Rumors spread like wildfire on the Internet, but not all complaints and critiques should be viewed as villainous sparks ready to fuel the fire.
Rumors spread like wildfire on the Internet, but not all complaints
and critiques should be viewed as villainous sparks ready to fuel the
Listening in on discussion groups can provide PR teams with
instantaneous market research on clients, services, products and
Research on different segments of a target audience can easily be tapped
into by listening in on a variety of chat rooms, where people have
real-time discussions, or online forums, where discussions take place by
posting messages to a site over a period of days or even weeks. PR pros
are just beginning to eavesdrop as a way of doing market research.
’A growing cross-section of the population is on the Internet,’ says Dan
Janal, author of Dan Janal’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet. ’There
are groups for African Americans, women, senior citizens and people who
like boats, which makes it easy to find opinions from different
demographics.’ Janal advises spreading the net wide, so PR teams can not
only see different constituencies’ likes and dislikes but also how those
groups compare with one another.
When Janal showed a PR practitioner at a large athletic-shoe company the
messages in various chat rooms, she discovered more than
misunderstandings and misinformation. One chat listed under
’Clydesdales’ revealed that several people’s running shoes from her
company had fallen apart after six or seven days of wear. Clydesdales -
men who are larger than average - have different needs in a shoe, needs
that were not being met by the company, in part because they were not
being monitored as part of the target audience. One distributor who read
the chat said he intended to stop carrying the shoes.
Discussion groups can also reveal broader information on topics and
’We look for trends and use the feedback as a gauge for uncovering
issues that we should look into further,’ says Travis Jacobsen, PR
director for the Big Planet division at Nu Skin Enterprises. Nu Skin,
like many other companies, does in-house monitoring of discussion
groups. Internet communications are monitored daily by an internal
communications officer who reads them for content, tone and
For companies on the stock exchange, like Nu Skin, proper discussion
groups are easy to find. Groups geared toward investors can be found at
ragingbull.com, motleyfool.com and individualinvestor.com, among
In addition, chat rooms and bulletin boards can be found under every
company’s stock symbol. They are frequented by customers and investors,
along with the occasional rogue employee. By listening in, PR
departments can learn views on management, distribution, sales and
customer service - views that may be affecting stock prices.
Anti-company Web sites and competitor’s Web sites also host chat rooms
that can help PR teams gain perspective. For discussion groups geared
toward general interests and consumers, major search engines offer
thousands of opportunities. Among the favorites are yahoo.com, MSN.com,
AOL and Prodigy. Deja.com has set up groups to discuss specific products
and topics, even allowing participants to vote on things like their
hotel of preference.
To gauge opinions on an industry, plug into chat rooms and forums on
specific types of products. ’Surprisingly, people do talk about almost
everything. I’ve been to forums where people had strong opinions on
washers and dryers!’ says Mark Vangel, director of new media measurement
at Delahaye Medialink.
Vangel used the appliance discussion groups to cull opinions on a
client’s new refrigerator model. The appliance maker had received
numerous complaints on the product and wanted to know if the problem was
industrywide. After learning that it was not, the company was able to
fix the problem and develop a PR campaign that addressed the issue.
To facilitate monitoring, several services provide ’online clippings’ -
excerpts from discussions - based on key words. Delahaye Medialink
selects groups based on research needs, clips discussions and provides
monthly analysis on tone, products mentioned, competitors and trends in
negative or positive issues. Thousands of discussion groups are also
monitored by eWatch, which builds a profile of 10 to 15 key words and
can e-mail clippings daily.
Even those who use these services advocate checking chat rooms and
forums regularly. Many professionals also pose questions to
participants, using chat rooms like instantly available focus groups,
while others prefer online forums for gathering answers.
’In chat rooms everyone speaks at the same time, so there can be a lot
of clutter and some messages can be drowned out,’ says Susan Roth,
senior program manager for New Media Public Relations in San Francisco.
Forums allow users to post their replies in full and over a period of
days or even weeks.
In addition, forums tend to be made up of return users who rely on each
other for reliable advice and have a long-term interest in the industry
or topic. For this reason some practitioners consider participants to be
more reliable than those found in chat rooms.
’The problem with the Internet is that people like to remain anonymous,
so recruiting a reliable sample is nearly impossible,’ counters Ken
Deutsch, VP of Internet strategic communications at Issue Dynamics.
Offering participants incentives in exchange for their answers and
reliable demographic information (including an address) has been one
But, Deutsch points out, participants are already pre-selected as
Internet users and people who are vocal about their opinions. And those
opinions are not always reliable. Still, PR pros tapping into chat rooms
and forums are at the forefront of learning how to use them as informal
market research channels.
DOs AND DON’Ts
1 Use a wide variety of discussion groups to study different
2 Use a clippings and analysis service for coverage if appropriate.
3 Track trends over time. Evaluate the accuracy and urgency of
addressing the issues raised.
4 Identify yourself as a representative of the company. Offer incentives
when asking participants to respond to questions.
5 Check discussion groups regularly even if a service is being used.
1 Track discussion groups with small numbers of participants.
2 Respond to every negative concern.
3 Rely on chat rooms and forums for reliable feedback, or let them take
the place of controlled focus groups.
4 Respond to a participant’s concerns with client messages and a hard