In May 2003, the consumer advocacy group Ban Trans Fat sued Kraft Foods, demanding that the comestibles giant stop selling its Oreo-brnad biscuits in California.
In the suit, the organisation claimed that the popular snacks were plugging Californians’ arteries with unhealthy fats called trans fats, also known as hydrogenated oils.
Soon after the suit was filed, public interest in trans fats peaked. And while most people felt the suit was frivolous, the public and government began to focus intensely on the deleterious health issues associated with these processed fats.
Just two months later, Kraft announced it would begin to cut trans fats out of its many snack products, and shortly afterwards, the US Food and Drug Administration began requiring manufacturers to list trans fat content on nutrition-fact labels.
During the months before and after the suit was filed, a word-of-mouth marketing research firm called BuzzMetrics tracked more than 2.6 million comments about trans fats in various online forums, discussion groups and blogs from more than 120,000 people.
The Ban Trans Fats suit was eventually dropped, but BuzzMetrics’ study showed that the damage had been done: Kraft and Oreo were mentioned in 17 percent and 26 percent of the 2.6m comments about trans fats, respectively, showing that the public clearly linked the dangers of consuming processed oils with the company and one of its most famous products.
"The controversy over trans fats is a seminal case of the dramatic role that online communities and their influential participants play during industry crises," Jonathan Carson, chief executive of BuzzMetrics, said in an 16 August, 2004, press release announcing his firm’s research report on the trans fat situation. "Online word of mouth enabled a lawsuit against one company to shift into a major food-industry policy and public relations crisis."
Kraft is not one of BuzzMetrics’ clients. But the results of the firm’s research was instructive to many companies that are its clients, including blue chip companies such as General Motors, HP and Target, that engage BuzzMetrics to monitor, track and analyse the ways that the public talks online about their products and brands.
Another business that helps companies with the monitoring of blogs, discussion groups and other forums is Intelliseek, which represents industry giants such as Canon, Ford Motor, Microsoft, Nokia, Philips, Sony, Procter & Gamble, Toyota and others.
The premise behind services like these, as well as companies’ own internal Internet-monitoring programmes, is that online discussions be it in forums, on blogs or elsewhere are a modern replacement for customer satisfaction surveys or focus group reports, which can take months to compile and analyse.
"When you’re listening to the Internet, the discussion is taking place in real time," said Intelliseek spokeswoman Sue MacDonald. "We’re able very quickly, sometimes in a matter of days, to pick up on what consumers are saying. If there are certain issues, like safety recalls or any mention of a boycott, we can set up an alert, so that we can alert a company or a brand so they can be on their guard and be ready to react, if that’s what it takes."
The Intelliseeks and BuzzMetrics of the world are finding fertile and lucrative ground to till with the monitoring and analytic tools and products they offer their clients.
MacDonald said that Intelliseek’s clients sign up for contracts that average $75,000 a year and can range from $30,000 to $500,000. Similarly, Max Kalehoff, vice-president of marketing at BuzzMetrics, said the firm’s clients pay anywhere from $30,000 to more than am dollars for its services.
"What we’re saying to [our clients] is that it’s pretty important that you listen," MacDonald said. "Your customers are listening. Your customers are using the Internet to search. It’s keyword-dense. It’s contextual. When you type in a product name into Google, you may run into the company’s Web site, but you may also run into 10 people who have had an experience with it."
Ear to the ground
It’s not clear how many companies are monitoring the Internet for brand mentions. Nor is it clear how many of those businesses hire outside help to do the research, or invest in both in-house and outside services.
One example of the latter is HP, which is a BuzzMetrics client and also has an internal programme.
"We pay attention to the blogosphere," said Scott Anderson, HP’s director of enterprise brand communications, in a talk at the Syndicate conference in San Francisco in December. "Our audience is online. They’re having discussions about us and about our competitors, and they’re talking about the marketplace. It may be good, and it may be bad, but it’s important for us to pay attention to what’s being said out /there."
Effectively, Anderson said, HP considers bloggers especially chief-level executives, journalists and "influencers in our market" to be valuable filters for what people think about its products and services.
"The blogosphere is a great place for customer intelligence," he said. "Things are happening very fast. Bloggers are considered to be people with real strong opinions. So it’s a place where people are being really honest about what they think."
Naturally, there are countless small companies that want to keep up with what is being said about them online, but can’t afford an Intelliseek or BuzzMetrics.
For them, said Steve Rubel, vice-president of the Micro Persuasion practice at CooperKatz, which consults with companies about monitoring the Internet, there are a number of free and low-cost tools that companies can use to gain insight into how their brand is being talked about online.
"Those are very good if you have a manageable volume," he said. "If you have anywhere from single digits to 50 to 100 posts per day [about your company], you can probably manage that. With a huge brand, you need some tools to help you manage that. Otherwise, it just becomes too time-consuming."
Rubel pointed to public relations nightmares like that precipitated by Buzz Machine blogger Jeff Jarvis’ much-publicised rants about his bad experiences with Dell and its customer service operation.
"When consumers have their own pen, they may not call in anymore," said Rubel. "They may choose to blog about it, because they think they’ll get quicker service. Everyone has seen through different examples that they have to grapple with this."
To that end, Rubel said he recommends that clients keep what he calls a "lockbox" blog. He described it as "a blog you keep behind glass. In case of fire, break glass and blog."
The idea, he said, is that companies need to be able to quickly respond to crises and to do so in a medium that bloggers respect.
Ultimately, the point of tracking what online consumers are saying about brands is to be able to react quickly if something bad happens or learn from the good things people say. Either way, though, companies are learning they have to pay attention.
"The whole point," MacDonald said, "is if a company’s not listening, they’re not going to pick it up."