Freaky-smart marketing ninja Christopher S. Penn (co-host of the Marketing Over Coffee podcast) had a great blog post recently entitled "Three Nearly Guaranteed Moneymaking Twitter Words." More and more companies are listening in social media, but are they doing it in a way that provides real bottom-line value?
Many listen defensively, monitoring Twitter, for instance, for negative mentions. Chris recommends "listening for intent." If you search for your company name, you'll find people talking about you. If you search for keywords related to your product or industry vertical, and include words like "recommend" and "suggest" in your search, you might find a question that leads to valuable market intelligence, or an actual lead.
Smart marketers, as Chris suggests, have a list of top search engine keywords that drive traffic to your site, and that you want to influence. Use those keywords to set up Google Alerts, a Google Blog Search and a Twitter search. All of these are RSS-enabled. If you're using an RSS reader like Google Reader or the one provided in Microsoft Outlook, you can get a near-live feed of people talking about your industry.
(Here's a great video from Commoncraft's "in plain English" series describing what RSS feeds are, and how to set up Google Reader.)
Now of course, this works better if you're selling digital cameras or iPhone apps than if you're selling business analytics software and services. A quick search did not reveal anyone asking on Twitter, "Can anyone recommend a good business analytics solution?" But you get the principle, I hope. Searching for just the highest-level keywords related to your business may get you some good intel, but think about what terms you can combine to find the people who have entered the buy cycle.