Evaluation: Blogs under audit

Finding the blogs most likely to influence perception of your brand is a complex science, says David Murphy.

  • 20,000,0000 blogs worldwide
  • 275,000 new postings every day
  • 75,000 new blogs every day
  • 11, 000 blog updates an hour

If they wanted another hit, Sheffield-based pop band Pulp could do worse than re-release their original song, Dogs are Everywhere, and replace the word ‘dogs’ with ‘blogs’. Everyone is talking about them. Everyone, it seems, has one.

According to blog search engine Technorati, there are upwards of 75,000 new blogs created every day, each of them adding to the estimated 20-60 million already in existence. It translates into a lot of people writing about a lot of stuff – and it is just this fact that is causing a problem. Few PROs would argue that blogs are not worth taking seriously.

Even if just a small percentage of what was written on blogs related to brand experiences, it would amount to a significant volume of comment. But, while the impact of negative comment in The Times, for example, is appreciated, measuring the effect of blogs is far more elusive, because it also involves evaluating the influence they wield.

The question of how to evaluate blogs is one that has taxed the PR industry for the past couple of years. Agencies are attempting to provide evaluation services for clients, with greater or lesser degrees of success. ‘We would not ignore the Financial Times, so we don’t ignore the most popular blogs,’ says Daljit Bhurji, head of Hotwire’s Digital Media Practice. However, he admits that deciding which blogs to monitor is ‘a challenge’.

Bhurji’s solution is to use blog search engine and ranking services such as Technorati and Blogpulse to identify popular sites. Other agencies split their searches between teams to physically read as many blogs as they can, analysing tone as they go.

Nick Rappolt, associate director at Bite, says the company has been doing this for the past 12 months. It now offers clients a daily news monitoring service, with people from different teams assessing websites. ‘We analyse them in terms of where they come in the search rankings,’ he says. For client Sage, Bite produces a ‘heat map’ of which sites mention Sage the most, and which blogs, podcasts and wikis reference the client. According to Rappolt, this relatively basic approach is better than not evaluating at all.

Brands in the blogosphere
The extent to which agencies are developing methods of blog evaluation can be seen in the number of those that now employ a dedicated ‘blog expert’. Drew Benvie is head of Lewis PR’s blogging division, and says PROs need to learn a variety of skills. ‘Some RSS feeds will alert you to when a keyword or phrase is being used on a blog,’ he says. ‘To help visualise a brand in the blogosphere, you can then enter these phrases into online tools such as IceRocket (www.icerocket.com). This will map out peaks and troughs of mentions – and the precise time of the day they occurred – so you can see how bloggers are reacting to news stories.’

That said, PR professionals are not alone in trying to monitor the influence of blogs. The traditional media measurement companies have, unsurprisingly, also seen an opportunity to apply their skills in the online arena. According to them, they are able to inject far more analysis into blog measurement than can PR practitioners.

‘Clients know blogs are important because they have started to influence the way consumers and investors act,’ says Keir Fawcus, managing director of Precise Media. ‘But not all of them are equal and the majority are technology-related. That’s where evaluation companies like us are able to focus on what’s important.’

Precise’s search software scans for the most active blogs in different sectors – creating a ‘top ten’ in each for those blogs worthy of particular attention. It then delivers blog content to clients, much like news content, as the blogs are updated.

The challenge, he argues, is for measurement companies to evaluate blogs alongside other media channels to work out their comparative importance. Fawcus says Precise is currently developing metrics to help determine when issues ‘break out’ of the blogosphere to be adopted by wider media.

This is the end-point being eyed by all the major evaluation companies. Market Sentinel is another such firm that believes it is beginning to crack the nut of blog evaluation. It has been evaluating them for the past two years, and started when Cisco Systems approached it with technology it had developed to monitor the web.

Market Sentinel’s technology also monitors web pages, and tells its clients when any changes have been made, and if a particular client has been mentioned.

But it is aiming to take its analysis further. Such a system naturally generates a lot of data, so in order to weed out less important mentions, the company uses another tool, based on citation analysis (used in academic circles) to decide which stakeholders referring to the brand in question has the most influence. ‘We use a complicated algorithm to calculate who has authority in the field in question, and we find it is fantastically accurate,’ says Market Sentinel CEO Mark Rogers.

He adds: ‘An interesting finding is that the client already tends to know about six out of ten of the people we find to be authoritative. That said, there are always bloggers or start-ups that the client has never heard of, so this is a great way of figuring out who they need to pay attention to.’

Media evaluation company Metrica has had an official blog evaluation product for the past six months, but claims to have kept an eye on them ‘ever since they first cropped up’, according to managing director Richard Bagnell.

The techniques used to evaluate a blog, says Bagnell, are similar to those used for other media, focusing on high-quality analysis of content. But because the majority of blogs do not produce readership figures, the company has devised other ways of assessing their importance.

‘Some people look at how many inbound links there are, which is a step in the right direction,’ Bagnell says. ‘But we also look at how recent the post was, how frequently the blog is being updated, and the content. We are also experimenting with the production of statistics that compare mainstream blogs with more obscure ones.’

