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JA How-to: A four-step guerrilla guide to social listening

Social Media Signals

Investing time exploring social listening tools can help tune your business strategy, connecting the dots for greater profitability AND deeper audience connections. Image: Intersection Consulting

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Have you been keeping up with all the hype around “social monitoring” software? There are scores of tools out there that promise to deliver a secret treasure map of insight and intel: how to decode the value of your products by “listening” to your audience “talk” about them across social channels.

Here at the JA, we have been evaluating social listening tools for our own work. This post offers a summary of what we’ve found, for you to consider as you size up methods for deeper knowledge of and engagement with your audience. We’ll tell you a little bit about how each tool works, and share a framework so you can consider how social listening may advance your success. Our goal with this list isn’t to cite everything that’s available, but to present a comprehensive range of options we think may be most useful in your work.

There are a number of ways publishers might apply social listening techniques. Some are simple, some more complex. To help guide the build of our service model, we subscribed to and tested the capabilities of one social listening industry leader, Radian6, over the past eight months. While it appears to satisfy major corporate brands like Pepsi, UPS, and Dell, it didn’t do as well helping the JA achieve its objectives, which are less about brand loyalty and more about tracking emerging trends.

So we began to explore other options. If you’re considering the offerings of the big kids on the block (such as Radian6, Crimson Hexagon, Lithium, Simplify360, or Alterian), know specifically what you want out of it before you go in. Also, don’t let budget stop you from experimenting. If you’re on a shoestring with little time to spare, you may find some tools you need in these free or low-cost alternatives.

Our best success in both choosing tools and getting a good outcome from social listening came from having a clear plan going in. Outlining your community and business requirements early on focuses your search for a social listening solution that provides the best fit for both budget and bandwidth. Know what you want to achieve before you start trying tools, and know how much time you have to invest in the effort. Going in with an idea of what you hope to learn sets up the experiment for a greater return on the effort.

There are four basic steps to successful social listening: discovery, analysis, management and integration. We list tools that can help with each element below.

Discover: Find out who’s talking and what they’re talking about

Social Media Listening

Whether you call it listening, monitoring or tracking is important, but the concept remains the same. Learning what’s said about you, your company, your products - including your reporting - in the wide, wide world of social media. Once you know what people say, you can do something in response: Engage a source, answer a question, solve a problem. The aim is to solidify relationships with people already interested in what you do. It’s worth considering how to measure all of this too. Image: Altimeter Group.

  • To follow Twitter streams, tweet, and collaborate with teammates who co-manage your Twitter account
    • We recommend: HootSuite, or a similar breed like TweetDeck or Seesmic. Here are some reviews if you need help deciding.
    • We decided the $30.99 per month for the premium version of HootSuite was worth the investment. It offers custom options for multiple team members to be active on multiple social media accounts. It also archives up to 10,000 tweets, searches, or hashtags.
  • For more advanced monitoring that goes beyond Twitter with alerts and custom queries
    • We recommend: Google Alerts to scan blogs, news and whatever else Google searches. Use it in your RSS reader for free. Or pay $119.85 for three months of Giga Alert to get custom query monitoring, including searching tweets, and better-tailored notifications.
  • Try plugging keywords relevant to your community into Topsy to see what comes up. It can search and highlight real time updates from Twitter and Google+ including links, photos and videos with a better eye for relevancy than Twitter’s built in search.
    • SocialMention is another free search and alert tool.
    • TweetMeme will tell you the most popular articles being shared on Twitter.
    • Trendsmap and What the Trend will give you a bird’s-eye view of what’s trending on Twitter around the world.

These deep discover tools are often too broad, so you may just want to slim down the top links of the day from trusted people within your own network using Gist or Summify.

Analyze: Get conversation details and assess your engagement

Radian 6 Sliders

A little more of this, a little less of that. Good social listening tools let you set a wide range of parameters to hone in on the information you want.

Manage: Stay in touch with your community, track your online research

  • To organize and archive web content
    • We recommend: Zotero for keeping track of research because it’s open source and can be backed up locally as well as in the cloud. You might prefer Diigo, Pocket or Instapaper, but beware of portability limitations.
    • Pinboard is the new favorite for managing bookmarks after Yahoo more or less abandoned Delicious. Use it to keep track of all the different web services out there. It also conveniently keeps a copy of all the links you share on Twitter.
  • You can also customize your web browser to do some heavier lifting. These Firefox add-ons are a huge asset to my work:
    • Session Manager allows you to save your windows and tabs exactly as they are. Perfect for research that you want to revisit later.
    • Tree Style Tab lets you manage many tabs, using indents so you know what site you came from.
    • Smart Bookmarks Bar stores frequently visited sites at the top with just a small favicon so it only takes up a tiny bit of room.
  • To track your contacts and find new leads:
    • Try SocialBro for staying on top of your Twitter followers. We found the user experience a bit more full featured than competitor Nimble.
    • Gist can be used to manage contacts across different networks. That lets you get a sense of what people are doing in different spaces.
    • For $24-$99 per month, Highrise can do CRM (customer relationship management) for your whole team. However, in our experience it doesn’t integrate very with other social media accounts.
Radian6 Word Cloud

Dissecting discussions: We used Radian6 to compare keywords from two streams of tweets, each using a different hashtag, but both related to the same conversation.

Integrate: Bridge a harmonious workflow between different services

Keeping track of all your accounts with various services is a pain, but don’t let it stop you from trying something new.

  • Use a password manager like LastPass, 1Password, or Clipperz. Or check out the uber-secure Keep Your Password Secret. Once you are set up, it takes a lot of weight off your shoulders. I’ve found that gets people more prepared and willing to experiment with new technology.
  • Always make sure you test the options for importing and exporting your data for everything you use, and make sure the file formats are universal.
  • Always make sure you have backups! Phillip Smith’s Triple Play solution is a great approach. But be aware that your backups may not be as complete as you might think. For example, if you use Nimble to organize your Twitter followers, you can export them as a .csv to load in your local address book. But here’s a limitation: you won’t be able to export all the tags you’ve assigned to each contact.

Unfortunately, perfect integration is difficult to achieve because each service provider has a strong interest in locking you into their service. Until they start adopting more open standards like BrowserID, OStatus and the like, it will always be a headache to make everything play nicely together.

Sounds complicated! Why bother?

That’s an important question, and one you should return to each time you assess your needs and resources. Some of these tools are both low entry and pretty basic to audience engagement, while others are like a special cherry on top. For example, you should always be checking and managing Twitter, so why not use something like HootSuite to make that easier? You’ll always be perusing articles on the web, so why not bookmark them with Pinboard or keep a snapshot with Zotero? That way you can track sites that are relevant to your work, places deserving a regular visit and communities worth engaging.

One final, key tip: Know what you’re getting into and make sure you always have an alternative option. For example, try to avoid becoming too dependent on a service that doesn’t let you export you data. And of course, beware of false deities who claim to bring knowledge nirvana.

What’s your strategy for social listening on the cheap? Is there something you think it’s worth paying a little extra for? This is only a starter list – there are many terrific social listening tools. Which kinds of community listening techniques have helped your work?

About Jacob Caggiano

Jacob CaggianoJacob Caggiano writes about his “healthy obsession” with communicating online, and more, at He has worked with innovative groups like the Knight-Mozilla Partnership, Journalism that Matters, and the Washington News Council. He is currently experimenting with an interactive storytelling program for youth and co-organized the 2011 Open Video Conference in New York City.