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Should a company react to newsgroup comments

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:

  • Commercial opportunities are not missed
  • Critical comment is managed
  • That there are technically competent people available to answer consumer issues in public forums
  • Corporate and marketing initiatives are not clumsy and do not threaten the brand
  • The response to Internet users is swift

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!

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Article Series

This article is part 11 of a 24 part series. Other articles in this series are shown below:
  1. The Internet Influence
  2. Reputation Management
  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. Information and Content
  24. Cyberbrand Outreach Accessibility
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