When it comes to social media, everyone rightly talks about the importance of listening. The web is teeming with conversations about everything you can think of – and quite probably even your company, organisation, candidate, issue or brand –  and being fully aware and up to speed will help you shape your communications so that it responds to the trends, interests and concerns topping people’s agendas at any given moment. Luckily, you can now monitor most of what’s going on in social media with a vast array of free tools. Here’s a sample.

Blogs and microblogs

Google Blog Search and Technorati are the standard dedicated blog search engines. I prefer Google because  it tends to find more items, especially when searching for more obscure things. For more detail and graphs, I’d recommend Blogpulse and Trendpedia. Graphs don’t just look nice: having an illustrated timeline is useful to see if buzz has grown regularly since the launch of a campaign or if there’s a spike in activity around a launch or event etc. Serph should in theory be really useful because it takes into account social networking and social bookmarking sites such as Delicious, Stumbleupon and Digg, but I’ve not found it to be great. Premise is good though so maybe it’s just a question of time.

Microblogging is on the increase and Twitter is the platform of choice for most. Search tweets using Twitter Search, Tweet Scan, and Tweetag (had not heard of this one until this morning when James pointed it out – thanks). The advanced search on Twitter Search is especially useful as it allows you to search for people as well as search items and to narrow down location and time.

Forums, comments and groups

Search engines struggle with forums, so these dedicated forum search tools are very useful: Boardreader and Forum Discussion. Search engines struggle even more with comments than they do with forums, so Backtype, which scours comments, can be a very handy tool indeed. They’re a bit out of fashion now, but Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups still have an enormous number of daily users, so a search on both is always worthwhile, although most search findings are useless to be honest.

Search items

Google Trends shows how popular any given search term is. The measurement is not that precise, as it’s a percentage of total search traffic on Google, but nonetheless useful to see if more or fewer people have been searching for the term in question over a given period of time.

Not strictly social media monitoring

Digg, which allows users to rate webpages, is still going strong. It’s handy way of finding top stories, although less useful when looking for detail about more obscure items. Yahoo have launched Yahoo Buzz, which is a lot like Digg but not as good, so not an alternative yet, but it’s still in beta, so worth checking out at a later date. Both tools can be used for any webpage, not just social media.

It’s often quite useful to find out what sort of traffic is going to your site (or any other site of interest for that matter). QuantcastCompete, and Alexa help to give you some idea of what amount and type of traffic is going to any given site (although in-depth and additional services are not free, except for some on Quantcast).

Any others?

If anyone can think of a tool I’ve missed, please do let me know. Thanks.

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Microblogging in Europe

November 1, 2008

Microblogging. Think a platform where you can publish a sentence from your PC or mobile phone in a few seconds; or think Facebook with status updates and nothing else. The use of microblogging services like Twitter for professional purposes have not taken off in Europe and yet they’re all the rage across the pond – could it be that we’re just late adopters in Europe, and that this will change once millions of people have signed up to Twitter and the like, or is it that it simply couldn’t work here?

So how is it being used in the US? I’m not going to analyse in depth, but a few of the uses are:

  • As with other forms of social media, simply to listen. Using, say, tweetscan, companies are taking note of what people are saying about them, as are politicians.
  • After having listened, interaction may be next, following the adage of open, honest, one-to-one communications which customers now expect. If people are writing stuff about them, companies are actually writing back. Or they can ask questions, or generally express an interest and be seen to engage.
  • Providing news, like updates on product releases, events, special offers, or just anything people might be interested in. JetBlue do this. As does the Obama campaign, regularly updating people on campaign events via Twitter.
  • Customer service. Some companies are actually keeping track of what’s being said about them, and when someone complains or needs some information about a product or service, the company responds on Twitter. Comcast are at the forefront of using Twitter for customer care.

But why are companies (or campaigns, as in the case of Obama) using Twitter? What’s wrong with just using email or other channels? Again, not an in-depth analysis, but the main reasons are:

  • It’s another place where people are having conversations, and knowing what people are saying may be valuable, as a company (or organisation, politician, whatever) may want to take note and even do something about it!
  • The medium as a message matters i.e. the type of conversation one can have. Messages are short and informal, obviously written by a person without scores of senior communications type people wondering whether the message fits the corporate mantra, meaning you’re personalising the way you communicate. Result? If done well, showing people you’re a decent human-being rather than a corporate puppet, that you’ve got soul, and it’ll help to build relationships.
  • It’s just handy: it being quick and easy simply means it’s suited for providing quick updates to people.

For more in-depth analyses of the uses of Twitter, I’d recommend these three posts from Ogilvy’s excellent 360° Digital Influence blog: Twitter for customer relations, Twitter for crisis communications, and Twitter for corporate reputation management.

As to the central question: will microblogging for business or other professional purposes remain limited in Europe because of inherent barriers, or is it just a question of time? Assuming Twitter and the like do take off and there’ll be millions of daily users in a couple of years, some barriers one could think of might be that the language factor makes it difficult to track conversations in multiple countries, so is it really worth it? Or that Europeans are more reserved and don’t regard their roles as consumers as seriously as Americans. Will they really complain about a product, or sing its praises, on Twitter?

I think both points can safely be dismissed. So what if a conversation is not pan-European? The quality or importance of an online conversation is not just defined by how many millions of people are following it, but by the nature of its content and engagement. A company can learn a lot from following online conversations even if there aren’t huge numbers of people involved. And engaging, or providing updates to valued customers or supporters, can be extremely precious in building relationships, even if the numbers are small. Similarly, so what if Europeans tend to be a bit more reserved when it comes to letting off steam in social media? Again, it’s not the number of people, or how vociferous they might be when discussing, say, a brand, but what they’re saying that matters. In addition, I’d say that Europeans’ obsession with mobile phones could play a part here. Being able to update ones own Twitter by mobile phone after having been to an interesting place or seeing something out of the ordinary, or simply to carry on following a conversation when away from the PC, would entice quite a few people.

Plus, moving away from marketing and into a Brussels context, I can see a viable use for a microblogging platform as a near-instant monitoring tool. Dedicated monitoring providers and consultancies are paid a fortune to follow legislative issues that impact their clients, but the monitoring reports are usually sent via email the next day. Basic updates at crucial times, say during a plenary debate at the European Parliament or a key event, can be given via a microblogging platform so that people are updated in near-real time. Via a plug-in, these updates could be made to appear on a website or blog as well as the relevant twitter page, so you would not even need to send people somewhere new, just say: “check out the live updates on our site”. Live-blogging is not far removed from this, but that implies slightly longer entries and requires a laptop, whereas microblogging/monitoring could even be done from a mobile phone.

And will any MEPs or MEP hopefuls take a leaf out of Obama’s book and try to Twitter their way into constituents’ hearts in the upcoming campaigns?! It’d probably be a waste of time to send regular updates given the low profile of European elections (no I’m not contradicting myself: updates don’t mean you’re engaging in a conversation and should only be provided with a significant number of followers). But I would advise them to follow what people are saying in social media in general, including Twitter, and the blogosphere in particular. There won’t be much, but some of it could make interesting reading. And if they really want to start an online conversation, I’d recommend they resort to traditional blogging, but I’ll save that for another post.