may also discover their age, gender and other traits. Some social listening tools let you see users by their location.
  • Be more attentive to your clientele. Through social listening you can reach out to your customers outside your business location. You may develop relationships that translate into higher sales over a longer period.
  • Find out what customers think. Are there problems with your product or service? Take care of them in their infancy before they grow bigger. You can also learn about the changes to your product or service that customer think would make them better.

Social listening is an opportunity to make your business grow. You can learn your customer base, and become more attentive to their needs. It is a concept that is rooted in providing great customer service. With a little time and effort you can make it work for you.