Listen “Listen. Do you want to know a secret?” asked Paul McCartney. I love listening to music and I love the Beatles. What does that have to do with this article? Nothing. I just wanted to make a point. “Listen.” It’s what people say when they want your attention. But sometimes listening is tough. I know this because my kids never listen to me. But if you want to become successful in our industry, listening is a MUST!

Hearing is passive; listening connotes purpose. We listen to learn. If you want to create a great content strategy, you must first create great content, and that starts with listening.

First and foremost, you need to listen to your target audiences. Listen to discover their needs and wants. Listen to get clues about content that excites and engages your audience. Also, understand that as a content marketer it is your job to talk back to your audience, to alert them to the things they don’t yet know about. That means you must also listen for news and trends in the larger world, then separate the meaningful from the evanescent. That’s how you distinguish your content in the minds of your audience. They must know that you offer what they’re looking for.

Listening Posts

Depending on the demographics of your target audiences, there are several good, no cost listening posts online. The big three are Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, but Google+ and a few others can also be useful.

Twitter

Twitter is very good for identifying news stories and ideas that are currently trending among all users, as well as for monitoring what appeals to your target audience. Twitter users tend to be those under 30 who both make and follow popular culture, although there are certainly older people who are heavy users too. Nearly one-quarter of all Twitter users are based in the US, while another 25% hail from Japan, the UK, Indonesia or Brazil.

The Twitter platform makes it easy to identify trending topics, as well as to locate conversations around specific subjects that interest your target audiences. Hashtags mark tweets of a similar nature, so you can quickly search for and find thought leaders, news sources and relevant issues to monitor.

You can also search for the type of people who are representative of your target audience. Searches are organized by occupation (teachers, writers), interests (organic farming, doll collecting), politics (red state, blue senate) or any number of other categories. Once you find users who post appropriate links, you can collect them in a Twitter list, which you can share or keep private. This makes it easy to check the posts of those you’ve identified as influential.

Facebook

If your target audience is older, Facebook should be added to your listening mix. Depending on how you define terms, Facebook still skews “young,” but the 45 to 54 year-old age bracket is growing rapidly. Increasingly, families are using Facebook to share photos and stay in touch. It was recently reported that teens and early twenty-somethings are leaving the platform in favor of YouTube. (Apparently, it IS your grandmother’s Facebook.)

The best bet for listening on Facebook is to subscribe to users whose profiles seem to be compatible with your target audience. It’s no longer necessary to be “friends” with everyone you follow; just subscribe to a personal profile and you’re all set. Additionally, many brands, organizations and government agencies maintain Pages, which you can “like” and then mine for topic ideas.  Examples include The New York Institute of Photography, Eating Organic magazine and Target. The Facebook search function is good, so just type in your topic and experiment with the returns.

Google+

If your target audience is mostly male, Google+ is a good listening platform, as its user base is a whopping 70% male, the majority of whom are under 35. Google+ features interest groups called Communities, to which you can subscribe, much the same way as you subscribe to Facebook Pages. Examples of Google+ Communities include: Content Marketing and Social Media, Animal Lovers and Philosophy of Mind.

LinkedIn

Another good place to monitor the opinions of a male audience is LinkedIn, which skews male (61%) and has a large contingent of international users.

Other useful statistics to know about LinkedIn: 44% of its users are between the ages of 35 and 54, 31% have annual household incomes above $100k and a quarter have completed graduate school. LinkedIn was originally created as a network of professionals and job seekers, but it is slowly branching out to a broader social platform, with helpful comments and links to other topics, particularly business news of the day.

In addition to social media, the internet offers tools such as Survey Monkey or Wufoo that let you send email surveys to your target audiences. These, obviously, require your audience members to take action and respond to your questions, so they are not likely to be useful until you have established a good audience knowledge base through listening.

So what’s my advice to you? If you want to be a good content marketer, listen up to get the low down for your content strategy.