COMMAND-CENTERSome researchers say that social media is making us a little narcissistic. It is true that we all – even brands – spend a lot of time counting likes and followers and retweets. But if you really want to connect with social users, create effective marketing strategies, and fill in service gaps you’ve got to know what your audience is saying about your competitors, too.

Monitor – but don’t get trapped in negativity

Of course, the first instinct is to see where your competitors are lacking. Are people complaining? Did a tweet just dissipate into the ether without any faves or retweets? It’s easy to get trapped in looking for their negative characteristics to make yours look more positive.

But don’t stop there. Any social listening tool worth its salt can help you monitor conversations about your competitors to see what’s really working for them as well. Brand 24, for example, lets you set up alerts for your competitors’ names, so you can see how people are responding to them.

Maybe they’re good at something you’re having trouble with. There’s no shame in taking cues from strategies that are really working for others and applying those lessons to your next move – like offering something they’re not.

Fill in the blanks

Even if your competitors are getting positive feedback, social listening tools can help you gauge what’s missing, or what can be added. It’s all about seizing that opportunity. NetBase, to name another example, uses Twitter’s Audience Insights API and a “slanguage” tracker to make sure brands have all the info they need to get into how people feel.

By genuinely listening to how people are talking “in the wild” you can spot market opportunities and tweak your messaging to connect more authentically and give people what they really want – an amazing consumer experience. Especially if your competitors aren’t meeting that need.

Grab them while you can

All’s fair in business, right? You don’t have to be brutal about it, but if you’re listening to what people are saying about the competition and they’re unhappy, that’s an opportunity to woo them.

Just mind your approach, as overly-aggressive tactics can backfire. Remember when Gillette took to retweeting negative tweets about Dollar Shave Club? For some, it was a snarky, fun way to see a brand engage its customers. To others it came across as harsh, and might actually have driven more traffic to Dollar Shave Club in the end.

What can you do instead? You can tweet a link to your product page with a funny remark to the unhappy customer – or send a direct message. If numerous consumers are complaining, and you offer something that works better, make that the focus of your next marketing campaign. Whatever you do, interact like a human, not a “brand.”

Why? Because sales is still about building relationships – especially on social media! Gillette’s promoted tweets not only came across as unsportsmanlike, they were brand-centric. They did nothing to engage their audience. A personal thank you goes further than a few moments of retweet fame.

Then, instead of a 65 percent decrease in traffic, they could have gained some new fans. Narcissism may be “in,” but it’s best for your brand to avoid the trap – and not just because consumers will find you more appealing. Remember that old saying about “keeping your enemies closer?” It works. And you can bet they’re doing the same to you.