The more I think about it, the more I think listening is the foundation for a solid social media strategy. We can get all fired up about blogging, facebook pages, twitter etc., but if we don’t put a strategy behind our social media efforts and actions, then what can we reasonably hope to achieve?One of the key tenets of a Web 2.0 world is developing relationships with your customers and prospects. Being a good listener is key to every relationship in the real world and in the digital world. The beauty of a Web 2.0 world is transperancy. Blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media tools make your customers and prospects extremely influential. Conversations, whether good or bad, can spread like wild fire. We know that customers are more likely to trust online reviews from peers than a company’s marketing messages (see my earlier blog post on Social Media and IT Decision Makers) According to a recent report by Forrester Research, more than 75% of the US is participating in social media in some way.21% = Creators — Publish blogs, web site, video etc.37% = Critics — Post product ratings, blog comments, contribute to online forums etc.19% = Collectors — Subscribe to RSS feeds, add tags to web sites, phots etc.35% = Joiners — Maintain profiles on or visit social networking sites69% = Spectators — Read blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos from other user etc.25% = Inactive — Do none of the above.Suffice to say, there is a lot of information out there. Listening to these conversations can be invaluable in helping you determine your strategy — where can you add value, how can you enage, and ultimately where are the opportunities?Many companies monitor their brand within the digitial world to identify trends and check the competitive landscape. But there is so much more that can be done beyond brand monitoring… Positioning — What are people saying about your company, products etc? Is this in line with how you want to be perceived? Do you need to adjust your messaging and competitive differentiation?Sentiment Analysis — Tracking sentiment changes in online conversations overtime can be a key performance indicator. This tells you how people feel about your company, products and services. As you evolve your business, sentiment analysis can help ensure that your customer base remains satisfied.Customer Segmentation — Customer segmentation analysis can help you find disgrunteled customers of your competition that you can convert, identify groups that your competitor does not have a strong foothold in, identify advocates within the digital community that can influence others and at a basic level interact with positive customers.So how can you listen? There are many companies that have solutions for brand monitoring and analytics — basically listening to conversations/comments relevant to your business online and in some case offline. These companies include Nielsen-Online, Dow Jones Insight, Visible Technologies, TNS Cymfony, and more.Many of us may not be ready to commit to a firm social media strategy and/or to one of these third party solutions. If that’s the case, there is much that can be done with “guerilla” tactics. Chris Brogan’s blog post — Grow Bigger Ears in 10 Minutes gives you a step by step on how to use social media tools to listen as part of your business communications strategy. Check it out. It’s worth the read.