Social media in all its forms - blogs, social networks, forums, file sharing, wikis and the rest - continues to evolve at a head-spinning pace. But for marketers and IT departments, it has already moved past the initial "wow" phase to become a can't-ignore business tool. 

Yet "can't ignore" isn't the same as "can manage." There are thousands of software applications to help you monitor and interact with social media. Picking your tools is a major project in itself. To bring some order to this process, first, step back and define your objectives. Common social media applications include:

  • Gathering market intelligence about attitudes toward your company and competitors;
  • Executing campaigns for outbound marketing and community development;
  • Identifying potential customers based on their published comments;
  • Connecting with people through common acquaintances and recommendations;
  • Tracking behaviors and attitudes of sales prospects and customers;
  • Measuring campaign results (including the results of social media campaigns);
  • Providing support and responding to complaints in public or private.

Many of these applications share requirements, although the mix is different for each. The following is a brief list of primary requirements by application:

  • Gather market intelligence. This includes keyword alerts to identify references to the company or product, sentiment measurement to understand the nature of the references, external site traffic and link measurement to measure influence, and trend reporting and analysis.
  • Execute campaigns. This includes content creation and posting, external traffic and link measurement, search engine optimization and paid advertising to increase traffic to your own sites, and platforms to build and manage your own communities.
  • Identify potential customers. This includes keyword alerts and social network research to profile individuals.
  • Connect with people. This includes personal network and reputation development and social network research.
  • Track behaviors. This includes social network research, reports on Web site visits and behaviors and behavior-based alerts.
  • Measure results. This includes traditional Web analytics (such as traffic sources and volumes), keyword alerts, sentiment measurement, search volume and destinations, link tracking, content rating on sites like Technorati and Digg, and the ability to track use of company-generated content.
  • Support and complaints. This includes keyword alerts, sentiment measurement, social network research, and external traffic and link measurement.

Dozens and sometimes hundreds of tools address each requirement. Additionally, social media is a great place to identify job candidates because expert bloggers often post information on products within a given specialty and community members are usually eager to share their own experience. Many of these people can also be hired as consultants.
Before you jump into the details of individual products, define a strategy. Almost every company has several social media applications on its agenda, so you'll need to inventory the projects to see which requirements are shared. You'll then select a company-standard tool for each requirement. The primary reason is more about avoiding having to support multiple platforms than saving on software costs. Even if each department runs the tool independently, a shared standard will let them compare notes and help each other out.

If multiple tools are involved, your strategy should consider the need to integrate the different products, at least in reports if not actual operation. Most Web-oriented systems are designed to be open, which in practical terms translates to application program interfaces that allow external access to their data and functions. But the scope and efficiency of those APIs vary widely because vendors must balance openness against external demands on shared servers and the never-quite-dead goal of customer lock-in. You can't avoid defining points of integration nor assessing whether proposed systems can support them.

Another part of your strategy must estimate the value expected from each application and from meeting individual requirements. This allows you to add the different supporting systems in the sequence that makes the most sense from both business and technical perspectives. These choices are essential in the current economy, where every penny and every moment must be spent as productively as possible.

Your strategy must also set standards for vendor stability. This is especially challenging for social media tools, which are often cobbled together by tiny startups. The good news is that switching to a new system is often inexpensive, even counting the cost of staff time and business interruption. So unless a particular function is truly mission-critical, you can usually take a chance on a great product from a shaky vendor. In reality, most of your initial social media projects are experimental, so learning quickly and cheaply is more important than finding a system you'll be able to keep for years. Much of what you learn is about the underlying technologies and business applications, so that knowledge will retain its value even if you change tools.

The most important part of your social media technology strategy has to do with people, not tools. Train staff to understand the business objectives of various projects as well as the processes required to support those objectives. These principles will change less rapidly than the technology itself, and a well-trained staff will adjust to whatever the social media geniuses come up with next.

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