Tracking the Trackers

I have been remiss in not paying enough attention to social media monitoring software. I suppose it’s understandable given that social media is at the margin of CRM — moving to the center, but still in the outer shell — and monitoring software is somewhere beyond that orbit in the software equivalent of the Kuiper belt. Maybe it’s time to pay a little attention there, because monitoring software can be a big addition to your marketing strategy, and much of it is free.

First, what is it? Social media monitoring software is a class of applications delivered online that track aspects of how you and your company are being talked about on the Web.

There are applications that track text — Twitter feeds, blog posts, comments and the like. These have been around for a while, and a classic example is what might still be called a “vanity search” on Google and other search engines. The basic idea is that the search engine looks for fragments like “Beagle Research” or “Pombriant” and brings links back to your email. If you recall the Steve Martin classic movie, “The Jerk,” getting a Google Alert is equivalent to receiving a new phone book.

Many Species

There are lots of subspecialties in this area. For example, products like Delicious can tell you when someone bookmarks a Web page. Blogpulse can tell you who is picking up on a blog posting that you might not think is going anywhere. It can also tell you about the use of keywords — like your product name, for example.

The proliferation of different types of social media, especially video, seems to have spawned a cottage industry of companies that will gladly scour the video sites to bring back tidbits that may be informative or salacious. Suppose someone snaps a photo of one of your executives in a compromising position. A search of Flickr, YouTube, Google Video, MetaCafe and other sites can alert you to trouble.

Then there are consolidators like Keotag that track which keywords are being used as tags. Is your company name being used as a tag? It might bear looking into. I was impressed to learn there is even a search engine product — Oodle — that scours online job listings and aggregates the information. Is your competitor advertising a new position for what looks like a new product line?

Then there’s Edgar Online. Edgar is the SEC site that captures and makes available public filings on public companies. It gives you a window into the health of public companies. There’s also SeekingAlpha, which lets you subscribe to the RSS feed of conference call transcripts (think earnings calls). Also, Google Patent Search (beta) is self-explanatory.

Everyone’s a Reporter

There’s more, too. Marketing Pilgrim lists 26 of these and similar sites that are available free to track what the world is saying about you and yours. I don’t have the heart or the stamina to go into all of them though.

What’s the net of all this? A couple of ideas. First, social media are not just for individuals. Companies can make very good use of free filters to understand customers and competitors better.

Remember clipping services? They were dedicated to scouring magazines and literally clipping articles for you. Every month you would get a file of clips that helped you understand what the market thought about you last month or — more realistically, in the case of magazines — three months ago, when the reporter filed the story.

Now it’s instant. Everyone is a reporter, too — wittingly or unwittingly. That photo of you or your boss three sheets to the wind and scantily clad playing tiddlywinks at midnight at the user conference in paradise last month was a lark, but it ended up online. Can you say “damage control”? In the arms race that is marketing, you need to know, because your competition wants to know, and you know what that means.

As you might expect, there are consolidators of these filters and companies that span the differences in media, and I think they bring a certain cloak-and-dagger quality to all this. Imagine being able to get a clippings-service-worth of this kind of information streaming into your face every day. The sheer volume of information out there is impressive, and there is almost a CIA-like (I am sure they will track this keyword — hi, guys!) quality to getting this kind of market intelligence.

It’s a great use of technology, but I wonder about some of the ramifications and potential for abuse. In the time it took to write this, it feels like social media just grew up.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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