When Kettle brand chips launched its new Maple Bacon flavor in 2013, they were nervous. The new product was a big risk for the small consumer snack company. Its Sea Salt and New York Cheddar products were faring well. Why spend a ton of money for another option that may or may not do well with consumers?

When it launched, the online conversation around Maple Bacon was polarizing. Some people liked it. Others hated it. The company was unsure if the investment was worth it.

But sales plugged along. The chip was modestly successful. Two years later, Kettle’s Maple Bacon flavor chips continue to generate more than twice the volume of the other two flavors. The polarization of the flavor actually benefits the company in more ways than expected. It anchors online conversations about Kettle. It keeps the brand top of mind with many consumers. And it drives trial.

Granted, you can spend tens of thousands of dollars on focus groups and research to find all this out. Or you can just analyze the online conversation for consumer insights, which is what Kettle does. They use a media monitoring tool called Zignal Labs to see what consumers and media are saying about them. The service gives them not just keyword counts and cursory social media metrics. It allows them to drill down and look at why things are happening, too.

Since Google Alerts first appeared in 2003, companies have been indexing and mining content online for keyword mentions. In the mid-2000s, as social media sites erupted with users, tools like Radian6, SocialMention and Sysomos emerged to “monitor” the social web.

But using social media monitoring to do just that – to monitor – is the tip of the iceberg. Smart brands know where there is data, there can be analysis. They go beyond monitoring, to listening, to discover what consumers are saying and why. And as the tools have matured, so has the technology set. Zignal Labs, NetBase, Crimson Hexagon and a number of other toolsets actually do more than just monitor. They analyze and crunch the data to give you insights, not just charts.

Now look at this SWOT analysis chart:

social conversation swot analysisThis is the kind of consumer research insights most brand managers expect to receive in a top-level executive summary from a very expensive market and consumer research project. This chart, however, was offered to Jaguar concerning its global service business, in a pitch from an agency for its marketing business.

Using advanced listening tool Infegy, the agency discovered and analyzed thousands of conversations in a matter of hours, pinpointing references to Jaguar dealerships, independent service providers and segmenting the conversations by geography, gender and more.

The resulting consumer insights not only won the agency a global account for one of the most iconic automotive brands in the world, but helped them give Jaguar service centers a strategic focus that would have cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars otherwise.

We’ve often made the analogy that 20 years ago there were millions of water coolers all around the world and sometimes people there were talking about brands. The Internet is now one big water cooler with millions of conversations taking place, many of them about brands. If you aren’t using social listening tools to find out not just what people are saying, but why, you’re missing out.

And perhaps paying too much money for the insights you could have for a fraction of the cost.