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Taking the pulse of health communication and other topics using social listening

You may not be aware of it, but everything you post online gets “heard,” especially on social media. Social listening is a form of artificial intelligence that “listens” for the use of key words or phrases on social media. In the healthcare arena, collecting this data allows researchers to evaluate sentiment, or how people feel about a particular topic. Social listening can also help identify the spread of misinformation about health matters. 

Diane Krause, MS-MPH, CPH, RDN, ORAU health education specialist, is a social listening expert. She recently sat down for a question-and-answer session about social listening, why it matters, and how social listening can benefit communicating about health issues.

What is social listening?

Social listening is a process of learning what people are saying online about a topic. It involves finding conversations that mention a specific topic over time and analyzing the characteristics of those conversations. Social listening can indicate where a topic is being discussed online and to what extent, who is participating in the conversation space including the most influential individuals and organizations, what the most engaging messages and message themes are, and when the conversations are occurring in relation to other events.

How does social listening work?

The process of social listening and analysis consists of two main steps: gathering the data and then analyzing it. Our team develops keyword queries that we feed into a social listening software tool. The tool helps identify related conversations and associated data. We review and analyze the data to develop an understanding of the important themes and conversation characteristics. We synthesize and share findings with our customers to inform their formative research and communications strategies.

How did social listening become part of your expertise?

I began this work when working on a literature review about social media and the opioid epidemic for the Appalachian Regional Commission. It became clear that social listening could provide insight into our target audiences and could inform other formative research activities such as environmental scans, literature reviews, surveys, and interviews. Since then, I have participated in several projects conducting social listening and analysis for multiple topics.

From a health communications perspective, why is social listening important?

Social listening uncovers insights about what people are thinking and feeling about a topic. It provides a way to "take the pulse" of people's views, known as sentiment analysis.

As a research tool, social listening allows access to informal conversations and discussions occurring within the context of social networks. These kinds of informal conversations may not be found when using a different research method.

Social listening can help identify misinformation that is traveling online. It can also reveal knowledge gaps of those participating in online conversations. In health communications, these insights can be used for developing a communication strategy and materials that address these issues.

Can you give me an example of social listening at work?

We examined Twitter messages related to several different types of vaccines to learn if messages were for, against, or neutral about the vaccine being mentioned. We found that people spoke about flu, HPV, and childhood vaccines differently. Then we took a closer look at messages that were against vaccination and identified the major themes and tactics that expressed vaccine hesitancy. We found that the message tactics used varied depending on the vaccine type.

For more information about ORAU’s social listening capability, contact Diane Krause at

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About ORAU

ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, provides science, health, and workforce solutions that address national priorities and serve the public interest. Through our specialized teams of experts and access to a consortium of more than 150 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local, and commercial customers to provide innovative scientific and technical solutions and help advance their missions. ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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