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.
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.
It takes a brave manager to say to the Board that there are lessons to be learned from these events. There is no excuse for not being brave. This is a form of consumer polling, unprompted and largely spontaneous, reputation analysis by the public of a company, its products or services. Monitoring this level of consumer empathy provides a close insight into the competitive advantage of the company and its brand equity in the Internet Society. The reputation manager can now develop the tools by which reputation can be dynamically measured and a corporate response (primarily off line) can be formulated.
The consumer issue is time critical and in the time the subject is visible, buying decisions have been influenced and the contract has been made. We have seen evidence of the speed that the Internet operates in other case studies. Thus the next lesson we learn is that corporations have to be very much more responsive and faster to respond than in the past.
The question of how an organisation can and should respond is one that exercises many minds. The issue is one of psychology as much as anything. And it is not easy to apply. Newsgroups are virtual communities in their own right and each one is different (see Internet Communities below). A response for one group may be totally inappropriate for another.
Some companies spend a great deal of time and effort 'seeding' newsgroups with information about products they have for sale. One major retailer used to talk about new products in a variety of newsgroups using (not so heavily) disguised people making comments about the products. 'Have you tried the new perfume at XXX store' was one comment 'it's worth trying'. Within a few days there was a blizzard of responses, many saying that it was terrible!
'Seeding' takes on other forms where companies overtly or surreptitiously invite newsgroup members to visit their store or Web site (using a hyperlink). The score rate for this kind of activity is quite high but the cost of attracting a few dozen visitors in
this way must be seen to be a high cost marketing process unless part of a campaign to attract people to a particularly 'sticky' site or influential, company run, usergroup/chat site.
'Seeding' newsgroups is not the same as spamming where a company overtly sends messages to all manor of newsgroups (as well as to individuals). In a high number of cases there is a marked resistance to such activities and it upsets Internet communities
a lot. Selecting the community or news group that will accepts this form of promotion is one requiring newsgroup experience and skill. A number of companies are transparent about their activities in newsgroups. They say that they note comments about themselves and respond directly. The 'Big Brother' aspect of this form of response worries users, who like to believe their newsgroup is for like minded people and not there for eavesdropping by outsiders with, at best, a casual interest in their virtual community.
There is another aspect of how this form of response is manifest. Quite often and quite innocently, employees and other stakeholder, already active or just on the prowl come across critical postings and take up the cudgels in defence of their employer. Almost always it ends in a wrangle of no help to the individual or the company. Stakeholder, need to be aware of the potential difficulties they can meet and the effect they may have.
Perhaps the best examples of how organisations respond is seen when companies sponsor their own newsgroups (some inside their Web site, others in specific freely available Listserve and Usergroups) and others in newsgroups where there is plenty of
evidence of competitors debating relative merits of products and processes. In many ways this serves the Netzine culture well. They enjoy the exchange with an Internet savvy employee and go to the site to find out more. In addition, in other newsgroups
they act as ambassadors, inviting other members to join the debate. This is a cost effective approach with consumers having a specific interest congregating in one place and one that does not (usually) upset Internet communities. The computer
companies and Microsoft use this approach to good effect.
Such companies have a product manager who spends his day answering technical questions raised by technicians all over the world. While this is effective, and the numbers of visitors can be very high (see the SIMCO example above) the person
involved needs to be very competent. In addition they need to be trained to react as reputation managers as well as technicians.
The numbers of technical questions that can be answered by product managers are very broad and are most helpful for customers. This work is appreciated by the customer and if well done, with a dedicated and committed product manager, builds
strong consumer relationships. This approach can work just as well for consumer activities and there are some excellent examples.
However, when this person sees a posting critical of the company, there needs to be a quick response to ensure that the reputation of the company remains intact. Most often, such responses are off-line and need to be managed inside the company.
Knowing what is said outside a company user group allows the company contributor to respond and use the visitors to his site to go out and answer the points raised.
The role and authority will ensure that:
We do not know how many people see these postings for each of the many thousand newsgroups, but there are a number of sources including IRS and NUA Internet Surveys18 that give a clear view of the numbers using Internet communication and, in
the UK, this runs to millions every day already!