Listening to your customers on social sites isn't just a trend; it's crucial to establishing your brand as connected, helpful and hip. But with accounts on multiple social sites connecting you to disparate groups of friends, colleagues and contacts, keeping an eye on their updates and managing your own can become an unwieldy and time-consuming process. Thankfully for the time-strapped entrepreneur, there has been a surge in apps that can help manage your contacts and updates, and keep you abreast of new activity.
An aggregation tool that will let you manage all your sites seamlessly is still a ways away. Developers are still defining what a social media aggregator should do because people use social sites in different ways. As a business owner, your typical day may consist of reading your contacts' updates, retrieving your messages and comments, and listening in on others talking about your brand. You'll also want to reply to your messages, update your status or profile, and share links and photos. And don't forget about friend requests and event invites in addition to each site's unique forums, such as MySpace's Bulletins and LinkedIn's Answers.
Minggl, a browser plug-in that streams updates from multiple social sites, lets you update one or many site statuses and lets you send group e-mails to contacts across multiple networks. It can help you maintain a presence across multiple social sites by letting you monitor your networks in a browser sidebar so you can be where your customers need you at a moment's notice.
"I don't like the term aggregation," says Dewey Gaedcke, CEO and founder of Minggl. "What I care about is socializing. I have friends spread across multiple sites and having to pool them together is going to turn out to be an artifact of social web architecture."
Though Minggl lets you choose how frequently to get updates, other apps that blast them as they come in can be overwhelming for the busy business owner. "For marketing professionals, it's fantastic to have a live stream. But for entrepreneurs it's more distracting than anything else," says Michael Durwin, a social media strategist who has run campaigns for NBC and KaBloom.
Flock is a social media web browser that will help you keep tabs on the buzz around your brand, with an RSS reader to subscribe to search results for your business that adds a broader context to the updates you receive from contacts on multiple social networks.
Still, instant access is important when you have questions that need immediate answers. And knowing when and how your brand is being mentioned is key for reacting to problems quickly and providing proactive customer service.
"The notion of customer outreach is changing," says Dan Burkhart, vice president of marketing at Flock. "It's not about managing a forum on your site anymore. It's about finding where your community exists instead of waiting for your community to come to you."
Though RSS and social networks are relatively new ways to tap into your community, more traditional and personal social media such as e-mail and instant messaging still play large roles in how we communicate. Digsby, a desktop IM, e-mail and social media aggregator, is one way for those who don't spend much time in their browser to keep connected. "Because it's an IM client, something people have running all day, it saves the time of constantly having to check up on your networks," Digsby founder Steve Shapiro says.
Whether they're in your browser or on your desktop, you'll notice that these programs act primarily as notification providers rather than social networking site replacements. Many notifications and actions you try to take from an aggregation app will still bring you back to a social site to leave a comment or add a friend.
This is in part because of the walled-in nature of many social sites, whose revenue streams rely heavily on display ads that require high traffic numbers. And though there have been steps toward more open and standardized platforms, such as OpenID, they haven't gained wide reach yet. "Social networks need to realize they can't keep everybody just on their network," Durwin says. "The average person on the internet has at least three social networks."
As social sites and aggregation tools mature, there is hope for more fully integrated social media dashboards where we can connect openly across platforms, measure impact and ROI more easily, and truly consolidate our social media efforts to focus on relationships and customer outreach, not platforms.
"Our sense right now is that social sites are like venues, but those aren't fundamental to the relationship equation," says Minggl's Gaedcke. And by using any tools that can help you better focus on connecting with your customers, no matter where they are online, you'll be able to better establish relationships, create rapport and build your brand.
This story, "Manage Your Social Networks " was originally published by Entrepreneur.com.