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The Social Internet 101: Protecting Your Reputation Online

By Paul Lima |

There was a time when consumers who had negative experiences with companies would tell a handful of people and the news would spread slowly. Enter the Internet and consumer-generated media (CGM) such as websites, blogs, chat rooms, message forums, and review forums. Suddenly, word of mouth can spread at the speed of light.

"The fastest-growing media is one consumers create and share among themselves," says Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing and customer satisfaction officer at Cincinnati-based Nielsen BuzzMetrics.

The Internet is a whetstone for anyone with an axe to grind. Go to Google and type "Canadian Tire sucks," for example, and you will see more than 400 links. Search "Canadian Tire guy" and Google returns more than 850 linksalmost all of them putting down the earnest and much-maligned character from the commercials. (After about a decade as the faces of Canadian Tire, Ted and his on-screen wife Gloria were recently dropped from the company's advertisements). With almost 30 million blogs and hundreds of millions of websites and forums, how can companies keep up with the good, the bad and the ugly chatter, or know if their marketing is working or being mocked? "The thought that any publicity is good publicity is not valid," says Michelle Warren, an IT analyst with Toronto-based Evans Research Corp. "Negative perceptions, even if not based on fact, hurt. They can snowball rapidly on-line where information flows fast and furious. You can Google out what is being said about you, but the data may not be comprehensive or relevant to your purpose. Plus, you have to convert it into insight," she says.

"Listening to and leveraging such media may well be the most important source of competitive advantage for companies and brands," adds Blackshaw.

Enter the world of business intelligence (BI).BI has surpassed security as the top technology priority, with licensing revenue for the BI software market forecast expected to reach $2.5-billion (U.S.) this yeara 6.2 per cent increase from 2005, according to Gartner Inc., an IT research firm based in Stamford, Conn.

Initially involving the analysis of customer information contained on corporate databases, BI has spread to the Web. Using public image monitoring (PIM) or search-driven BI to stay abreast of consumer-generated media, two Canadian companiesNstein Technologies Inc. of Montreal, and Brandimensions Inc. of Torontoare gaining attention in the business world.

Putting a stamp of validation on Nstein, IBM recently started selling Nstein-based PIM applications that track content on blogs and websites. And Brandimensions counts major corporations such as Daimler-Chrysler, CBS and ABC among its clients. "The volume of information out there requires powerful analytics to find trends, patterns and relationships," says Mario Girard, Nstein president. "Our technology uses concept extraction to determine if content is positive, negative, or neutral." PIM can also track "the velocity of a story" in terms of how many web links are connected to it and how fast the story is spreading, says Bradley Silver, Brandimension's chief executive.

Nstein's PIM tools can gather data in 15 different languages and automatically contextualize the data. Brandimensions gathers data in English and Spanish and funnels information to more than 400 analysts who add context based on colloquialisms. For instance, the context of comparing a car to an animal can change. Calling a Ferrari a fox likely indicates a positive comment, while calling it a dog is probably negative. Using PIM reports, companies can monitor their image, react to what is being written, and take action to counter misinformation. "The Web is so important to sales and brand protection that it has to be monitored all the time," Silver says. "If a crisis emerges, you want an early warning system in place so your advocates can engage in the conversation."

But advocates of the brand are not necessarily paid employees of the company. They can be bloggers who like a certain brand or it could be web users who spend time discussing the product or service on review forums. However, there is a fear that companies are doing more than merely correcting misinformation that's out in cyberspace. There are those that engage in stealth marketing by paying marketers to pose as consumers to influence on-line discussions. In one of the better-known cases, a great deal of pre-release buzz for the independent movie The Blair Witch Project was created on-line using stealth marketing techniques.

The concern that marketers will pay to influence or fake CGM has led to the creation of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a trade group that aims to promote and improve word of mouth marketing by issuing ethical guidelines and standards.

Public image moinitoring is not just used by businesses to monitor what's being said about them on-line. It can also be used to monitor issues that some countries might not want to talk about. For instance, Nstein tracks almost 30,000 on-line documents in six languages for the World Health Organization. If a government tries to hide a disease outbreak, as China did with SARS epidemic, WHO looks for suspicious informationsuch as an elementary school in a small village in China closing two or three times in one weekthat might indicate a new viral outbreak has occurred. Just as companies can work to protect a brand when they learn about the information on-line, WHO can work to stop the spread of virulent viruses.

"CGM is advancing to an important, long-overdue tipping point of marketer understanding," says Blackshaw. "It's highly measurable, allowing advertisers to gauge brand equity, reputation, and message effectiveness in real time. Advertisers must take accountability for the scope and effect of such media and use it to make more-informed decisions."

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