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A closer look at the best social media apps and tools

As a medium of online communication, social media is nearly as ubiquitous as email. Whether you have a little or a lot of experience using channels like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Foursquare, Tumblr, and (need I go on?) others, there are additional tools you can use to simplify, augment, or better analyse your online social communication and its effects.

If you're brand new to the wide world of online social networking or campaigning, several very good businesses have developed classes where you can learn both the basics and more advanced tips. Pros and social media business managers or marketers may be interested to hear about seminars and courses that cover best practices in social media campaigns, and social media marketing "bootcamps" (which often include information about search engine optimisation as well). I've named some of my favourite sites and services below.

Experienced networkers, whether tweeting and Facebook-ing for personal or business use, will also benefit from a social media aggregator, and that’s another issue we’ll explore in this article, looking at tools such as Hootsuite. So, without further ado, let’s explore the world of services and tools that can aid your social networking.

Where to learn about social media

Let's say you're brand-new to social media… as in you've never even seen Facebook's home page, much less know the first thing about Facebook apps or "at replies" in Twitter. Learning website Grovo should be your first stop. Grovo, which teaches neophytes how to use Internet sites and services, keeps a fairly well stocked catalogue of content for people who are uncomfortable with searching for answers on their own. For the most part, Grovo is a how-to guide, not a "why" analysis. It's more about instruction than objective analysis, strategy, or best practices – it's about learning the basics.

If Grovo sounds too basic, you can go straight to one of MediaBistro's online courses and seminars. While online learning isn't for everyone, Mediabistro's classes – which can be several weeks long or one-time sessions – are welcoming to self-motivated learners who have basic computer skills. The classes help media professionals (and beginners) become or stay current with trends in digital publishing and marketing from the comfort of their homes or offices. Seminars typically meet weekly via web conferencing software, and guest speakers share their deep insights about the topic at hand. Other courses might meet only via text chat – and some of the content is video-based, so you can watch it any time. One benefit of Mediabistro is that it usually has a live component, even if it's just a forum for asking questions. Of course, extra perks make the classes more expensive than some others – that’s the main downside here, it isn’t cheap.

Get an aggregator

When you launch your Internet browser, do you immediately open Twitter and Facebook? Do you log in to LinkedIn several times a week? Are you checking your friends' whereabouts with Foursquare? If all these browser tabs are cluttering your screen, you need a social media aggregator, a tool that pulls in feeds from all these sites (and others, too) and centralises them in one place. Our recommendation is HootSuite, which consolidates your various feeds of information and activity into one place.

Tweetdeck used to be a favourite aggregator, too, but now it’s a Twitter-only affair (as it was bought up by Twitter). Still, if you need to manage multiple Twitter accounts, it’s a great tool for power-tweeters.

Twitter power-users on Macs might want to investigate the Hibari Mac app ($10 or £6), which does a thorough job of keeping your Twitter stream clean even if you follow thousands of people. It supports multiple accounts, can block and mute keywords that you enter, as well as retweets, and lets you silence users without unfollowing them. Another nice feature: Hibari interleaves your favourite search results into your home timeline, giving you quick access to the trends that matter to you.

Finally, MultiMi is an installable desktop program that blends social networking and email into one tool. It's more about interacting – sending messages, updating your status on various platforms, sharing photos – than it is about searching and indexing. However, it’s still a very useful tool.

Bonus: The rule maker

Okay, so this product isn’t an aggregator per se, but it does one really cool job. It lets you create rules or formulas between different social media applications. It’s called Ifttt, which is an abbreviation for "If this, then that.” An example: "If someone tags me in Facebook, then send an SMS text message to my phone." Ifttt gives you graphical tools for easily writing and managing commands that tell your online services to carry out functions when triggered. Want another example? "If I mark something from Feedly with a star, then add it as a new note in Evernote." The clever bit is that you don't have to know a lick of code to use it.

Time to analyse

If you want to know how much influence your various social media accounts have, try checking your Klout score. It's useful for business teams in which several people manage one social profile or page, but slightly less useful for individuals, mostly because it's difficult to act on some of the advice it gives.

If you don't like your Klout, you can always elicit a second opinion with Kred. Similar to Klout, Kred measures your influence in online communities. As you may have guessed by the name, Kred also seeks to include your "credibility" in determining your score, so it looks at which communities you influence rather than the whole big sprawling network of users. If you influence key people in your special interest communities, you'll earn more Kred.

Tool for the enterprise

If you want to see what people are saying about your product, service, business, or maybe your competitors, you should check out the enterprise tool SocialVolt. This helps you manage social media across a business, from marketing and customer support to sales and product development. The platform supports multiple online social networks, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. SocialVolt can listen for and report mentions of your company and brand, and help businesses maintain control of their online reputation.