Most people do not have any idea as to the coverage, items or, citations, that appear on the Interne

Most major companies are mentioned in Web pages or on newsgroups every day. In many cases this is in discussion groups, bulletin boards and chat . Some of this exchange is in private sites, a lot is in public and a large proportion is unmoderated and they are almost impossible to monitor manually.

With the current growth of chat and the mass use of newsgroups, understanding communication in Internet Society is as important to the reputation manager as reading newspapers is the traditional PR person. In the UK, 70% of Internet users spend between 7 and 40 hours using the Internet each week (IRS Surveys).

Postings of this nature take a number of forms. The majority are a simple exchange of gossip and interest. Some are amusing and fun. A proportion are ‘honest criticism’. Others are malicious and are designed to spread damaging rumours. Newsgroups are noted for the speed with which they can spread information and can sometimes be very dangerous with significant reputation implications. Bill Comcowich, CEO of Ultitech, the company which provides the CyberAlert Internet monitoring and knowledge management service explains the nature of the Internet very effectively:

‘The Internet,’ he says ‘ changes the genteel rules of journalism. Everyone is a publisher but no editing is required, there is no need for professional training. It has become a new voice and new media for rabble-rousers, outraged customers and corporate critics.

‘Anyone can smear anyone else. This sophisticated form of communication adds a global and instantaneous dimension to the traditional pamphleteer or Speaker on Hyde Park Corner. The Internet communicator reaches 190 million people with Internet access and their message is always available, day and night, to everyone. They create a ‘buzz’ on the Internet’.

Even the headers can be misleading or can malign a company. The potential for besmirching corporate reputation is considerable. This can lead to loss of sales and even share values. They tend to increase consumer complaints and distract executives who have to deal with them. Fake Web sites, newsgroups and chat rooms frequented by activists, the unhappy consumer, disgruntled former employees and the equivalent of the pub bore, give rise to damaging rumours which cannot be contained within the company and are expressed in a wider forum. It has to be said that the expression 'potential' needs to be underscored.

A decade ago, the populations of the West already learned more from watching television, listening to radio and interrogating electronic databases than talking to friends, families and colleagues. Now a significant proportion of communication time is via the Internet which is why it has become important to the reputation manager. On 8th August 1998, a London School of Economics student asked, via a news group, if it was sensible to use the NatWest PC based banking service16. This case study shows an example which is replicated for most major companies and brands every day.

This user group is called UK local London. It is worth reading the posting in full. It is an interesting case study (and no one should be judgmental about the subject companies in the case study - who was, in 1998, any better at Internet reputation management? Who is better today?) The original posting from Leo was in the critical period when students make decisions about banking services. His audience was a significant one. This was an innocent question, one of tens of thousands on the Internet every day.

This was an opportunity for the banks, to respond and build a brand relationship with Leo. Here the bank might supply ready access to an answer which explained the range of services and their benefits which are available for a Danish Student coming to the London School of Economics to take a degree course. Like most companies, the banks in question did not know of this posting or those that went before it. Often known as ‘gripe sites’ following newsgroups is an interesting form of reputation management and, in the right circumstances an opportunity to both protect reputation and enhance virtual presence.

The response from Stuart is even more illuminating. He explains that he uses another service, a telephone banking service. He also identified a number of the benefits of their service. Was this an opportunity to gain competitive advantage?

First Direct, Europe's first and largest virtual bank which adds 12,500 new customers to its current base of 750,000 customers every month, may have believed that the virtual audience of one newsgroup was not the best return on investment compared to its other promotional activities. At the time (1998) the embryo Internet did not offer much of a return and most financial institutions were not really geared up to take advantage of Internet postings.

Here was a potential customer, Leo. He was going to make a decision about banking that would stay with him for life. His decision was worth a lifetime of bank charges and interest revenues to the banks. The banks did not know about a potential customer and so did nothing and, indeed had no strategy in place. Today they have and, in addition are offering Internet enabled banking. Much of industry has not caught on quite so fast.

If one follows this thread there are other postings and, as time went on, even more potential customers appeared. A lot of people commented about the product in the same news group. They have in common their news group and an interest in the product. In addition some of them have an interest in buying this kind of product or are current or recent users. Among the respondents are satisfied customers of a similar product but a different brand.

The story spread to a wider audience and found a resonance with the interests of these new publics. This is not novel, this is how the Internet works. Your company, product and brand is visible all day, world-wide and is being talked about all the time. This case study identifies a number of important aspects about Internet communication.

  • It can be seen that this is a public forum.
  • People who use it are consumers.
  • The process is swift
  • One of its applications is an aid to purchasing decisions.
  • The numbers using the news groups are considerable (and there are more who read the content but are not necessarily moved to contribute their views).
  • The users are educated and articulate.
  • They have, and express opinions.
  • They have a gypsy-like quality and will take a topic from one news group to another.
  • These opinions can be very damaging to corporations.
  • They can also be helpful to corporations.

People use the Internet to solve a specific problem. Often this is to help with a specific purchasing decision. For the PR department, there is a major opportunity for newsgroup and e-mail marketing. At the same time there is an interesting opportunity in protecting, developing and enhancing reputation and brand values. By this, I do not mean, necessarily, becoming involved in another person's conversation. That too may be the route to disaster. This is at the cusp of the purchasing decision. Positive responses are very powerful, negative comment is unhelpful. Ignorance of the Internet and the numbers of people using it, is no longer excusable as usage increases and we need to learn how to develop techniques to aid reputation building in this environment.

This LSE student started a substantial response. Taking this case study as an example, there would appear to be a number of time critical and consumer significant actions that need to be addressed. In this case, it is possible to trace 31 postings in two different news groups involving 18 different people all within 14 days of the first innocent question. The subject migrated to over 30 newsgroups in the following two weeks.

In another study by IRS, during June 1999, in only three discussion groups (support.asthma, uk.local.surrey and games.minitures) there were 3500 comments on quality pertaining to UK supermarkets. The subject of quality associated with named supermarkets appeared in 36 UK newsgroups. By extrapolation, it might be said that there were 30,000 public comments available for the whole world to see about the quality of UK supermarkets.

In addition there was an audience who did not actively comment in numbers maybe vying with the Sun newspaper in total audience size. By any measure this represents a sizeable number of people prepared to make a comment and elect to spend time reading such comments. A sample of the postings showed 63% of commentators recommended a particular retailer and 37% who were critical. Notably, some retailers came out well ahead of the others with little criticism and much praise.

Article Series

This article is part 11 of a 37 part series. Other articles in this series are shown below:
  1. The Internet Influence
  2. Reputation
  3. The Internet Society
  4. How People Use The Internet
  5. The Opinion Formers
  6. A Stakerholder Society
  7. Its Fast
  8. Technology For The People
  9. A Reputation For Responding
  10. Newsgroups, Chat and Cybercast
  11. The Nature of Newsgroups
  12. Chat Overtaking Newsgroups
  13. Cybercasting
  14. The Internet Communities
  15. Neighbourghood Communities
  16. Company Communities
  17. Community Currency
  18. The Effect Of Virutal Communities On The Bottom Line
  19. Political Communities
  20. Cyber Marketers
  21. Global Branding
  22. Accessibility
  23. Cyberbrand Outreach Accessibility
  24. Information
  25. Interactivity
  26. Brand Performance
  27. Online PR
  28. Sponsorship Marketing
  29. Brand Attacks
  30. Cyber Counterfit Sales
  31. Internal Communications
  32. Cyberstalkers
  33. Protection from Cyberstalkers
  34. Investor Relations
  35. Share Scams
  36. Protecting Investors
  37. The Investor Sites
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