Thursday, May 18, 2006

How to Dig Through Blogs for Knowledge

You've heard the marketing dictum, "know your audience," right? Nowadays, the audience is almost guaranteed to be online. They form their own groups, ask questions, offer feedback with services like RapLeaf.

What makes these activities so valuable is that you can tap these groups and feedback for insight into your audience's thinking. There are a lot of ways to do this (forums, mailing lists, portals), but today I'm going to focus on blogs.

For fast, current knowledge from & about your audience, blogs are incredible. One new blog opens every second now. Popular blogs can get literally millions of visits a day! People write about everything from their pets to their work schedules.

How does one acquire this knowledge? Well, you could subscribe to a hundred blogs, wait for new posts, immerse yourself for hours trying to find some insight...

Or you can dig through the entire "blogosphere."

Audience research via blogging is easy. And while you may wind up with hits & misses, I find it an excellent window into entire market segments in their own language.

(Caveat: Like all research, it may take some time to find what you want. Might seem counterintuitive, but the really good bloggers out there have tons of content to sort through.)

1. Define Your Topic.
Good things to look in blogs for are:
  • up-to-date industry news

  • customer experiences

  • competitor information

  • on-the-street perspectives

  • tips & tricks

Aim for a middle ground between grassy-field general and laser-beam specific with your keywords. I normally make a two-word specific request (like "AdBlock Tips") and add a more general term afterward to catch possibly-valuable stragglers (like "FireFox").

2. Define who you want knowledge from.
Here, be as specific as you can. Heavy bloggers often use an assortment of titles for themselves, since it's their playground. If you need to know what kind of Honda mid-30s married men prefer to drive to work on Fridays, use that for a search primer.

3. Choose Your Research Option - Search or Link-Hopping

Tried and True - Search
Google BlogSearch: Google's stake in blogs continues to grow. Whether they're paying so much attention because they foresaw the power of blogging, or saw the power and decided to pay attention is your call. In any case, this is Google's engine specifically geared toward blogs. It indexes like a regular Google engine, so all the same Google tricks you've picked up apply. A good place to start.

Google Trends: Personally, I preferred the Zeitgeist interface. But Google changed the app and made it into Google Trends. Trends shows you how many people are searching for the term you've entered. It's not blog-specific, but given that it's real-time and customizable to your own geographic area, it's a great tool for figuring out what local markets are looking for.

Sphere. It's new. It's fast. It searches only blogs. What else can I say? It even has Top Searches and Recommendations right on the home page!

Technorati and
The Big Dogs of tagging. Semantic bookmarking is right at home in the blog world; it's a powerful way to categorize posts and create blogging relationships. These two maintain huge databases of knowledge you can pick your way through like a hedge maze with lots of exits.

(If you're looking for the most recent news and trends all at once, try this link: Trendalicious. It shows popular terms & trends from "in near real-time," according to them.)

Tagging is ideal for transitioning to the other research option, since it helps Link-Hopping along so much.

Follow the Leader - Link-Hopping
Link-hopping is what you do when you go through a blog's posts or tags, find links to other blogs on the topic, read their posts, find more links...

I personally think Link-Hopping is more effective than searching. You're pre-qualifying links based on the blogger's authority (and piggybacking on their own research).

It's so simple, you've probably already done it. Just click, find a relevant link, follow it along, keep moving through blogs, and make notes along the way. Keep in mind who's talking, what they're saying, and how it relates to your audience concerns.

There's even a directory of blogs that makes Link-Hopping easy. It's called Boing Boing, and it's the blogosphere's answer to DMOZ. Input a search term, find articles submitted to Boing Boing by bloggers. Follow the article links back to their blogs. Hopping commences!

The best thing about Link-Hopping is that the thrill of discovery never fades. You're constantly finding more. When it comes to audience research, hearing truth from their own fingertips in environments rich in knowledge can't be beaten. Every time I go Link-Hopping, I get so into what the audience is saying that I start writing immediately after, and find that my work is coming out as an exact mirror of the audience's language.

If you do go Link-Hopping though, I recommend you stop to think about relevant tangents. The caveat of Link-Hopping is that it's easy to get sidetracked.

Ask yourself, either before starting or at random while reading, "Does this topic I'm reading about relate directly to the topic I began searching for?" If not, wander yourself back to the topic. Bookmark the current post if you'd like to read more on your own time later.

Blogs might not be the first thing you think about when it comes to market research. Most people tend to think they're all online journals for high schoolers and angsty college recluses. But I've seen everyone from waiters to Boeing executives with blogs. Imagine how many members of your market are blogging, or commenting on blogs they like. That's their own language and their own thoughts. Go out and find it.



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