Communities emerge to discuss something, whether within a Facebook group, a mailing list, an IRC channel, a blog’s comment thread, or a Twitter hashtag. You want to be aware of any topics that concern you.
You find these topics by searching for them in the aggregate (most popular Twitter hash tags or most active Facebook groups, for example) and in the individual (who’s discussing a topic on Twitter or which Facebook users are members of a group). By tracking topics in the aggregate, you understand trends, community size, and growth. By tracking individual threads, you find evangelists and brand promoters who can help encourage the spread of your message and make others aware of the community to expand membership.
Platforms that you run yourself often have built-in tools to help identify popular subjects, and as an administrator you’ll have access to user account information, so you can follow up directly with commenters. But if you’re joining conversations elsewhere, you need to do some work to find out which topics are of interest to your business and your audience. Some obvious topics you probably want to track include company and product names—yours and your competitors’—and any topics that apply to you or that you think are related, such as product categories, job descriptions, or geographic mentions.
If you’re looking for inspiration about what to track, consider tools such as Google Labs’ Google Sets tool (http://labs.google.com/sets ...