Winning the Name Game

Technology tools are helping companies monitor their reputations on the Internet.

How much is an organization's reputation worth? Just consider the fate of Martha Stewart's company since its founder has been in legal hot water -- stock prices battered, consumers on the run and no place to lie low until the scandal fades from public memory.

While Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia's fate offers an extreme example of a spoiled corporate reputation, damage can also come more subtly. In the Internet Age, companies are learning that they must be more alert than ever to what customers, shareholders, regulators and the media think about them -- and what they say about them.

"Reputation management is one of the most important components of a successful PR department, but it is also one of our greatest challenges," says Dan Miller, public relations manager at PacifiCare Health Systems Inc., a health care provider in Cypress, Calif. Miller says his five-person department has struggled to find the time to adequately assess what's going on in the industry and has relied on an outside consulting firm to perform a manual analysis of what's being said about PacifiCare in print and on the Web.

But things are changing. Today, reputation management is increasingly the focus of new technologies and techniques, ranging from human-aided Web searches to advanced analytical software running on enormous server farms dedicated to teasing trends and shades of meaning from millions of Web pages. PacifiCare now tracks its reputation using software delivered as a service from Biz360 Inc. that mines millions of Web pages for information about the company and the context in which it's presented.

Even with the best technology, protecting and strengthening a corporate reputation is no small task, in large part because the Web has empowered people to communicate more freely and openly than ever before -- sometimes blindsiding businesses that thought they were sitting on top of the world.

Winning the Name Game
Image Credit: Marlena Zuber
As a matter of fact, reputation management has two current meanings. From the consumer's point of view, reputation management consists of those consumers who, on their own initiative, share their impressions of an organization or person. Familiar examples include book reviews on or the comments that buyers and sellers post on eBay about one another's business practices. In short, consumers manage the reputations of those with whom they do business.

Companies on the receiving end of such scrutiny, however, view reputation management as the actions they need to take to ensure that they and their brands remain unsullied and viewed in the most positive light possible. And it's here that technologies like those adopted by PacifiCare are emerging to improve the awareness and responsiveness of organizations.

Making Reputations

Consumers have been empowered by their ability to provide feedback and comments about products, says Jakob Nielsen, author of the influential book Designing Web Usability (New Riders, 1999) and one of the first to use the term reputation management in a Web/consumer context. However, he notes, there's a growing awareness of the limits of this approach, because it's so easy to "game" the system. "We saw this recently with, where it was revealed that many positive book reviews were generated by the authors themselves," Nielsen says.

But more sophisticated rating systems are evolving, he says. For example, Epinions Inc.'s not only accepts consumers' votes but also offers a feedback mechanism to assess the reliability of those comments. Nielsen says such multilevel approaches create "a web of trust."

Although consumer-driven reputation management may be a growing force, Nielsen says that for the moment, search engines are probably even more influential. "Most consumers and most people in business don't really grasp how the technology works - and how it drives markets and perceptions," he says.

For instance, Nielsen observes that Google Inc. depends on the "reputations" of Web sites because its search engine gives higher rankings to a site based on the number of links that are made to that site. And, of course, people have been known to set up "link farms" to try to improve the rankings of their Web pages, he says.

"Some companies are still clueless; they think image is the way to go on the Internet," Nielsen says. "But more and more appreciate that because it is a network and offers two-way communication, they need to respond in more creative ways."

A Fountain of Information

One of the most ambitious attempts to do just that is under way at IBM's Almaden Research Center. A data mining system dubbed WebFountain digests millions of Web sites and billions of pages of text and other data with the help of a giant server farm to provide insight on a wide range of subjects (see Future Watch). And the process is open-ended - WebFountain is armed with sufficient intelligence to discover data patterns that may reveal new trends or opportunities.

New York-based Factiva, a joint venture of Dow Jones & Co. and Reuters Group PLC, has partnered with IBM to co-develop text analytics applications built on the WebFountain platform.

Factiva's first application on the platform will track corporate reputations by analyzing information from a vast collection of Factiva sources, Internet pages and newsgroups. The resulting reports will show the information in context, providing a view of relevant business issues and industry trends and exposing relationships. Factiva says a company can use this software to get a clear view of corporate or brand perception, how that perception is changing and emerging issues associated with that company or brand.

Dennis Cahill, associate vice president of technology at Factiva, says the service can even scan message boards and blogs, "where people form their opinions," and combine those results with information from the mainstream press. "We feel this is the first tool that will really allow companies to effectively understand the worldwide conversation that is occurring around their products and services," he says.

The service is targeted at companies with $150 million or more in revenue. Cahill says IBM provides the back-end text mining onto which Factiva grafts its intelligence. Subscribers also get some help with setup and analysis from human experts.

"Out of the box, there are sets that isolate premium articles and special-interest groups, but a user can then set things up so they can view them differently," he explains. Factiva has yet to sign up a customer, but Cahill says there has been strong interest, and he's confident that the product will be widely embraced.

Looking Outward

Meanwhile, San Mateo, Calif.-based Biz360 has been providing its own Web-based analysis for clients by monitoring some 50,000 print, online and broadcast sources. While its breadth of analysis, which is limited to traditional media sources, may be less ambitious than that of the WebFountain/Factiva offering, Biz360 has managed to sign up some well-known customers.

You Mon Tsang, chief marketing officer at Biz360, says most companies do a good job of managing information internally, but "the same rigor isn't applied to external information, which is collected haphazardly, if at all." And if "all you do is stare at the corporate dashboard," you're in big trouble, he says, because you won't understand the evolving market dynamics.

Tsang says Biz360's software delivered as a service tracks up to 1.25 million pages and applies intelligence on top of that to answer questions. In addition to PacifiCare, Biz360's clients include 3Com Corp., Harley-Davidson Inc., Seagate Technology LLC, Sun Microsystems Inc. and VeriSign Inc.

"We do track reputation management, but the main reason we use Biz360 is for brand management -- to try to increase our mind share with customers, shareholders and industry influencers," says Woody Monroy, executive director of corporate communications at Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Seagate.

"In the bad old days, a PR agency would give you a monthly clips report and you would try to do an analysis on that," says Monroy. But with Biz360, he says, "we have real-time access, allowing us to be much faster on our feet." Monroy also says Biz360's international coverage is a big help, since only a third of Seagate's revenue comes from the U.S. "We had trouble getting that information before we adopted this product a couple of years ago," he says.

Ideas Rather Than Words

The key to Factiva and some of the other reputation management offerings is text analytics, says Susan Feldman, an analyst at research firm IDC. "That capability lets you look inside documents and pull out the information you need on a specific topic -- it parses the document the way you would parse a sentence in fifth grade," she says. Feldman says syntactic analysis is much more sophisticated than what a search engine does. "It can distinguish the difference in meaning between the statements 'Bill hit Fred' and 'Fred hit Bill,'" she explains.

"If you want to look for ideas rather than just words, you can store them as a block that includes the subject, object and verb relationship," says Feldman. "Then you can match those similar concepts."

Factiva's Cahill says the ability to match and relate concepts will become more valued as companies begin to understand the importance of monitoring their reputations. "Corporations spend a lot of money trying to understand how consumers view them," he says. "This technology lets you monitor everything -- what's in the mainstream press as well as the smoldering fires."

Still, precisely because the stakes are so high, PacifiCare's Miller says he'll probably continue to use more traditional quarterly reports from a human-based consulting service to supplement the daily flow of data from Biz360. "It provides checks and balances that we find valuable," he explains.

Earls is a freelance writer in Franklin, Mass. You can reach him at

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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