Public Image Limited: Monitoring Your Corporate Image Online

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The recent proliferation of blogs and other "consumer-generated media" (CGM) has had a major impact on our culture—affecting the way we get our news, entertain ourselves, and especially the way we do business.

A fairly recent Pew Internet report says that 8 million American adults claim to have created a blog and 50 million read them, while Technorati estimates that 70,000 new blogs are created each day. Of course, most likely a fair amount of these blogs are either irrelevant or forgotten within a week; nonetheless, the sheer volume and intensity of activity is staggering. And well . . . hell, even Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has his own blog! What is increasingly clear is that blogs and other CGM like forums, discussion boards, and wikis are viable, influential, and pervasive. So, for good or ill, this media is here to stay.

What does all this have to do with monitoring corporate image? Apparently, quite a lot. Blogs in particular have infiltrated the corridors of power by disrupting the top-down mainstream media machine and by putting some serious pressure on organizations of all kinds. Witness the public tar-and-feathering that CBS and Dan Rather received at the hands of a few right-wing bloggers; the thrashing that WalMart took on account of a few blog entries that accused the massive chain of racism because of an inadvertently insensitive glitch on the company's site; the blogosphere buzz around scratch-prone iPod Nanos that caused Apple to take notice; and Dell's public image fiasco due to single blogger/ consumer Jeff Jarvis.

Blogging can be viewed as a double-edged sword. As in the case of the anti-WalMart blogs or the Jeff Jarvis/Dell situation, what seems to be disruptive of top-down information mediation is, in fact, also a great source of diverse opinion about a company that is already collected and aggregated for that company—a sort of one-stop shopping of what people are saying about them. Either way you look at it, the message is clear: companies need to be aware of how the blogosphere and other consumer-generated media are changing the public image landscape.

So organizations of all types are on a hunt for ways to better monitor what is being said about them online. In looking at a handful of vendors that offer solutions to the issue of reputation monitoring, one finds similar claims among them: They all offer to quantify, qualify, and clarify massive amounts of information from a variety of sources regarding a company's public image or brand reputation and deliver it in real time. Ultimately, finding solutions to the issue of reputation monitoring in the world of CGM boils down to some basic questions, namely: how does it work, how much does it cost, and how can a company do it effectively?

Remote Control/Complete Control
In reference to the proliferation and growing influence of CGM, Salim Ismail, CEO of PubSub [at press time, Ismail was no longer with PubSub], says, "companies have been used to be being able to control the message about themselves through press releases and marketing, etc., and that locus of control has now shifted to the outside community." He adds that "corporations can't ignore this and do so at their peril." Indeed, the shift in "locus of control" has companies scrambling to find solutions. PubSub offers a unique—albeit somewhat limited—solution to the issue of reputation monitoring in their prospective matching service.

PubSub's concept embraces the emerging paradigm of Web 2.0, which Ismail describes as a publication-subscription model derived from the request-response archetype of the 1990s. With XML formats like RSS and Atom delivering consumer-generated content at breathtaking speed, it no longer makes sense to search the same old way because, most likely, what you find will already be old news. This becomes apparent in the blogosphere, especially where a topic that was hot yesterday is replaced by the Next Big Thing today. In this buzzing milieu, a company's reputation can literally turn on a blog post. 

To search in this current atmosphere, PubSub uses what it refers to as a prospective search as opposed to a retrospective search. Prospective search is best described by Ismail's metaphorical depiction of the model: "Rather than storing data and letting you query it, we store your query and we match it against anything new that appears. So, it's like putting a filter in a hose and catching information as it gets published." In essence, retrospective searches the past while prospective searches the future.

PubSub's prospective search model raises an important question: Are companies that store massive amounts of data on their client's public image just buying into an old paradigm? What someone said five years ago—or even five days ago—may seem to be important as reflective data, which might determine where a company has been, but one might question its relevance about where it is headed. PubSub focuses on the here-and-now. 

According to Ismail, PubSub's "core strength" is in its proprietary Matching Engine, which has the ability to match high volume feeds to a client's query. "What we've learned how to do," says Ismail, "is index the queries so that when a new piece of information comes in, the Matching Engine knows instantly which queries match." This information is then related to the client in real time via "any information delivery system that can be accessed from the Internet—including email, SMS, PDA/mobile device, or instant messaging networks," he concludes.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of PubSub's service is that it is currently free, so corporations with coffers both large and small can take it for a spin. And while PubSub's "free offering is quite basic with a strong caveat emptor disclaimer" according to Ismail, its prospective search model and Matching Engine may help shift the paradigm of the way corporate reputation is monitored. That is, in a publication-subscription Web full of RSS and Atom feeds, monitoring should be just what the name implies: to watch, check, observe—so that companies can then act upon that information. A recent deal with Cymfony aims to do just that. It leverages PubSub's prospective Matching Engine by combining it with Cymfony's dashboard application Orchestra, which monitors and analyzes both CGM and mainstream media (MSM) sources. 

Cymfony's Orchestra platform offers complete control to the client with its real-time monitoring and analysis solutions at a yearly licensing cost of about $40,000. The company also offers an even more comprehensive solution that places a strong emphasis on the analysis they provide. The company provides "a Corporate Reputation Audit" that culls data from the top 100 media publications over three months for references to a particular company. They then use standard industry benchmarks to provide clients with a quick snapshot of their reputation via the recommendations of a Cymfony analyst. The average price range for an audit is $10,000 to $15,000.

Most clients, however, opt for one of the company's more extensive solutions, Cymfony's Corporate Reputation Tracking Service, which allows them to significantly customize. According to Jim Nail, Cymfony's chief of strategy and marketing, what differentiates Cymfony from the pack is at the level of defining search characteristics and in "understanding, in a very detailed fashion, what exactly is important" to the client. An annual subscription for the tracking level contract can price into the $300,000-plus range.

There are a couple of layers to the technology that Cymfony uses, the first layer being in the data retrievers, which are programs written to tap into very specific content sources and able to recognize the way a particular content source classifies and stores its content. That information then comes into an internal system and is sent through Cymfony's InfoXtract engine, which combines information retrieval, information extraction, and natural language processing technologies. Using Staples as an example, Nail explains that "what our natural language processing does is it allows us to define that entity of Staples as a corporation involved in office supplies so you don't get references to the little metal widget that holds pieces of paper together and you don't get references to diet and nutrition. So, it filters out a lot more than noise." Nail adds that Cymfony's difference also lies in its ability "to line up the mainstream media and the consumer-generated media. We all know that there is a back-and-forth and interplay between the blogosphere and professional journalism and that to monitor your corporate reputation well you not only need to be able to look at both but then be able to chart how those stories ebb and flow and how they morph as they move between those two different worlds."        

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