A few weeks ago, a Twitter user tweeted that she was planning to try Zitune, a restaurant in Los Altos, Calif. David Auerbach, the restaurant's co-owner got an e-mail alert from a Web-based service Trackle, calling his attention to the tweet. As he often does, he sent a response thanking her for visiting Zitune and asking how she'd liked it. Soon, they had a dialogue going. Then she asked if Zitune's chef (and Auerbach's brother-in-law) would like to be interviewed for her video blog.

"The restaurant business has been tough for the last year and a half," Auerbach says. "Having a blogger or video blogger write anything about us, any extra PR we can get is a huge plus. And Trackle found it."

Trackle is one of a new crop of online services that helps you "listen" for keyword mentions on social networks and around the Web, and will send an alert when someone mentions your business or product -- or your competitor. Services like Trackle go way beyond Google Alerts and other news alert services because they monitor microblogs such as Twitter, social networks such as Facebook, and the blogosphere, as well.

"Increasingly, it's consumers, not news outlets, that are putting out information other consumers use," says Blake Cahill, senior vice president of marketing at Visible Technologies, which both tracks keywords and interprets the resulting data. "Consumers have as much impact on your brand as you do." The majority of consumers check user reviews before making a major purchase, he notes. 

But if knowing what customers and others are saying about you online is absolutely essential, it can also be very time-consuming. "You can spend a lot of time doing searches on Twitter and Facebook and Google and so on to find out who's talking about your restaurant," Auerbach says. "It's really helpful to get a daily update where everything is all in one place."

For Veronica Sopher, executive assistant at Ben Bridge Jeweler, looking after the company's social network presence is only one part of her job. She uses Social Mention among other services to follow Ben Bridge, but also flag mentions of "ring shopping," so as to find and start conversations with brides-to-be under her Twitter handle @BenBridgeGirl.

"I talk with them in a girly fashion and find out what wedding dress they're dreaming about or ask them to send me photos of the ring they're considering," she says. "My strategy is not to make sales with tweets, but to raise brand awareness and present a more personable side of what is often perceived as a cookie-cutter jewelry retailer." The advantage of a service like Social Mention, she adds, is that it also flags the company's name all over the Web, so if, for instance, a non-profit organization thanks Ben Bridge for a donation on its website, Sopher can follow up with a friendly e-mail.

Picking the right service

Most every small business can benefit from some online tracking of its name and product mentions around the Web and in social networks, but picking the right service can be tricky. Services range from completely free to a minimum charge of $500 a month -- and most seem to fall at one extreme or the other. The pay services will aggregate thousands of mentions according to metrics like "sentiment" (whether people are mentioning you in a negative or positive light).

Here are some popular choices:

  • Social Mention, a free service, allows you to search the Web, as well as Twitter and Facebook for keywords, and can list them in a once-a-day e-mail alert as well or get a "Realtime buzz" widget for your website.
  • Trackle tracks keywords across the Internet and social media, but also tracks many other items, such as weather in your location, local news, real estate values, and even crime in your neighborhood. You can get email alerts, or any of the company's "tracklets" can also be used as widgets.
  • Viralheat alerts you to mentions with some analytics and a new option to filter results by location. It's a rare moderately priced pay option, with plans starting at $9.99 a month a month to track up to 10 keywords or phrases.
  • Visible Technologies has plans starting at $500 per month for up to 20,000 results and offers analysis to help you get the sense of what people are saying. "Small businesses can do a lot of tracking with free tools," Cahill notes. "But as brands get popular and the volume gets big, it becomes difficult to follow all those mentions."

Whichever service you use, experts agree, it's important to not only listen to what people are saying, but respond promptly. "Social networks can help bring a problem to the surface faster than it would otherwise," Cahill says. By letting users know you're working to solve the problem you may find some of your critics turn into defenders, he says. But, he adds, "Once you start engaging in a dialogue with customers on a social network, you have to be genuine, you have to be transparent, and you have to keep at it."

"I try never to go 24 hours without checking what people are saying about us and posting," Sopher adds. "Once you have a presence in social media, it's like adopting a puppy. You can't ignore it."