I do a few things. I have google alerts set up to alert me of any mention of a variety of keywords that appear in the news, on twitter or in blogs. I want to know when people are talking about me, but I also want to know about what people are talking about. In my field, I need to know about the latest and greatest news of the world. The fact that today, Apple and Nokia came to an agreement on Patents may not necessarily be something I care about, but if someone at my company asks, I'm probably the guy that should know. So how can I make sure I get all the details about everything? Feeds. Reading my feeds.
I probably spend at least 2 hours a day (not all in one chunk) reading the various feeds that come into my Google Reader. Why Google Reader? So that all my feeds, what I've read and what I haven't are always in sync whether I'm at my desk, at lunch, or at home in front of the TV. There's enough duplication between Gizmodo, Engadget, Techcrunch, Techmeme and others that I want to make sure I don't read anything twice if I don't have to. I subscribe to RSS feeds for all kinds of publications and blogs. Everything from Mashable and Hubspot for social media news and tips, to the aforementioned gadget and technology blogs, to mobilesyrup, MMA, Mobile Marketer and the like for mobile news and more. I want a taste of design so I subscribe to Brand New, Logo Design Love, Yanko Design and more.
You can also aggregate site feeds from other places like LinkedIn. I have all the Q&A posts from certain topics go into my Google Reader, since it's not a lot and I want to get them all at the same time.
Even images from your favourite Flickr photog can be fed via RSS into Google Reader.
When it comes to actual conversations, you need to actually read/listen/learn. As much as there are fancy filters, finders, monitors, feeds, apps and plug-ins to make the job easier, sometimes it comes down to reading what people are saying and responding. Being a human is the best part of listening.
2. Protecting your brand
If your business sells a product, you have a reputation to worry about. 9 times out of 10 it's a bad customer service or product experience that has led to someone raging online. If the concern is legitimate, do yourself a favour and come clean. Admit your mistake, be very public about how your fixing the situation, give your detractors nothing to focus on except the positive and move on. It's simple.
When you have someone with a beef who cannot be helped, or who has a problem that has already been fixed, but perhaps not to their satisfaction-- your options start to look limited. Assume everything you say will be made public. Assume any attempt to circumvent a process or bully will be showcased for the world to see. Pretty soon you'll realize that it's better to let some things die off on their own.
3. Make life easy for your customers
Do you sell a product online? Make it easy to return if it's broken, wrong size, wrong colour, etc... If I bought from a store down the street, they'd let me do that. The easier you make your customers life from first click to follow-up email, the more 'good karma' you'll get on the back end. People will recommend your business because of the great experience and pretty soon things like whether or not your 5 cents cheaper.
I tell people all the time about the service I get from ManPacks.com. They're so flexible, their site is easy to use, their customer service emails are answered by a human that I can reply back to with a followup. ---and because of that, I tell people how great they are and continue to buy my underpants and socks from them. Yes seriously. It's awesome.
4. Keeping it real
I touched on this with the ManPacks reference, but how many times have you tried to email a company and received an automated ticket reply or some kind of robotic response. They aren't awesome, but for the most part they're in place because of volume. That I understand.
What about PR then? If you're not actively trying to engage your customers in forums, on Facebook, through Twitter etc... you're missing a golden opportunity. I'm not talking about Auto-replies, Auto-retweets, Scheduled Facebook posts or things that can make your life easier. I'm talking about things that make your life take time. Actual work. Reading something from a customer and responding like a human. Tell them you're the Product Marketing Manager or the Public Relations Coordinator, but make them feel special.
Every time I've ever experienced an 'inside scoop', a secret deal, a VIP experience or reward--- it's always been worth it to the business.
5. ...The same things you do offline.
What's worse than a business who has terrible customer service? Trick question. Answer: A business that has amazing online community management and PR skillz, get's me to friend, follow, like, listen, subscribe, etc--- then when I get into a bricks and mortar location--- everything falls down. Great example: When the waitress looks at you like you have a third eye when you tell her you're the Foursquare Mayor, and would like your free dessert. Ha!
If you are going to do wonderful things online-- make sure you're doing them in the real world too. Training and rewarding your staff (which can translate into good karma online as well). Informing everyone about things you're doing online like blogging, tweeting, etc--- Maybe in the day to day humdrum your staff hear people talking about trying to find the right outlet for a question or comment-- if your staff know to say "You can speak directly with our president by tweeting us @ourcompany" --everything will go better than expected.