The number of people reading a blog versus the perceived influence of those readers is one of the big debates shaping the blog evaluation agenda.

James Davies, managing director of Impact Evaluation, believes high readership figures are not always important: ‘Blogs are about influence – and that is not just determined by volume of readers. It’s about the migration of ideas. The phrase I use is “experiential insight”. When you have individuals expressing their opinion about a brand, it’s a form of qualitative research. There is no robustness in terms of the numbers, but it is always interesting to hear individuals talk about brands, because you can uncover things you did not know.’

But can a blog really have influence without a critical mass of readers? How many would constitute such a critical mass? If a blog is authoritative and well written, does it not follow that it will pull in the readers? These are big questions that remain unanswered.

Jim Nail, chief marketing officer at US blog evaluation company Cymfony, says there is a tendency in the blogging world for the cream to rise to the top.

‘This is such a fluid space that, manually, it is almost impossible to stay on top of it,’ says Nail. ‘What you see over time is this: a new blog emerges and starts to get noticed; eventually the blog will be linked to by many other blogs. By then, it may have been around a while, only coming to the surface through its link with already established blogs or websites.’

That may not help PROs hungry for data now, and as Nail concedes, measuring the relative influence of one blog over another is still an inexact science.

‘We are still in the stages of trying to quantify our analysis,’ he says. ‘It’s not so finely tuned that you can say “this blog is twice as influential as that one”. But there are some subtle elements we look for, such as who is linking to a blog. Are there people higher up in the influence hierarchy?’

Opinion formers and ranters
He adds: ‘On our system, if someone well respected is linking to a less well-known blog, a blog will score more points. But you have to carry out your own editorial evaluation as well. For example, you can tell that certain bloggers are knowledgeable about an industry and have intelligent opinions. On the other hand, you get the ranters, but people are tiring of them.’

Paul Miller, senior consultant at Romeike, describes the process of evaluating blogs as ‘a work in progress’. He says: ‘If you have ten articles in The Daily Telegraph, you know what you’ve got. With blogs, there’s a lot of spadework, a lot of digging around.’

Miller also argues that not everyone needs to worry to the same extent about what is being said on blogs. ‘We try and dissuade companies from spending lots of money on measurement unless they are in the digital consumer electronics arena, where blog monitoring is important,’ he says. ‘There’s no need for the vast majority of companies to be evaluating blogs. They just need some sort of “monitor and respond” policy.’

This point is echoed by Market Sentinel’s Rogers, who says: ‘The people investing most in blog evaluation are the people who stand to be most affected by it. Coca-Cola, for example, can almost afford to take the attitude that people are not going to Google “Coke” before they buy a can of drink. But if you’re selling cars, or something for which people tend go to the internet to do their research, you can’t afford to ignore it.’

Blogs have undoubtedly changed the traditional rules of crisis management. ‘The conventional wisdom in PR was that one should not respond to a negative story,’ says Rogers. ‘But with blogs, once a negative story is out there, people will link to it – so it will get higher search rankings, and then yet more people will link to it.’

Little wonder, then, that PR practitioners interested in the perception of  their brands are taking blog evaluation ever more seriously.

Tracking the blogosphere

  • BlogPulse www.blogpulse.com

    What is it? BlogPulse, operated by Nielsen BuzzMetrics, is free, and describes itself as an ‘automated trend-discovery system for blogs’.

How it works: It identifies trends in the world of blogs. It also offers blog search facilities, and includes a set of ‘Buzz-Tracking’ tools that are applied to blog content daily to track blog activity on key issues, people and news stories. These include Trend Search, which creates charts comparing ‘buzz’ in the blogosphere; Conversation Tracker, which follows and ‘captures’ discussion that emanates from individual blogs or posts; and Blogger Profiles, which identify top-ranked blogs and analyse their activity and influence.

The site is great for PROs who want to assess the stature of a given blog, while the Trend Search is potentially useful to see what issues are hogging the limelight in the blogosphere, enabling one to see, for example, what percentage of blogs in the past month have been devoted to football, compared with cricket.

BlogPulse currently locates content from more than 14 million blogs.

  • Bloglines www.bloglines.com

    What is it? A free online news aggregator that helps people subscribe to, and manage, lots of web information, such as newsfeeds and blogs.

How it works: Bloglines currently searches and indexes more than 80 million ‘live web articles’. Bloglines asks users to register the type of information in which they are interested, then retrieves relevant information as it appears via syndicated feeds, placing it on users’ personal web page.

In essence it is like any standard News Reader, but the fact that it is online means it is not tied to a single PC. It is also free, and as such offers PROs an inexpensive and convenient way to monitor the output from specific blogs or news sites, from anywhere they can get online.

  • Technorati www.technorati.com

    What is it? Technorati describes itself as ‘a real-time search engine that keeps track of what is going on in the blogosphere’. On 30 May, it was tracking 41.7 million sites and 2.5 billion links respectively. 

