The Roman philosopher Epictetus said "We have two ears and one mouth so we may listen more and talk the less." On the Internet, the sentiment is the same - in this age of conversation, we need to listen to hear if our customers or our market is speaking to us. Many firms forget this, but listening is (or should be) the first part of your marketing or sales cycle. However, we don't only have two ears online - search and other tools can help you listen more effectively for markets or potential customers.
Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other search tools can make it easy to search for your company or brand name, and see what people are saying. It makes sense to regularly run searches on your company name, as well as things like "company stinks", "company sucks", "company bad" "company service" and variations.
Of course, you can't search all the search engines all the time. One nice tool to help you is Google Alerts. Simply go to http://google.com/alerts and type in a search term, tell it how often you'd like to receive and alert (as it happens, once a day, or weekly) and Google will do the search for you and alert you in email when something matches.
This YouTube video of Google Alerts step-by-step does a pretty good job of explaining it, but I suspect the example search for "Motorcycles" will generate too many pages of search results per week. You might do a test search on Google first to see the kind of results you're getting. Google Advanced Search may help you tailor the query before you make it an alert.
Of course, blogs and web pages aren't the only place your customers may talk. Twitter Search may help you find other relevant discussions. Search MySpace and Facebook via your own accounts to see if there are groups talking about your company or industry. Better yet, set up your own spaces on these services (a topic for another column.) Another place people talk about companies is a website called Get Satisfaction. Go search and see if anyone is looking for help on that site too.
Finally, once you've done your listening, don't forget to respond. if your "company stinks" search turns up something, go talk back. If a blogger or commenter somewhere has an issue with your company, don't be afraid. Think of this as an opportunity to win new customers by fixing the issue. It is also a face-saving tactic - maybe you can't save the day, but perhaps you can apologize and people who find the post will see that you pay attention.
What are your favorite tools for listening? Leave a note in the comments. (We're listening for you.)