Listen Up

In an earlier post I laid out a framework for taking charge of your brand and presence on the web. The steps I laid out were:

  1. Auscultate
  2. Participate
  3. Create
  4. Dominate

This post will focus on a more in depth discussion of step one, auscultate.

You may remember that auscultate was a term I borrowed from the medical community. But in the context of this conversation we will use it to mean listen. The first step in owning your brand or niche is to listen to what other people are saying.

Often the customer support and/or outreach efforts of small businesses are limited to a toll-free number or a “contact us” form on an out-dated website. If this is the case with your company or small business you need to pay attention to this important message: Just because people aren’t talking to you, doesn’t mean they aren’t talking about you.

You see, the Internet has evolved. It has evolved from a one-sided communication medium, where companies and advertisers pushed content onto people, into a multi-faced conversation medium where everybody has a voice. The tools of web 2.0 have eliminated the obstacles of geographic distance and language as barriers to community and communication. It has allowed once disparate groups of people to unite under a common interest. Publishing just isn’t from institutions any more. Ordinary people like you and me can now generate content, create personal and professional profiles, and most importantly: share thoughts. And chances are good that consumers are sharing their thoughts about you.

But people on social networks and writing in the blogosphere aren’t just talking about you and your company…they’re also talking about your competitors, your suppliers, your vendors, and everybody else in your supply chain and distribution network. They are talking about their likes, dislikes, needs, wishes, and experiences. Consumers are telling you what’s on their mind. This is incredibly valuable business data. And the people or companies who can best adapt to serve their industry based on what the industry needs, are those who will win. This is why it is so important to listen.

So how can you leverage the new Internet to gain a competitive advantage in your industry? Here are a few simple ways:

Monitor the Web – With almost 30 billion web pages out there, this sounds like a daunting task. Fortunately the search engines are your friend. Google, Yahoo! Bing and the other engines are constantly searching and indexing the web. And you can use this to your advantage. Google has a great tool called Alerts which allows you to receive updates whenever Google finds something you are interested in.

It’s very simple. Just tell Google what you’re looking for (e.g. “my company”, “my name”, or “my competitor”), how often you’d like to be notified, and how you would like to be notified. Then forget about it. Google does the rest.

As soon as the search engine finds a match, it will “alert” you. You can receive the alerts either by email or in a RSS reader (my preferred method). Whenever anyone uses the Internet to talk about me or my companies, I know about it…instantly. How valuable is that?

You can set up as many alerts as you like. It’s a great way to keep track of your industry. Yahoo! and MSN also have similar alert tools.

Read Blogs – This is great for two reasons: (1) You get to learn and gain insight in different knowledge areas and niches; and (2) You can learn how other people are writing and using blogs for their personal gain. You can use this to build a model for your efforts when the time is right for you to start a blog.

The thing about blogs is that there are literally a million of them. How do you find the good stuff? Well, search of course. Google has a service called Blog Search and there is also a website called Technoratti that act as blog aggregators. These services allow you to enter in a few keywords (about your business, industry, or product) and they will return some samples of blogs that are talking about those topics. When you find some websites or bloggers that interest you, subscribe to the feed with your favorite reader and you can always get notified when that blog is updated without having to visit the site everyday. (Click here for more on RSS and Readers).

Listen to Podcasts – This is one of my favorites. This is listening, literally. You will be absolutely amazed to learn how much good audio content is out there absolutely free. In fact, this is how I was introduced to most of the people I read and listen to every day.

Fire up iTunes and go to the iTunes store. Once there click on the “Podcasts” tab. Viola! Free awesome content. Do a search by category and drill down to your specific nice to find the content that is of interest to you. This is great for people with long commutes or when traveling. Just because you are stuck in a car, subway train or airplane doesn’t mean you can’t be learning.

Also, I don’t think you even need to have an iPhone or iPod to get iTunes. Just go to the iTunes website and download the program onto your computer. You won’t be able to take it with you in your pocket, but at least you can access the content.

TwitterTwitter is really great for finding out what’s happening right now. To participate in Twitter you kind of have to be there when it happens, but remember we are in the listening phase so we aren’t ready to participate just yet. But Twitter still has value as a listening device. Just use the Twitter search function.

Here, like the other three items mentioned above, you just enter in some keywords to find out what’s happening in the Twittersphere. The awesome thing about Twitter is that the messages are really short so you can wade through the crap really fast. Also, most people are Twitter love to share great content so it can also be used as a discovery tool. There is also an RSS feed button on Twitter search so you can subscribe to the search feed in your favorite Reader.

I’ve introduced a lot of concepts in this post that may be new to you. If that is the case then please know I’m sorry about that. In the next few days I will try to revisit some of the topics I just glossed over and expand on them in a bit more detail.

I think it is important to mention at this point that the tools I’ve talked about in this post are the ones that are working well for me today. There is absolutely no certainty that these tools will be here next year, next week, or even tomorrow. But that’s not the point. The point is that there are tools available which allow you to listen to all the chatter out there. Chatter that when consumed and digested properly can give you a better idea on how your company, product or service is being viewed in the eyes of the public.

How about you? What tools are you using to listen on the web? How are they working for you?

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