As conversations about brands continue to begin far away from top Google ratings, technologies are allowing companies to find about their crisis before the media does.
There are some in the world that feel a sea-change in corporate America has begun to shake out the entrenched players and their rigid approaches to all interaction with stakeholders. Those same people predict the ascent of the companies who embrace transparency, new communications tools, and, above all, blogging.
Some Fortune 500 companies have embraced this new environment, while others have approached it timidly. But the new rock stars of online communications have been spreading the message that, like it or not, the conversation is occurring. And while some companies may not be listening, others are, and those know that an online, negative conversation might grow, take hold, and continue unabated without the company's participation. (Such conversations, whether positive or negative, accurate or false, are known as memes.) Compounding the difficulty of tracking the conversations is that many begin at blogs with small traffic, which would be unlikely to show up early in Google results, which bases search returns on link and readership popularity.
Without the new organizational technology that creates links and connections, and enables these long conversations, the millions of blogs that cover every facet of existence would be disparate, disorganized, and less likely to induce general discussion.
"You end up discovering things that you wouldn't be able to find other ways, such as an entry in a blog, might not show up until the 45th page on Google," says Richard Treadway, CMO of PubSub, which provides tracking technology.
Fortunately for PR professionals, it is these technologies that allow companies and agencies alike to monitor the dialogue regarding their organizations. Blog search engines and enterprising individuals using shareable online bookmarks and organizers called tags or folksonomies are helping to dredge the internet to organize the collective thought process.
Steve Mallett, creator of tagging software de.lirio.us (no relation to the oft cited and similarly themed de.licio.us product), says his product came from his interest in what was being said beyond the top Google search returns.
PubSub is promoting its "prospective search," where the company stores search queries, rather than data like Google does. So a company could create a "search query" based on its brand name, and be told whenever its name is subsequently referenced on a website, blog, or news source, rather than continually going to a search engine and entering in manually. The company makes those results available either via e-mail, browser bar, or RSS feed. In essence, some people don't even Google their name anymore, the technology does it for them.
Treadway says prominent bloggers are using the search to find references to their own names. He expects that more agencies and their clients will also use that process to track their corporate brand and product names.
"As more people are tracking their brands, [companies] are really being left behind if they're not doing it," Treadway says.
He also cites PubSub's ability to impact what he called "material events." He describes them as events where, "if you had known about it early, you would have done something about it. The more time that passes before you find out, the less valuable it is to know it."
He refers to such things as plane cancellations and weather changes, but it's also apparent how that might benefit someone in crisis communications.
Intelliseek also has a product that allows users to see, in real time, what memes pick up steam, and which fall flat by following the link chain of a particular blog post. Think of it as making a declaration to a group of five people, and then being able to track how many of those five people relay the message onto others, and so on. It also allows companies to compare evocations of its name versus the names of competitors, which, depending on the tenor, could be a positive or negative sign. The free product, BlogPulse, has been in effect for a year. Intelliseek also offers a paid BlogPulse product that offers deeper analytics.
"The need to be aware is enormous," says Pete Blackshaw, Intelliseek's CMO. "Our business model is that we basically measure this consumer conversation."
Blackshaw says that there are two ways that corporations approach this monitoring, either to see what invectives are being launched at the company, or more positively, viewing blogs as a way to create stakeholder goodwill.
His advice to corporations is that they need to audit their reputation online by listening to what active, passionate bloggers are saying about their products.
"If you're bad at consumer service and have a website that is inflexible, you're going to have a high barrier to entry because consumers might look at your blog more skeptically," Blackshaw says. "This is a caution for companies that think flipping a blog switch [is easy]."
He says that marketers tend to want to jump into conversation immediately, but in this environment, those who speak incorrectly will be corrected and potentially lambasted publicly.
But monitoring blogs is not solely about stemming negative chatter. Companies can also find out who thinks their brand is important.
Furl, an Infoseek product, allows individuals to save blogs entries, website pages, and published articles on the web.
"By saving [news articles], [users are] saying that they're important," says Debby Richman, SVP of consumer products at Infoseek, adding that it can help agencies track media validation.
Mallett, of de.lirio.us, says that most people are using tagging in an enthusiastic manner, marking up things they like, but cautions that might change as the concept grows. PR professionals, he warns, must pay attention.
One company that has been chided for its strategy towards blogs is Kryptonite, which manufactured bike locks that could be picked by a brand-name pen. Kryptonite was criticized for its sluggish and staunch response, and the company has subsequently offered refunds and replacements that will cost the company millions of dollars. Some feel if the company actively monitored blogs, they could have stemmed the tide. Although others think that a blog publishing software program and some earnest dialogue will never be a panacea for things like a faulty lock.
But most everyone can agree that the environment continues to grow.
"The public is talking about you whether you look or not. If you're afraid to look, you had better seriously reconsider what you do for a living," Mallett says.