During my career as a Web strategy consultant I've often had people ask me, "How do I do social media?" Unfortunately the answer isn't simple. But the first step is the same as if you developing any other marketing strategy: know your market. To "know your market" in the old days you needed a $15,000 qualitative market research study that would then need to be quantified for the likes of senior management. The customer research effort was time consuming and expensive.

Luckily the Web offers many ways to gather information on a topic and the conversation around that particular topic or product, in real-time. In fact we are spoiled, even overwhelmed, with free listening tools.

If you're just starting out using the Web as a research and analysis tool to find out about your customers' needs and wants and have never used a search service to do this, a great place to start is Twitter Search as it is instantly gratifying! However, fair warning: these tools are addictive. If you are ready to take the plunge, read on.

Search Your Product, Service or Topic Using Twitter Search

Most of us know how to use Twitter to follow, tweet, retweet, @reply and direct message our friends and colleagues. However, not many of us employ Twitter as a research tool. Here is how:

1. Go to search.twitter.com
2. Type in keywords in relation to your product, service or topic. For example: ReadWriteWeb, RWW, @RWW, #RWW.
3. Read the conversation.

Yes, it really is that easy to locate people that are talking about your product or market of interest. These tweets can be really very positive, but also so revealing it hurts. But don't take them personally, take action and you will be rewarded.

Use Hashtags

You may see that people are talking about a topic using a particular hashtag. That's twitter-speak for a pound sign followed by a word. Twitters use them to identify tweets that have a similar topic. For example, when I search for RWW on Twitter search, it gives me results for all the people that have tweeted using #RWW.

Where do hashtags come from? People and companies just make them up so they can easily follow particular conversations. Hashtags are basically a hack for the search system to easily find everything on a particular subject. I am not sure if a ReadWriteWeb staff member was the first person to use the #RWW hashtag, but I know it is out there and being used, so it is one of the things I search for when listening to what people are saying.

Here's a real-world example of how hashtags can be used to instantly identify and solve problems. We just launched the ReadWriteWeb iPhone Application . Within minutes of tweeting about the application and sharing the download link, we were able to identify a few bugs right off the bat that our developer Nicolas Toopia was able to resolve.

Progressing to a Desktop Application For Market Monitoring

Once you are comfortable searching for your product or service, you may want to progress to monitoring your market using a desktop Twitter application. Desktop applications make it easier to monitor your product as you can create many custom filtered conversation streams and watch them all at once, as opposed to watching one stream at a time on twitter.com. For example I use TweetDeck. It allows me to easily set up several streams that I want to monitor. Other desktop clients like Seesmic Desktop and PeopleBrowsr offer similar options.

Create Custom Filtered Views of the Conversation

Setting up canned searches: You can set up a canned search so you can watch the ongoing stream of conversation around your product or service. Use the search function of your desktop client and search for your favorite search terms. TweetDeck, for instance, immediately sets up a conversation stream in a column for you to view. In one stream I have created a canned search for @RWW. This allows me to continuously watch what people are saying about ReadWriteWeb, what they are tweeting and retweeting and answer any questions or issues someone may have.

Setting up groups: I have also set up a group list of the RWW team by simply selecting their @names from a list so I can see only what the RWW team is saying on Twitter. This is another function that sits at the very top of the screen in Tweetdeck. You can also follow Twitter Lists in TweetDeck.

Building Community and Learning from the Twittersphere

The true power of Twitter is realized when you start to use search, groups and conversation tools to build community, networks and identify expertise around your product, service or learn about a particular topic of interest. Let's say I am really interested in dressage riding (which I am). I go to search.twitter.com and use keywords to find people that are talking about dressage, or I go to a list service like Listorious. I may follow both the list someone has created on Listorious, as well as create my own lists and perhaps a canned search for various words in my Twitter client. Tracking all of these conversations, I can very quickly get up to speed on top dressage tweeters. When I am feeling brave, I can engage in the conversation. If I am active enough, I will slowly build relationships and useful networks, possibly around the globe.

Warning: These services are addictive!

Once you become a Twitter addict, and you get used to customer and market information in real-time, you will find it very difficult to go back to your old ways of marketing. In the future, I'll discuss how to use more listening and analysis tools such as notification tools. However, once you get started and realize how easy all of this listening, information gathering and engagement is, I have no doubt you will start searching for and discovering new tools on your own.

Photo credit: Jean Scheijen