PR Technique Market Research: Using the chat room as a market research channel - In addition to eavesdropping on them to combat negative messages, PR pros are beginning to tap into chat rooms as a way of doing proactive market research. Ana Vargas reports

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 fire.

Rumors spread like wildfire on the Internet, but not all complaints

and critiques should be viewed as villainous sparks ready to fuel the

fire.



Listening in on discussion groups can provide PR teams with

instantaneous market research on clients, services, products and

industry trends.



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

opinions.



’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

accuracy.



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

others.



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

option.



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



DO



1 Use a wide variety of discussion groups to study different

demographics.



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.





DON’T



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

sell.



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