We are awash in the biggest information deluges we’ve ever faced, and its showing no signs of letting up. That’s both a blessing and a curse, because with loads of content, one needs context. How can we mine that and make sense of it all for something useful? This is what I will explain today.
Note at the outset that this will be a lengthy post. It’s not meant to be consumed linearly or even in one sitting (though you’ll be fine if you do). It’s more a collection of tools to get smarter on a topic. It’s a mix of digital listening (which I’ve covered here in the past) as well as using some other tools to better understand a topic based on what others are saying. Some of this may seem remedial for you, while some of this content is entirely new for others. Again, feel free to skip around and use relevant bits. (A note upfront, before someone inevitably posts in the comments: yes, this is work. It’s going to take some time. It’s not impossible. But it takes time to read, it takes effort to make inferences, and it takes a bit of critical thinking to weave together some concepts to be useful. But you WILL be smarter for it.)
In this post, we cover: Google, blogging (including blog search, comments, and blog rolls), Twitter search, Topsy, hashtag searching (using The Archivist and Tweetreach), Twitter bio searching, FollowerWonk, OneForty, LinkedIn (including profile searching, groups, using group statistics, LinkedIn Answers (Q+A and expert identification), delicious, SlideShare, and content curation (like Thoora).
Let’s say you work in marketing and need to get smart on a new topic. It could be a new product, an industry vertical, a product or solution space. The point is, you have a little information to go on, but need to really be well-versed. Here’s how I’d get going. (know a technique I didn’t write about? leave a note in the comments)
- Use Google to search on the one or two things you know. A three-letter acronym? The name of the company? Anything? Great. Google and go. Next, use Google’s advanced search and use the tools to limit the searching a bit. Look into understanding how link: and related: are used to find other sites that link to a particular site, and other sites that are similar in content to a particular site.
- Google Blog Search, formerly a separate site, is now embedded into basic Google. You can select blog content only from the left vertical menu under ‘Search’ after the results are returned. This is useful for narrowing your results to just images, videos, or in this case – blogs.
- Find a few blogs on a topic and subscribe to them. The more the merrier. You can always go back and unsubscribe. It’s two clicks. Don’t worry about getting inundated – that’s the point.
- If you use Google Reader as your feed aggregator, then let Google help you find more content. Use the ‘More Like This…’ option inside Google Reader.
If you start with 6 blogs, and you can find at least one related blog for each (sometimes more, sometimes, none, sometimes a duplicate), you’ll be following 12 blogs in no time.
- Now, go and read the blog. Yep, the actual posts. If you read them for a few days, maybe even a few weeks, you’ll see that the blogger will link out to other data sources. Fantastic. Follow these links. Make note. Bookmark them (publicly, though, not privately – see the ‘delicious’ section below). Wash, rinse, repeat.
- Read the comments. Typically, a blogger in a professional setting will have a professional following. Some of these people will offer comments on the blog. Reading them will help you understand different perspectives on the issue. They may even drop in a link or two in the comments for further reading. Perfect. More for you to consume.
- Some authors display a blog roll in one of the sidebars of their blog. Here’s an image of the blogroll for one of the PLM bloggers I follow. When I work with others at my company, and they ask me, “Who should I read or follow?”, I recommend this person, and I also say, “And look at their blogroll. This is who they find interesting.” Don’t just click, though. RSSthose links.
- Twitter search in general is pretty poor. It’s limited. What’s slightly more powerful is http://search.twitter.com/advanced – here you can enter criteria to make the search more relevant. Example 1: search for a competitor’s product, then scroll down, check ‘on’ the frown face (believe it or not, people use it) – the results? With a little filtering, here are some leads. Example 2: search on a topic you want to get smart about, and in the ‘Any of these words’ section, enter http:// – this says to Twitter search “only return results that have links in them” – perfect for you to go off and learn more about what people are talking about as it relates to your search term/s.
- You’ll quickly learn that Twitter search decays quickly – somewhere between 7 and 14 days. This in and of itself is fine – Twitter is a good beacon for fresh, relevant content. But that doesn’t mean that there was good stuff once shared. For that, use a site like Topsyfor longer Twitter searching. Use the advanced search to really tweak the query. On the left side of the results page, you can select and filter to get just the content you want. Note that some searches can go out beyond 30 days. This is especially useful for researching a topic that you know has been discussed on Twitter, but happened more than two weeks ago.
- Hashtags at events are particularly useful, because they serve as an attraction in an otherwise cluttered Twitter stream. If you know an event is happening, search (Google) for a hashtag relating to the event. Then, use a tool like The Archivist to get a bunch of relevant stats about that hashtag. Note that the results will not be comprehensive. But you’re not looking for a legal digital record – you’re looking to get smart. So, enter a hashtag, and look at the results. Here’s an example about the recent news surrounding the new conference structure for the National Hockey League in North America. Hockey isn’t really my thing, but I now have a nice dashboard to see popular words, links shared, top users, and the like. Tweetreach(one of my favorite services) offers something similar. They use a freemium model – free for up to a 50-tweet range, and then you have to pay per report, or go on a subscription model. The reports they generate are in nice.pdf format – perfect for sharing.
