One of the best things about leveraging the power of social media for business is not only the way it allows you to talk directly to your audience, but also the way it enables you to listen to them.

Once you get into this habit, you can start using social media more intelligently than simply as a tool for communication, and instead as source of big data that will allow you to further develop buyer personas for your company which in turn, feeds directly into your marketing strategy.

In order to turn social media activity into big data, you are going to need some software. Social media monitoring tools can cast their gaze over your entire fleet of social media platforms, and identify trends, watch your competitors, as well as measure customer attitudes.

There are literally hundreds of these tools out there, so we have attempted to compress them down into a list of the best and brightest. If you are quite new to the world of social media monitoring then you’ll be interested in the first part of our list as it is dedicated exclusively to tools that you can use without laying down a dime.

Once you are a bit more of a social media master you may find that you want a suite of software that is a bit more extensive and robust. For when this time comes, head on over to the second part of this guide, where you will find the very best enterprise level premium packages for your delectation.

So, now we are very much into the second half of the year, here is our guide to the social media monitoring software you should be using in 2016.

Here come the freebies!

#1 Hootsuite

Hootsuite has been a staple of social media monitoring for some time now and can often be found at or near the top of lists such as this, and it’s easy to see why. It allows for the creation of custom reports to share with your team, as well as tracking sentiment and the growth of your followers. Google analytics and Facebook Insights can also both be incorporated with ease, greatly expanding the amount of data available to you.

On top of this Hootsuite also has robust scheduling tools and has a dashboard available on most devices, both desktop and mobile, ensuring that you are never more than a few taps from your data.

#2 Twitter Counter

Twitter Counter is one of the most popular Twitter monitors on the planet and can help you get the most out of Tweeting, from posting right through to engagement.

It can analyse interaction to figure out the optimum time for you to post, when your audience is most likely to be online, and can figure out which sorts of content get the most interaction, allowing you to sharpen your content strategy to a razor’s edge.

You can also monitor the growth of your profile, engaging with new followers as they join your community. Perhaps even more importantly you can see who is unfollowing you, allowing opportunities to find out why, by sending exit surveys. This fantastic function allows you find out what content turns people on or off, and keep your followers engaged more effectively.

You can also monitor hashtags and keywords, ensuring that you are keeping up with the conversations that matter to your business. A must for agile marketers.

#3 Social Mention

Social Mention is a search engine that can scan over 100 social media platforms, from Facebook to Digg, and enables you to track and measure the online dialogues that are relevant to you.

You can find out what people are saying about your new product, even if they aren’t saying it directly to you, or what they are saying about your company in general – and all in real-time.

#4 Klout

If thought leadership is your goal then Klout is the tool for you. Klout’s focus is on measuring influence and suggesting ways for you to increase it.

We know that the best way to gain an impact online is to create and share great content. Klout can help you with this by suggesting content that your audience hasn’t seen yet. Obviously if your content is original it will increase the chance of your audience reading and re-sharing it.

Klout also analysis the impact of your content by aggregating your retweets, likes and shares, as well as other factors such as Wikipedia ranking into a “Klout Score,” out of 100 that allows you to measure your impact at a glance (Barack Obama has a Klout Score of 99, so you can see what you are up against).

#5 Twitter Analytics

Sometimes you don’t have to go too far afield to get the tools that you need, and Twitter has some top drawer management tools built in.

Twitter Analytics allow you to make your Tweeting more successful by measuring engagement and exploring the demographics of your audience such as interests and location.

Twitter Cards also allow you to attach content to the Tweets of users who connect to your feed allowing for even greater reach, and a richer audience experience that can only benefit you in return.

#6 Crowdfire

Offering a similar experience to Twitter Counter, Crowdfire expands the function to include Instagram.

On top of the usual stats and analytics, Crowdfire allows you to find relevant users to follow, and track how your posts impacted on your follower/unfollower statistics. On top of this you can use Crowdfire to monitor the relationships between any two Twitter and/or Instagram accounts.

Ready to pony up some cash?

#1 Sysomos

For global businesses you cannot beat Sysomos. Its ability to understand and monitor 186 languages (including slang) and translate 55 makes it invaluable to any business with customers beyond its home shores.

It has a multi-step filtering system that allows you to get rid of the social media noise, spam, suspicious links and nonsense, and pull out only the relevant information. Very useful when you are potentially dealing with billions of posts.

You can also monitor sentiment, and whilst these tools can be a little unreliable with some software (identifying “I’d kill for a Burger King” as a negative sentiment for example), the tools on offer with Sysomos work very well indeed.

On top of sentiment Sysomos has the usual suite of analytics, as well as up to two years of historical data, which is a key indicator of a top of the line social media service.

#2 Buzzsumo

Offering a free trial before asking you to commit, Buzzsumo lets you identify the content that performs best for various topics – even your competitors. It allows you to get ahead of the curve by monitoring sharing patterns and identify the content that is on the verge of trending. You can then filter these results by time period, network, content type, domain etc., to garner further insight on the best ways to gain an impact.

Buzzsumo allows you to set up alerts to keep you informed when certain keywords or authors are mentioned allowing you instant access to the hot topics, even if from a competitor.

With a big focus on influencers, Buzzsumo also allows you to identify key figures and analyse their patterns. You can find out which influencers have the biggest reach or the most authority, what content they are sharing, and help you to connect with them.

#3 Social Studio

Social Studio is an easy to use monitoring tool, which allows anyone to become their own social media manager. Social Studio is very user friendly and has lots of hints and tips that will allow almost anyone to become an analytics whizz.

You can easily view your analytics on the bespoke analyse tab, and the shared content function is a great tool. It not only makes it a breeze to share content across your company with many different users, but also allows you to track your content’s journey. You can see who has viewed your post and when, where they posted it, and the engagement it received from there.

#4 Cision (formally Visible Technologies)

One of the more expensive services on our list, Cision does a great job of taking the vast amount of information that it monitors and breaking it down into easily understood pieces, preventing you from getting too overwhelmed.

It’s streamlined and easy to use, so you don’t need a degree in social media management in order to use it. It also allows you to filter result by Klout Score, so there is a nice little tie in with that platform we featured earlier on our list.

Apart from that it comes with everything else you’d expect with a platform of its kind, as well as unlimited streams, mentions and users, which does offset the price a little.

#5 Oracle Social Cloud

Offering all of the features you’d expect and managing to perform very well across the board Oracle is a great platform for those ready to start putting some money down on social media monitoring. It has particularly robust social engagement monitoring and great integration with other features, both internal and external.

The inability to create PDF reports is a somewhat glaring omission, but generally speaking Oracle is a fantastic monitoring tool that is well worth the asking price.

There you have 6 of the best free, and 5 of the best paid social media monitoring platforms out there. We like to think that our viewpoint is expertly informed, but we always welcome discussion and dissenting opinion, so head on down to the comments if you have something you’d like to add.

Have fun.