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February 06, 2006

Catch The Blog Buzz

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Catching a buzz is a whole lot easier than it used to be.

For marketers, public-relations firms, and companies looking to promote a brand, blogs have become a valuable resource for understanding what consumers want or like--and, even more important, what they hate.

Because these online exchanges come unprompted and unfiltered, they're a rich sounding board for corporate spinmeisters looking to gauge reactions to a new advertising campaign or hear customers describe their lifestyles. Sometimes it's just as valuable to learn what bloggers think about the competition. A few companies weigh in with their own responses--or even paid bloggers--though that terrain is riddled with pitfalls in a blogosphere that's ruthless when wronged.

To monitor the vast landscape of opinions recorded online--which in addition to blogs includes message boards, user groups, and Web sites--Factiva, Umbria, and others rely on natural language processing and text-mining applications to parse the Internet for mentions of brands, people, or companies. Umbria determines the demographic group of individuals based on language patterns. Intelliseek, which tracks more than 20 million blogs and discussion groups for such clients as Ford, Microsoft, Nokia, Procter & Gamble, and Toyota, describes it as bringing measurability to word of mouth.

A brave few companies take the extra step of setting up their own blogs or paying individuals, not necessarily employees, to act as advocates on their behalf. The Pennsylvania Tourism Office last summer recruited six people to travel around the state on weekend trips and picked up the tab, up to $1,000 per excursion. In return, the travelers were expected to blog about their experiences and upload their photos and videos.

"There's nothing more valid than a third-party validation, and that's what bloggers do," says David Heidenreich, VP of strategy and online planning for Ripple Effects Interactive, the Web advertising company that conducted the campaign. Ripple Effects created an online relations department in August to monitor blogs on behalf of a half-dozen clients in the tourism and higher education sectors.

From a publicity perspective, the tourism project worked. Ripple Effects did a little promotion within the PR industry, and word of mouth spread, culminating in mentions by CNN and The Associated Press. "That buzz started at the underground level, and Reuters picked it up, and it went national," Heidenreich says. "We reached out to 25 blogs, and all of a sudden we're getting mentioned on 250 blogs."

Mixed Response
Not all the reaction was positive. Some people questioned the authenticity of the bloggers. Ripple Effects encouraged the blogging travelers to respond online, which a few did, defending their impartiality.

But it was a big enough success that a new campaign is planned for the spring that will combine social networking with travel planning. Visitors to the Pennsylvania Tourism Office site will be able to post personal profiles, create their own road trips, and share their itineraries online; comments from viewers will be welcomed.

(click image for larger view)

Travel and blog: Pennsylvania's Tourism Office will pay you to do it.
"What's going to sell the tourism product more: a paragraph of marketing fluff my copywriter develops, or Joe from Pittsburgh talking about his whitewater rafting experience--and here's a video of him falling out of the raft?" Heidenreich asks.

To those who object to the intrusion into the anti-establishment blogosphere, Heidenreich makes an analogy to another pop-culture phenomenon. "It's like when your favorite band gets popular. The hard-core bloggers are irritated when corporate America gets into the mix," he says. "But there's no lying going on, there's nothing contrived."

The tourism board is more an exception than the rule. Few companies are willing to pay for endorsements by bloggers, but some banks, consultant groups, packaged-goods companies, and pharmaceutical firms spend as much as $200,000 to $300,000 annually for online media monitoring by Factiva, a joint venture between Dow Jones and the Reuters Group.

Factiva Insight: Reputation Intelligence, launched in August, mines content from 9,000 news sources, including the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and 15,000 Web sites. Through a partnership with Intelliseek, it also keeps an eye on 4 million blogs.

Umbria offers similar services for $6,000 per month to about 40 clients, including Electronic Arts and SAP, in the apparel, automotive, entertainment, consumer electronics, consumer packaged goods, and video-game industries. IBM sells software and services, alongside Factiva, for companies to track input from sources such as blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, and to review sites to track the success of product launches, for example.

"Marketing and communication is going through a big change," says Alan Scott, chief marketing officer for Factiva. But not everyone is catching on. "We're having to educate many people in corporate America about how to use blogs," he says.

Scott often recommends that companies use blogs in place of customer focus groups, a traditional method for gathering feedback from customers. Since bloggers give their honest reactions rather than answering what are sometimes leading questions, they can be a valuable resource, not to mention less expensive and more accessible, Scott says.

"Blogs or message boards can be the canary in the coal mine" for a company's image problems, says Howard Kaushansky, Umbria's president and CEO. The invasive software rootkit that was found on some of Sony BMG's CDs was first revealed on a blog, and the blogging community savaged the company for it, turning the incident into a public-relations disaster for Sony in November.

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