Once we have mapped the territory we need to watch it to understand what is going on; in practical terms, this is achieved through a robust dose of lurking where you listen in each key discussion happening out there watching out for signs it might be evolving in direction that may be harmful for you (or your client).
Monitoring is also the best way to intimately understand the rules of each community not many of which publish a Manifesto as it was customary in the days where the Usenet was all you had. It is also a great way to understand the leanings of community members on hot buttons; think of the monitoring phase of a permanent focus group and you will have a good picture.
It has been said that you can NEVER listen too much; in today’s connected world, a quarterly focus group is just not good enough. People talk to each other all the time 24/7, so a random sampling (like a focus group) is not only insufficient, but it can positively mislead a company. Focus groups were born in a time where it took time for news to propagate to large masses of consumers. Not any more: propagation can literally happen at the speed of light.
When you monitor a community you also have a golden opportunity to assess the value set of the community itself – this is going to be particularly useful to design your own Value Strategy; whether you openly engage the community or simply use the information to drive your other forms of communication, it is important to understand what is important for the community and how you could positively contribute to it.
Another byproduct of the monitoring activity is a sort of early warning system that alerts you about the maturing potential crisis, way before it hits main media, allowing you to design and deploy an appropriate issue management strategy.
Finally, monitoring can offer countless ideas for other communications activities focused either externally (press, analysts, influencers) or internally (employees, partners). Want the skinny on the latest Microsoft reorganization? Read Mini-Microsoft.
Although there are tools for making the chore a little less tedious (Grokker, Netscan, Clusty, Google Groups, BlogSearch and Technorati among others) at the heart of the methodology there are humans watching what is going on and knowing what they are looking for.