- Let’s move beyond the text for a moment and focus on profiles. One can say a lot in 160 characters, and Twitter hopes you do. As an experiment, I varied what I had in my own Twitter bio (you can read it here) a while back. As soon as I added the part about liking craft beers, I started to attract followers that were based on beer. Granted, this is a sample size of 1, but the point is that people use the bios to determine if you are an interesting person to follow or not.
- Here’s taking the Twitter bio search to the next level: use a service like FollowerWonk. FollowerWonk lets you search a bio for a bit of text (spend a few minutes to learn how to used Boolean search for OR strings and the like), and then lets you sort those results by number of followers, tweets, and other categories. Instantly you get a sense of how long the person has been around the block. Next, click on the ‘Compare Users’, enter two or three names, and select ‘compare their followers’ from the drop-down box. You’ll get a nice page of interesting results, and one of the most important results is the followers they have in common. Take a minute and explore this, and you’ll see how the data on these pages starts to become very relevant and useful.
- I shouldn’t just single out FollowerWonk (though I think they have a really great offering). To find more great Twitter tools, check out OneForty. Enter a search string (e.g., manage my followers, find new people), and a wonderful set of results return, all categorized and rated.
- I’m assuming that you’re searching for content that’s business-related, so we need to head over to LinkedIn next (if you, you can probably find another dedicated social networkto suit your interest). Start by searching for at least one industry luminary. Try searching by name. If you are truly new to this space, then use the advanced search tool and search by keywords, industry, etc. What do you do once you find these people?
- Connect with them. If you know them at all or can write a compelling message, reach out to them and simply ask to connect. Don’t use the standard, stock LinkedIn message. It shows that you aren’t willing to put forth the effort to hand-craft the welcome note.
- See what groups they belong to. Chances are, they are using groups to follow some industry news inside LinkedIn (or at the very least, using groups as ‘badges’). Go and check out those groups. Read the summary. Is it interesting? Is there an audience there that will resonate with you? To find out, …
- … use the LinkedIn groups statsfeature. Go to a group, click on ‘More…’ up in the upper navigation bar, and then click on Group Statistics. You’ll quickly see some demographic information that will give you a snapshot of that group’s audience, participation level, and the like.
- After you join the groups, monitor the discussions (take a minute to configure your settings in the group to get mail and notifications on a schedule that works for you). See what others are saying. Pay attention to the links they share. See who makes the most comments, or the most salient comments. Then, go connect with them on LinkedIn. Use this group as the basis for your introduction. Start a conversation. Learn more. See what other groups those people belong to. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
- Lastly, on LinkedIn, consider scanning the Answers section. This is where people can ask (or answer) questions on a variety of topics. What makes this useful is the way one can interact. I can filter based on all questions, or just open questions. I can sort based on date or relevance. And so on. How is this useful? Imagine searching Answers for questions about environmental pollution in suburbs. And you see one name pop up over and over again as answering questions on that topic. This is implicit expert identification. Go and connect with that person.
- Another site I like for digital sleuthing is delicious. For about three years or so, I haven’t saved a bookmark on my own PC. Instead, I’ve saved all of my bookmarks on delicious. This is for a few reasons. One – I can access my bookmarks on any PC that has an internet connection. So my bookmarks ‘on’ my work PC are the same as my home PC. Two – I can add tags and notes to them so recalling good links later is easy. And three – I can see what others think about this site, see how they tag it, and see how often it is tagged. As an example, let’s search for ‘PLM’ on delicious. Wow – 920 results. Scroll down to the results where it shows all of the results save that match the PLM tag. From here, you’ll see other tags people use when tagging sites with PLM (kind of like a Rorschach test). You’ll also see who saved those sites. What if you start to see a name pop up over and over and over again? Looks like you two have some common interests. Click on that user name and you can see a profile. They might have disclosed an email address or a link to a LinkedIn profile. Go forth and connect.
- Another great site for content is SlideShare. Go ahead and search SlideShare for content – let’s use PLM again. Pick any result. What you see next is a treasure trove of useful data. You see some social proof on the left (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ shares), you see viewership/consumption stats on the right (might have to scroll down a bit), in the form of favorites, views, embeds, and downloads. You see the specific sites on which it was embedded. You can see related content (more reading!). You can see categories and tags. And, you can see a comment stream by those that chose to leave comments. Oh, and the actual content itself.
- Lastly, consider curation as a way to get smart about a topic. ‘Content curation’, defined, is similar to an art curator – a collection of interesting or relevant content. In a sea of information, culling the useful information, collecting it, and sharing it is becoming increasingly valuable. SocialMediaB2B offers these posts every so often. The post is simply a collection of other stories, and packaged up in one post. Each has a short description of what that post is about, and then a link to it. They do the work so you don’t have to.
- You can hunt the Internet down for these kinds of sites that do this. Another source to consider is a content curation engine. One example that comes to mind is Thoora. The site even does some pre-grouping for you into popular topics, featured topics, and top Thoora-ites. Consider searching this site for, say, startups. Your results are people who have created a Thoora account and started curating news and links on their own into their own categories. It’s similar to delicious, but with a twist.
If you got this far, and have read everything, congratulations. You’ve read about 2,000 words. Hopefully you learned something here. If not, I hope the post at least sparked an idea for you. There are easily a dozen tools I didn’t cover here. If you use one of those, why not drop a note in the comments and let others know?
image sources: author screen captures from representative websites
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