By Deirdre Walsh, Social Media Manager at Jive Software

We're all familiar with the following scenario - a customer complaining about your company or product on Twitter.

While some see this as a threat, I think it's an opportunity. Today's social web provides great insight into what is being said about your organization, products, markets, and even the competition. By tracking important wikis, forums, blogs, and other Web content, you can now engage customers and prospects to quickly identify opportunities and threats, share them in real-time, and collaboratively respond. If done correctly, you can help develop your company's brand WITH your customers.

Your PR team is probably doing a great job monitoring online conversations; however, much of their gathered intelligence often lives in a vacuum. It commonly gets buried in inboxes and on servers or is shared in a silo among team members who have access to expensive social media monitoring tools.

Additionally, with the "old school" public relations model, few employees beyond marketing or support teams are even empowered to actively engage customers and help develop the corporate reputation. At National Instruments, this was a problem. As the social media manager, I am responsible for listening, responding and tracking key conversations. I needed a better method than spreadsheets, emails, and standalone listening services that charged by the keyword. I needed a way to bridge the conversations happening inside and outside the firewall.

Utilizing the Jive Social Media Engagement platform, I developed 6 Steps to Social Media Monitoring.

Step 1: Collect Information. The NI social media coordinator, Albert , sits on my virual team and acts a like a classic telephone operator. He uses Jive's tool as well as information from our 5,200 employees to listen to the key conversations in the social Web about the brand, products, markets, etc.

Step 2: Filter. He then applies several filters to determine if the conversation helps meet one of our core social business objectives. Manually, he determines whether these conversations can impact NI's goals of support, product feedback, sales, marketing, PR, or community-building. He also evaluates the source to see if they are influential or if we have a historic relationship with them. Finally, he looks to see if responding would be a good opportunity from an SEO standpoint.

Step 3: Engage the Subject Area Experts. If it meets one of the items on the checklist, Albert posts a link to the “actionable conversation” directly into the employee community or branded community. There, he can then have a private conversation about the best response and pull in topic experts. This step is especially important at National Instruments. Since no one industry represents more than 15% of our revenue, on any given day we are having conversations about areas like robotics, medical device design, and automotive. It is impossible for one person or a team of people to be experts in each of these areas, so leveraging the employee network and branded community helps ensure the best response.

Step 4: Respond. Either a member of the “core response team," which includes me, Albert and reps from PR and engineering, or a topic expert responds on original platform and links to valuable content.

Step 5: Assign Sentiment. Next, Albert assigns the post a sentiment score. This helps keep track of our overall brand perception on the social Web as well as helps us identify any potential crisis communications issues. We've found that 80% of the conversation is neutral; therefore, it’s really important to take action on the outliers. Keep in mind, while sentiment is subjective and not perfect, we've developed ways to use sentiment to help track the online attitude, opinion or intended meaning of a writer and their message. Visit this slideshare presentation for more info about sentiment scoring.

Step 6: Analyze. All of these actionable conversations are then tracked, recorded and searchable for inclusion in metrics reports as well as for making business decisions about innovation, marketing messaging, prospects, support plans, etc.

It's also important to note that listening on the social Web isn’t just about being reactive. It's great for relationship-building and competitive insights.

For example, Emilie Kopp is our internal subject area expert on robotics - a market that we are fairly new to and still trying to establish credibility in. She was listening to a blogger talk about robotics. Although the post didn’t mention NI, she was able to add value to the conversation and even link back to her own blog and targeted discussion space on our community for more information. This simple task opened up dialogue and helped us build a relationship with one of the topic subject area experts in the world.

We also utilize the listening tool to look at competitor conversations. We can see where they are being discussed, who their key influencers are and even just stay updated on their latest news all in one tool.

While 140 characters seems minute, there is a huge opportunity when you listen, empower your employees and customers to respond, and utilize the insight gained to make real business decisions.