PR Technique Evaluation - Tuning your ear to hear the buzz - The Internet is making the dream of being able to measure buzz a reality But the practice is fairly new and PR firms are just figuring out how to do it - and why. Stephanie Gaskell explains.

Gone are the days of eavesdropping over water cooler conversations in order to get an idea of what people are saying about your clients. The Internet has opened a new frontier in the way PR firms are able to measure buzz. Several companies have devised a way to track buzz that is faster and more efficient and that covers the vast, often overwhelming land of the Web. But this new territory is still being chartered and PR firms are still learning what to do with the information they are finding.

Gone are the days of eavesdropping over water cooler conversations in order to get an idea of what people are saying about your clients. The Internet has opened a new frontier in the way PR firms are able to measure buzz. Several companies have devised a way to track buzz that is faster and more efficient and that covers the vast, often overwhelming land of the Web. But this new territory is still being chartered and PR firms are still learning what to do with the information they are finding.

Gone are the days of eavesdropping over water cooler conversations in order to get an idea of what people are saying about your clients. The Internet has opened a new frontier in the way PR firms are able to measure buzz. Several companies have devised a way to track buzz that is faster and more efficient and that covers the vast, often overwhelming land of the Web. But this new territory is still being chartered and PR firms are still learning what to do with the information they are finding.

To many working in the PR industry, buzz can mean many things. 'It's a highly popular term, with many definitions,' explains Katherine Paine, president of Delahaye Medialink in Portsmouth, NH. 'Buzz is another word for image and reputation. It's what's being said on a person-to-person basis as opposed to Fortune magazine ranking your business 23rd in the nation.'

While most people would agree with this definition, the Internet is making the way PR firms track and analyze buzz a lot broader and harder to define.

In other words, buzz has expanded out of the realms of the traditional areas, like writing a letter to the editor or being mentioned on the gossip page of your local newspaper. 'Buzz happens when people are emotional about topics,' says David Blumstein, National Sales Director at CyberAlert in Connecticut, which specializes in Internet monitoring and Web clipping.

Buzz is now everywhere in cyberspace. It's in chat rooms, discussion groups and e-mail lists.

Companies have been using buzz to help promote their products and services for quite some time. Before the Internet revolution, companies like Proctor & Gamble and General Motors would give away products so that people would tell their friends and spread the word - the buzz - about how great they were.

But take last summer's runaway hit, the low-budget independent film, The Blair Witch Project, whose success was based almost solely on buzz.

The Internet played a crucial - and inexpensive - role in that success.

It was one of the early examples of how the Internet has changed the way PR firms make use of the power of buzz.

PR execs have measured buzz for a long time, clipping newspaper articles and tallying the numbers. But today, new technology is making that job faster and easier. Companies offer buzz-tracking services that scan millions of articles, chat rooms and e-mail lists on the Internet (and elsewhere, such as print, TV and radio) and tell you who's talking about you and what they're saying. This service can cost anywhere from dollars 395 a month to nearly dollars 100,000 a project, depending on the extent of their search and analysis.

And many PR firms are jumping on the bandwagon, making buzz work for them and their clients. 'Buzz has always been there,' says Paine. 'To a certain extent marketers have always desired to manipulate the buzz.

Now you're seeing some of these initiatives coming out of the PR department.

PR is having a much more active role in that process.'

So, if a company is getting lots of mentions in the media, the PR firm is doing its job, right? Not necessarily.

Gary Getto, VP of Surveillance Data in Pennsylvania, which offers a service called Textall that monitors buzz, says it's one thing to track buzz and count up numbers, but the real story lies in the analysis.

Getto tracked buzz for a major cell phone company while reports were being issued saying cell phones caused brain cancer. At first, you might think the company wanted to track its buzz to make sure it would be able to protect its reputation. But in fact, they hired Getto to evaluate consumer response to the reports to determine whether they should launch a new product or hold off. It turns out most people ignored the reports that cell phones were linked to brain cancer. So instead of diffusing a potential crisis, the cell phone company successfully launched a new product.

A PR firm can use these tracking services to accomplish many goals. Monitoring buzz certainly helps show clients that their PR is working. It lets the client know if there's a buzz, what that buzz is and - perhaps most important - what it means. But it can also allow a company to look at itself and find out if its employees are hurting its reputation, which could conceivably help head off a labor dispute.

Many of these tracking services monitor a company's internal e-mail to see what employees are saying about it. By tracking chat rooms aimed at his company's industry, one exec was able to find out that a group was planning to protest at an upcoming event. And while it's great to measure what people are saying about you, it's sometimes even more beneficial to find out what people are saying about your competition. Many companies these days are hiring tracking services to see how they compare to their competitors.

'Tracking buzz is not always cut and dry,' Albert Barr of CARMA warns.

He points out that while your company might be getting lots of buzz in a chat room that bashes your product of service, he says it's important to consider how many people are clicking on to it. There's lots of anti-Web sites, like www.allstateinsurancesucks.com or www.chasebanksucks.com, but Barr says 'no one really clicks on them.'

However, Blumstein warns companies to pay attention to everything that's out there. 'The information flows so quickly and so widely that corporations cannot afford to think to themselves that nobody will find out.'

'If it doesn't affect the way people think it's really not of that much that use,' says Barr. 'You can buzz all you want, but if it doesn't accomplish anything, it's just buzz.'



THE BUZZ ON MEASURING BUZZ

1 Cast a wide net. Buzz can come from unlikely places, especially on the Internet 2 Keep in mind that a lot of information on the Internet is old. And always take into account how many people are looking at it

3 Be sure to really think about how you want to respond to your buzz.

You could make the situation worse 4 Look down the road. Information that seems useless now could benefit you later.



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