You’ve probably heard people talking about social media monitoring. It’s wise to listen to conversations before you participate in them. Social media monitoring allows you to do just that.

But many brand and marketing managers responsible for social media don’t quite understand what social media monitoring is and why it’s important. Here’s a quick primer:

Social Media Monitoring Is Listening

Listening to online conversations is technically done without ears. Using search engine technology, social media monitoring tools scan the Internet looking for documents that contain keywords you select. They return those results in some sort of order that allows you to see where people have mentioned your brand, company, product or whatever you specified.

Seeing these results reveal which websites or blogs you should visit to either see what people are saying about you or actually participate in those conversations. Without monitoring, the conversations are happening without your knowledge.

Social Media Monitoring Can Be Free

The easiest way to start monitoring social media is to sign up for some free tools and services. Google Alerts allows you to search for a word or phrase just as you would in a regular search, and then notifies you when something new pops up on the web with that search term. You can subscribe to email updates of the new search results or add them to your RSS subscriptions. (If you don’t know what RSS is, watch “RSS in Plain English,” a video from CommonCraft.)

You can also search for your company or product name on Twitter to see real-time conversations that include mentions or discussions of your brand. Add Technorati to the list and your monitoring will cover the majority of blogs as well.

Paid Social Media Monitoring Solutions Are Often Worth the Investment

The one drawback to the free monitoring solutions is that manual work will be required to quantify the results for your executives or report your findings. Paid social media monitoring services like Radian6, Scout Labs and Techrigy pull all those conversations together into an organized, web-based dashboard and allow you to pull charts and graphs that explain the information with very little work on your part.

One big benefit to many (but not all) of the paid solutions is their ability to analyze sentiment and tone of the conversations through fancy computer algorithms using natural language processing. What this means is that you can log in to your service, see that there were 250 conversations mentioning your brand this week, and of those, 83 percent were positive, 10 percent were negative and the other 7 percent were neutral.

Paid monitoring solutions offer dashboard experiences like this one from Radian6 which makes monitoring your brand easier

Monitoring Is Only the First Step

Finding and cataloging the online conversations about your company is just the tip of the iceberg in social media monitoring. Once you know where conversations are taking place and what is being said about your company, you can then participate in the conversation. This is critically important for companies because today’s web-savvy consumer requires direct access to the people behind the products and services they buy or shop for.

Let’s say you find a customer upset about the service she received at your place of business earlier today. Letting the individual mouth off to her friends who have a natural predisposition to either agree or jump on the bandwagon of hate only guarantees your company will be thought of negatively by those involved in the conversation. However, social media case studies show time and time again that entering into similar conversations with a simple, “I’m sorry you had a bad experience. What can I do to help?” shows the disgruntled fan—and her bandwagon-jumping friends—that you’re truly interested in improving the situation. The customer response is almost always something like, “Wow. I didn’t know you were listening. Thanks for offering.”

Smart Monitoring Can Build Your Business

Please don’t think that social media monitoring is limited to mitigating online detractors. By analyzing the conversations around not just your company, but also your industry or even competitors, you can gain a significant market advantage and actually drive business.

Let’s say you’re monitoring mentions of your nearest competitor and uncover a trend that people are complaining that their product (say, a coffeepot) is great but not durable. You then change your advertising campaign to trumpet the fact your coffeepot lasts three times longer than the competitor’s.

For another example, suppose you have a national product that has inconsistent sales patterns from region to region. Your social media monitoring shows you what people in the Pacific Northwest say are the best and worst qualities of your product, but the answers are different in the South. This consumer intelligence helps you better market your product based on geographic and cultural specifics which can be the difference in customers choosing you or your competition.

Last but not least, sophisticated monitoring can even reveal individual customers who are at the point of making a purchase decision, enabling you to reach out and help them make a connection to your product at the absolute perfect time.

What Are You Waiting For?

Now that you have an idea of what social media monitoring is and what it can do for you, dive in. Start a Google Alert for your company or product. Add one for some general industry terms your customers might use when discussing your category. Add one for each of your competitors. As you feel comfortable, add Twitter and Technorati searches, then branch out and start exploring other social media monitoring tools. At the very least, you’ll have a better idea of what people are saying about you.

What social media monitoring tools are you using? What are your thoughts?  Please leave a comment below.

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