By David Terrar, CEO, D2C

Since Steve Jobs’ death a few weeks ago, there has been an outpouring of sentiment on a business visionary who has been at the heart of so many innovations that have changed the way we live and work over the last 3 decades. The official Walter Isaacson biography has been published, but one of the best, which I happened to start reading only a week or so before Steve’s demise, is a collection of articles from Fortune published from the 80s through to now - All About Steve: The Story of Steve Jobs and Apple from the Pages of Fortune. The interviews include sparring with Bill Gates back in the 80s to insights from the present day and give a strong guide to the man and his thinking. In a March 2008 article he said:

"Things happen fairly slowly you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you have to chose wisely which ones you're going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years."

We are living through an unprecedented time of change where access to mobile devices is combining with use of social media tools to change the way we work, the way our news is gathered, the entertainment business, the way marketing works, and even triggering political change like the "Arab Spring" uprisings of this year. However, Steve Jobs comments remind us that the foundation of these changes have been here for years, and the process of change to get us to this point has been slow and steady.

It was way back in April 1999 that Chris Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger and Rick Levine gave us The Cluetrain Manifesto and told us that all "Markets are conversations". That idea is at the heart of the way marketing and media has changed from broadcasting to engaging and asking your permission. It's well worth going back and reading Cluetrain’s 95 theses, still completely valid today, and if you want to get up to speed on new marketing quickly, I'd suggest Seth Godin's Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing Out of Sync? as a great place to start.

I started a blog in September 2005 and jumped on the Twitter bandwagon back in early 2007 and so I'm a social media early adopter, but the foundations of why and how social media monitoring matters were laid down even before then. Jeff Jarvis, a respected journalist who was having serious problems with his new Dell Laptop, got frustrated and blogged about the problem in a post titled Dell lies. Dell sucks. on 21 June 2005. It triggered the social media firestorm that we now call Dell Hell, where his complaint made the national newspapers in the US and Europe. By 17 August 2005 Jeff was so fed up he wrote an open letter to Michael Dell, the founder and CEO. His suggestions on what they should do are actually a blueprint of how any company should handle social media monitoring today. He said:

"1. Read blogs.

2. Talk with your consumers.

3. Blog.

4. Listen to all your bad press and bad blog PR and consumer dissatisfaction and falling stock price and to the failure of your low-price strategy and use that blog to admit that you have a problem. Then show us how you are going to improve quality and let us help. Make better computers and hire customer service people who serve customers."

Dell were slow to respond at first, but they've made steady progress to take them from Hell to the point where they can be described as one of the empowered innovators in their use of social media. In April 2006 their technical support staff started reach out to bloggers like Jeff to fix their problems proactively. In July 2006 they started a blog. In February 2007 they launched IdeaStorm, a forum where customers can suggest and then vote on product enhancements. During 2007 they spent $150m to improve their call centres. They changed their measurement metrics from time to handle calls (which didn't do much for the customer) to time to resolution (which does). They've continued to make progress until in December of last year they opened the Social Media Listening Command Center at their headquarters in Round Rock, Texas. They now have a team following and responding to blog, twitter and activity streams 24/7. It enhances their reputation, and by the way, as a minor by-product, they pick up an extra $7m in sales a year direct from their Twitter activity.

So the key message here is that you need to engage with your customers, but do you need a Command Centre like Dell's, or can a more modest DIY approach work?

The first step is to understand where your customers hang out: whether it is writing or commenting on blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, in business forums related to your industry, or other user generated content in product reviews, they will be talking about you. You need to join the conversation. You will need to work out who the influencers are - whether it's an energetic customer with a positive or negative story to tell, or bloggers and analysts who write about your topic. You need to understand and analyse the sentiment expressed, and you need to look at the volume of activity to help decide on your priorities.

The good news is that you can get started and learn with a DIY approach and free tools. Google Alerts and Twitter Search are easy to use to monitor your brand name or for finding out the keywords around your topic. Tools like Tweetdeck and HootSuite can help you set up multiple search columns to make it easier to track. With a little more effort you can use Google Reader or something like Netvibes to create your own dashboard for monitoring mentions and feeds.

On top of those basics here is a list of free tools you could explore - Socialmention, Samepoint, HowSociable, Topsy, Twittergrader, Klout, Trendestics, Twitterfall, Google Blog Search, Blogpulse, BoardTracker, Boardreader, Google Discussions, Quarkbase. The choice can be a bit daunting, but I found these wiki resources that can help from Ken Burbary, Measurement Camp and The New PR.

After you done some experimentation, you are probably going to see the value in investing in a paid for service. I have no particular recommendation, but here is a list of tools and companies to consider: www.attentio.com; www.brandseye.com; www.buzzcapture.com; www.brandwatch.com; www.reputation.distilled.co.uk; www.trackur.com; www.marketsentinel.com; www.radian6.com

These products have price plans that go down as low as £5/month but more typically you will be paying from a few hundred to a few thousand per month depending on what brands and keywords you are tracking. You pay a premium for the level of sophistication of what they track, how they handle sentiment analysis and how they filter the noise from the real information. By the way, Radian6 is now owned by Salesforce and happens to be the monitoring product that Dell use in their command centre.

The important message here is that social media isn't going away. You might be motivated by the fear of the possibility of your own particular Dell Hell, or you might have more positive reasons to get engaged. Whatever the reasons, markets are conversations and you need to be part of the dialogue. I suggest you take a low cost DIY approach to learn about monitoring: pretty soon you'll realise you should get smart and invest.

David Terrar is a consultant and software developer who specialises in the use of Cloud applications and social media in business. He is CEO of D2C Limited and a co founder of Cloud Advocates, an association of consultants who aim to demystify the Cloud and provide pragmatic help and advice for businesses, organizations and accounting practices. To find out more, visit www.d2c.org.uk

Follow David on Twitter @dt

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