Here is the digital version of my twice monthly column, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation, for the Montreal Gazette. The good news is that it will also appear in the Vancouver Sun from now on as well. Who knows, maybe the National Post is next? As always, I am re-posting it here with all the links and tags. Lastly, if you can think of a good idea that you would like me to cover in a future column, please let me know (I'll even attribute the idea to you).
In this age of new business, understanding the myriad conversations that are taking place online is core to not only having successful marketing and communications campaigns, but it's key in understanding how people actually feel about your brand, products and services.
And - most importantly - if they're buying from you, why they're buying, and what they're saying about you to their community?
The common mistake that most traditional businesses make is thinking that what is being said online has no real bearing in the "real world." Nothing could be further from the truth. We now live in a day and age where almost every first (and ongoing) brand interaction happens at the search box.
Don't believe me?
Think about the last time someone told you about a brand. Odds are you did not rush down to the nearest store to check it out. You probably did a quick search online to see what's being said and read what others are saying. We're not just doing it for big ticket items, we're researching everything and anything - from hotels to HDMI cables to paperclips for the office (we're also comparing prices).
Here's the multi-million dollar question: what are they saying about you?
Most businesses haven't got the foggiest idea. Maybe someone in the communications department does an occasional search on Google to see what's ranking on the first page, but that's about it. In today's world of interconnectedness, you may be losing real-world dollars simply because you're not monitoring your reputation online. While there are countless robust (and expensive) solutions that help companies do this, there is a handful-plus of really good (and free!) ones that will take you there as well:
1. Google Alerts - input your search term (I'd suggest adding individual alerts for your company name, senior management team, products, brands, services and competitors) and you can choose what to be updated on (news, Blogs, video, the Web, newsgroups, etc...) and how frequently (as-it-happens, once a day, one a week). Now, whenever the terms you input are mentioned online, you'll be notified immediately. You can create as many alerts as you want and you can be notified of updates either by email or through a RSS reader.
2. Technorati - Much in the same way Google monitors the Web, Technorati is a search engine that monitors the blogs. At last check, Technorati was monitoring over 120 million blogs. That's a lot of people saying a lot of things. Technorati offers a free service called "Watchlists" and, much like Google Alerts, you can be notified as you are being mentioned in these millions of spaces.
3. Search Engines - even if Google accounts for a huge percentage of all search done on the Internet, it's also important to know what comes up when Yahoo! and Microsoft serves search results about you. There are two things you should immediately be looking at: one is how many results appear on your given search terms (trending if that increases and decreases is a great way of seeing how much buzz you're building) and the second is a little-known tool: if you enter your website address like this link:www.twistimage.com/blog (obviously replacing your website with mine) in the Google search box, what returns is a list of all of the websites that are presently linking to you.
(slight correction above: to see all of the websites that are linking to your website, you must enter this: link:www.twistimage.com/blog. In editing the printed version, the "link:" part was removed).
In order to build your digital footprint, reciprocating a link back to an existing one that is valuable is a great way to build reputation - Google Search, Yahoo Search, Microsoft Search (don't forget to search on the .ca versions as well).
4. Google Blog Search - Google has its own blog search engine that sometimes returns very different results than the ones you'll find on Technorati. One trick is to organize your search results by date (this way you can see the most recent conversations). You'll see the link "sort by date" in the top right-hand side.
5. Twitter Search - one of the hottest new media trends is micro-blogging. Platforms like Twitter, Pownce, Jaiku and Identi.ca give anyone 140 characters to publish their thoughts. They're also talking about brands. Twitter Search enables you to search one of the most popular platforms by keyword.
6. Google Trends and Facebook Lexicon - not only can you find out what people are saying about you, but tools like Google Trends and Facebook Lexicon enable you to compare your brands with others. Not only does it feed back the volume of mentions, these tools also provide some fascinating market research by region, language and related topics of interest.
It's important to note that just because you're seeing a high volume of traffic that everything is hunky dory. You could be getting a lot of traffic compared to another brand because of how much you suck as well.
Here's the bigger idea: the Web provides the ultimate focus group (and it's free). It's authentic because you're not locking people in a room and feeding them pizza to get their opinion. They're expressing themselves (good, bad and neutral) without being solicited and with passion. Can you really put a price on that? Can you really afford to not be listening?
You can view the online version here as well: Online Chatter - Six Free Tools To Monitor What The Public Is Saying About You.