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Real estate agents use social media networks like Twitter to get into the minds of home buyers and sellers, and the National Football League has used MySpace and Facebook to learn intimate details about their potential recruits. Call it “spying,” if you will, but this type of online competitive intelligence-gathering has grown right along with the popularity of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networking sites.
“Being able to ‘listen’ to current and potential customers is one of the most powerful components of social media,” says Heather Whaling, spokesperson for PR and marketing firm Costa DeVault in Winter Park, Florida. “Companies can gain valuable insights by simply paying attention to online communities.”
By listening to what consumers in their target demographic market say about their competitors and their products, small businesses can avoid being blindsided by trends and issues that have been overlooked by traditional market research tools, such as focus groups and online surveys.
Social media can also offer insights about your competitors — information that you may not otherwise have access to. A bike shop that learns about the competition’s upcoming customer appreciation night via a brief posting on Twitter, for example, can use this knowledge to move quickly and match or upstage the event.
“At the very minimum, companies should be monitoring their brand online,” says Whaling. “They need to listen, and be prepared to respond accordingly.” She suggests starting with free or moderately-priced “listening” tools that are “perfectly suited for small to mid-sized firms,” such as:
Twitter Search: Twitter’s primary search tool
Twazzup: Another Twitter search tool which “seems even more powerful than the original,” according to Whaling.
Google Alerts: Set up keyword searches and have the results delivered to your inbox.
TweetBeep: It’s just like Google Alerts, but for Twitter.
Filtrbox: Monitors and analyzes millions of online sources. “This is excellent for small and medium size businesses with limited budgets,” says Whaling.
SM2: An online brand management tool that also monitors and analyzes sources. The service offers a “freemium” account that allows you to search five terms with up to 1,000 search results.
Facebook Lexicon: Used to search what’s being written on users’ Facebook walls.