Navigating the online world

With the vast amount of information out there, it's hard to know where to start monitoring.

With the vast amount of information out there, it's hard to know where to start monitoring.

Monitoring social and consumer-generated media is vital for PR. It is, after all, unpaid media, and it can help you and your clients.

"Social media have become a premium place for journalists to get information," notes Max Kalehoff, VP, marketing, Nielsen BuzzMetrics. "Measuring is important [to] identify, rank, and source where content is being produced and playing into a broader ecosystem of information and influence."

Free tools, such as Google, Yahoo, Blogpulse, Technorati, and Icerocket, can provide good, general overviews of what's being talked about and volume. RSS feeds, which drive search results to you, are also available for free. Blogpulse can be used to track the origin and pathway of topics and video files.

Paid services offer more sophisticated and systemized ways to manage and measure information, which can be used to guide communications and evolve strategies.

Mark Vangel, senior account director at Delahaye, says clients are often shocked at how much people are talking about companies, products, and issues. Experts agree that the free tools are a good starting point, and they advise using several engines.

"If something specific [is] causing a short-term spike, you can do a pretty good job covering it with three or four search engines," says Jim Nail, chief strategy and marketing officer at Cymfony. "It gives you street-level understanding of how consumers are responding. You can target response to what's really bugging people, as opposed to what you think is bugging them."

Monitoring coverage of your company and competitors can uncover opportunities, but don't over-monitor. "Focus on what [you want] to accomplish," says Brian Glover, Biz360's senior manager of market strategy, "whether it's beating a competitor on a message or associating a brand with a trend."

Free tools have limited filtering capability, can be time-consuming, and the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming, so deeper analysis is a good idea.

"Text mining [lets] you go through even millions of posts or consumer expressions to understand sentiment [and] direction of conversation," says Kalehoff. "[For PR purposes], there's a lot of places you can go - guiding an overall program, specific tactical outreach, identifying a crisis or opportunity."

Paid tools provide content aggregation through one interface, sentiment rating, historical perspective, and the ability to drill down on spikes quickly. They can be customized in many ways. The first step is determining objectives.

"You might want to know what people are saying about customer service, products, or a quarterly report," says Vangel. "We hope information is used to [improve] a company [or] product. Ideally, sentiments are taken to heart."

Measuring sentiment is a great advantage of paid tools. Biz360 customizes tone rating schema for clients. "It may be positive for one company to be viewed as aggressive because that's [its] aim, but for another [it] can be negative," Glover says.

Nail recommends monitoring discussion boards and usenet groups, another advantage of paid tools. "Technorati reports there are around 1.5 million new blog posts per day," Nail says. "We see about 3 million discussion board and usenet posts per day."

Glover suggests tracking posts generated from corporate blogs, as well as tracking how stories and announcements play. "At least half the blogs are discussions of the day's stories," he says. "[If a PR pro] is responsible for generating those stories, they should also monitor [them]. Any blogger may agree or disagree with facts or perspective in the story. A blog may include information that didn't make the story. Having that additional information and pushing a story forward when there is disagreement can be helpful."

Nail advises watching journalist blogs and always looking at consumer-generated media in context with mainstream media. "There's so much mutual influence," he says. "Blogs will tell you [if] people believe a story or not [and if] they find it interesting. That helps a PR person plan follow-up."

Technique tips

DO

Monitor what's being said about your company and competitors, and look for opportunities and trends

Use paid tools if you need filtering sophistication, historical perspective, and analysis

Have specific goals or some hypothesis when you start analysis

DON'T

Expect one single free search engine to cover all the bases

Waste time and energy monitoring more than you need to

Forget that valuable information can be gleaned from monitoring journalists, discussion boards, and use-net groups

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