How to choose a social media management service

8 things to consider before you buy

By , ITworld |  Software

How do you know you are fully engaged with all of your social networks? This turns out to be a difficult question to answer. And as we try to resolve complaints from customers on Twiter and Facebook, we also need to track mentions across other networks and develop consistent workflows and processes to respond and measure these involvements.

Image credit: iStockphoto

Luckily, there are tools available for these tasks that go under various names such as social intelligence, social media engagement, or social networking management. Sadly, there are almost 100 different ones, ranging from the free ones such as Bufferapp, Seesmic's Ping, Hootsuite, Tweetreach and Tweetstats to ones that go for six figures annually, and lots more in between. We looked at eight different ones for a review posted on Network World, and have tried several others too. From that work, we have eight different issues that you should consider before you buy one of these services.

How do you use these tools? You start out by monitoring a wide variety of things: particular Twitter accounts and hashtags, Facebook business pages and particular influential individuals in your market niche. Then you start engaging people in conversations, either because they have something to say about your brand or competitor's or because you find them interesting. You might want to assign particular posts for follow up by someone within your corporation who can satisfy an unhappy customer or respond to a specific situation, and then track whether your own posts got retweeted or followed or liked extensively.

To help you shop around, we suggest you start with a list of many vendors here on Twitter.

Eight issues to consider before buying a social media management service:

1. How does the service schedule a post in the future? The first element of any of these services is how they get your content online. Ideally, you want to schedule your posts to appear multiple times across different social networks. Some of the services are very clever about how they schedule a post in the future. For example, Ubervu offers what it calls a "smart scheduler" which figures out the best time to post your messages based on readership patterns for each network. Another good place to start is with Gremln, which has a free trial account and a nice scheduling feature.

Yes, many of the free services mentioned above can schedule posts, but the advantage that the more advanced and pricier services offer is that they can see the impact of these posts: who retweeted them, what cross-network effects did they have, and so forth. Use this feature properly, and you can figure out the best time of day and week to schedule your posts.

2. Posting and monitoring are two different things. Some services have different capabilities when it comes to both tasks. For example, Sysomos can only post on Twitter and Facebook, but can monitor a wide array of other networks, including Google Analytics, Google+, LinkedIn, and YouTube. So read the fine print on what networks each service supports, and understand that they may not be telling you the entire story.

3. Can you filter by different dimensions? Some can only filter on a time range, while others are more capable. Why is this important? Because you are drinking from several social media firehoses and you want to focus on the particular content stream that is important to your brand and your particular customer set. Let's say you have an international brand: then you want a product like Sysomos or SimplyMeasured that can filter in different languages, and also offer spot translations too. Or let's say you want to look at the age or the gender or the geolocation of the posters, some of the products such as Tracx have the ability to do this. The more capable the filters, the more you will know which social media campaigns on which networks are working in terms of driving viewership and engagement, and which are just falling on deaf ears.

4. How can multiple users in different offices collaborate? If you run a global business with numerous local offices, you want to have the ability to coordinate your posts across different regions, something that Expion handles with ease with a special content "library" that allows you to customize your posts for particular office locations. (Applebee's restaurant chain uses their service for example to manage their social media campaigns for 5,000 different users.)

5. How deep into the network can they go? Some services such as Gremln can post to a LinkedIn discussion group or a Facebook fan page or add someone to a Twitter list. Some can only monitor the top-level postings on each social network.

6. Can I get a free trial of the service? You would think the answer to this question would be a no-brainer, but you would be wrong. Some of the vendors don't give out any pricing information online. Others do their best to obscure their pricing information, or to just say, "call for a quote." Don't you just hate that? Each service has different ways to price things too, based on the number of users or reports or phases of the moon. We went round and round with several of the bigger vendors who didn't want to give us review copies of their service, claiming they had no way of doing that (Google's Wildfire, Adobe's Marketing Cloud, and Salesforce's Radian6 were in this camp). Gremln and Viralheat are very transparent and clear about how they price their products, perhaps because they are two of the cheapest services at a few thousand dollars annually. You should figure on spending around $25,000 per year if you are going to get serious with any of the others, so check out the free trials first to make sure they actually meet your needs.

7. Does the vendor practice what they preach? In a word, no. We sent out sample Tweets to many vendors to see if any of them were tracking their own company mentions. To our surprise, about 10% responded, showing most of them aren't paying attention to their own brands. Even fewer actually followed us, or sent us a Tweet in response. (We've included a comparison of how many Twitter followers in the summary chart below for your amusement.) How do these vendors expect anyone to use their products if they don’t track their own brands? Shameful!

8. How can I contact the vendor? Less than half of the vendors put their phone numbers on their Web home page, or make it hard to find their contact information. Most of them put their Twitter account information on their home page, but a few don't. One vendor had a broken link that didn’t take them to their Twitter account but someplace else entirely. Almost all of them use Web contact forms that you must fill out, which is less than satisfying because you have no recourse if you don’t get any follow up. One vendor takes you to a form on their Facebook page, which is interesting but not very helpful. After repeated attempts to track down Google's Wildfire representative, she told us that she was "out of the country and couldn't respond to our email." Ironic, for the company that basically started the Web-based email category.

As you can see, this is a very chaotic business and there are lots of players with subtle and not-so-subtle differences in feature sets. Move carefully into this space, but you will need one or more of these tools eventually if you are going to be effective in using social media.

Social Media Management Tools

Vendor Twitter followers Networks covered
Actionly 1,100 F,T,G,Y,L, W
Expion 6,100 F,T,G+,Y,W
Gremln 52,000 F,T,L
SimplyMeasured 12,000 F,T,G+, GA,Y,W
Spredfast 15,500 F,T,L,W,Y,G+
SproutSocial 34,500 F,T,L,GA,W
Sysomos 14,100 F,T,Y,L,G+,GA
Tracx 1,000 F,T,G+,L,W,Y
Ubervu 6,800 F,T,L,W
Viralheat 25,000 F,T,G+,L,W,Y
VisibleTechnologies 4,300 F,T,Y,W,L

F- Facebook, T-Twitter, L-LinkedIn, G+ -Google+, GA-Google Analytics, W-Web and blogs, Y-YouTube

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