How it works: Technorati gauges the importance of a blog by virtue of the number of other sites linking to it. It automatically receives notification from weblogs as soon as they are updated.

For PROs, Technorati offers a quick and easy way to find blogs on a specific subject. From there, the blog’s ranking can be checked to determine its importance. The site also offers a ‘Top 100 Blogs’ listing. On 30 May, for example, the top English language blog was Boing Boing (www.boingboing.net) with 66,219 links from 20,223 sites, while in 100th place was globalsecurity.org, with 5,310 links from 2,483 sites. 

  • Pubsub www.pubsub.com

    What is it? A free matching service that notifies users when new content is created that matches words or phrases they have asked to be monitored.

How it works: Using a proprietary ‘matching engine’, Pubsub reads millions of data sources on users’ behalf and notifies them whenever a match is made. On 30 May, Pubsub was tracking 24,350,105 sources (of which 11,618,966 were active) – mainly blogs, but also including over 50,000 newsgroups.

In some ways, Pubsub is similar to an online News Reader, but, rather than checking the feeds from specified blogs, it looks for feeds from all its sources that match the search terms specified. So if you search for ‘John Prescott’, you’ll get all the matches it finds, irrespective of the fact that you have not selected specific blogs to source.

Given the dynamic nature of blogs, and the number of new ones that appear daily, this is a good way for PROs to monitor blog output on a given subject.

Case study: Anti-Dell blog
Anyone doubting the power of blogs to affect a brand’s reputation need look no further than the example of Jeff Jarvis and Dell.

For those unfamiliar with the details of the story: in 2005, communications professional, and blogger, Jaff Jarvis bought a Dell laptop, with a service cover package that entitled him to at-home repair. When the machine began to overheat and he tried to get an engineer out, Dell told Jarvis it could not send one, and advised him to give the machine back to Dell for repair.

On 21 June 2005, Jarvis vented his anger with a post on his blog. In the weeks that followed, other customers who had suffered customer service problems with Dell joined in. The story was picked up by national media in the US and the UK, and was mentioned on 16 May this year in The New York Times. The latter article pointed out that Dell shares had lost almost 42 per cent of their value since last July.

Online monitoring company Market Sentinel produced a case study of the episode as part of research into the influence of bloggers on corporate reputation, carried out in December 2005. It aimed to measure the impact of Jarvis’s blog on public attitudes towards Dell. It did so by taking two search terms – ‘Dell Hell’ (which was how Jarvis referred to his problems) and ‘customer service’ – in the context of Dell. It then ranked each by three measures: the number of citations by other stakeholders (other sites); how often the stakeholder was the source of relevant information for another stakeholder; and how much importance was given to blog sites by other stakeholders.

The study found that Buzzmachine was the key online source for those with a negative perception of Dell’s customer service, and that Dell’s influence on the topic of its own customer service was weak. It concluded that blogs can be negative in their impact, but also that bloggers have characteristics that weaken their individual influence – namely, that they single-source stories, and are themselves referenced by others who single-source stories.

‘We argue that bloggers are not influential,’ says Market Sentinel chief executive Mark Rogers. ‘They can be authoritative, but only if the company about whom they have an issue does not step up to the plate. The reason Jarvis became an authority on the topic of Dell’s customer service was that Dell never put across its point of view, and still hasn’t to this day.’

PRWeek invited Dell to comment for this article, but it declined.

Which blogs are most useful to pros?
Madeline Carroll, account executive at Red Signal, reads: www.treehugger.com
‘This is a US blog with UK contributors, and is the biggest green/eco blog around. I also read hippyshopper.co.uk and cityhippy.co.uk. We have an eco client, Natural Collection, so it’s great for keeping up with new products/trends.’ 

Charlie Morgan, head of PR at Firebox.com, reads: Tech Digest and Shiny Shiny
 ‘They are great technology and lifestyle product blogs. Both are run by freelance journalists and they give you a good steer on trends.’

Amanda Harrison, founder of Amanda Harrison Media, reads: www.mbites.co.uk by journalist Mike Butcher
‘He keeps more up to date than anyone on the planet with all things new media and digital. What is of concern to him will be of concern to my clients – and that concerns me.’

Drew Benvie, account director and head of blogging at Lewis PR, reads: www.digg.com
 ‘Digg collects the most popular blog posts of the moment, so you’re often seeing tomorrow’s news before it breaks. I also read blogs.zdnet.com. I find this set of technology blogs massively useful.’

Paul Harrison, managing partner at Carve Consulting, reads: www.socialmedia.biz
‘Social Media Group is an affiliation of consultants who work together on a project-by-project basis to bring the tools of social media to corporations and not-for-profit organisations. It is unpretentious, jargon-free and clearly laid out: from the design to the language, Social Media is perhaps the most accessible way of getting to grips with the space.’

Bill McIntyre, director at iris PR, reads: www.consumer-empowerment.com
‘It’s a blog by LSE professor Paul Marsden. It provides a wide range of interesting information on how companies are experimenting with the involvement of customers in their marketing programmes.’

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