By William M. Bulkeley
The Wall Street Journal
June 23, 2005
Many marketers suspect there are probably some valuable insights contained in the Web logs produced by the estimated 12 million online diarists. But in the cacophony of trivia, vitriol and bombast that fills the blogosphere, useful nuggets have been hard to find.
Now, a growing number of marketers are using new technology to analyze blogs and other "consumer-generated media" -- a category that includes chat groups, message boards and electronic forums -- to hear what is being said online about new products, old ad campaigns and aging brands. Purveyors of the new methodology and their clients say blog-watching can be cheaper, faster and less biased than such staples of consumer research as focus groups and surveys.
Blog watching helped advertising giant WPP Group PLC craft a new promotion aimed at teenagers for its Chicago-based client U.S. Cellular Corp., says Bethany Harris, senior vice president of WPP's G Whiz Entertainment unit. Using technology from Umbria Communications, a Boulder, Colo., company that aims to identify demographic groups online based on their speech patterns and discussion topics, G Whiz concluded that teens were "really anxious" about exceeding their cellular minutes, often because parents make them pay if they talk too much. The teens also resented being "ambushed" by incoming calls that pushed their minutes up. Ms. Harris says that led U.S. Cellular to offer unlimited "call me" minutes.
Marketers say bloggers' unsolicited opinions and offhand comments are a source of invaluable insights that are hard to get elsewhere. "We look at the blogosphere as a focus group with 15 million people going on 24/7 that you can tap into without going behind a one-way mirror," says Rick Murray, executive vice president of Edelman, a Chicago public-relations firm.
Walter Carl, a professor at Boston's Northeastern University who has studied "word-of-mouth" communication and marketing, says blog-watching services "are very useful for quickly getting the lay of the land" in trends and consumer reactions. Still, he says, it isn't clear how closely online comments mimic the 80% of "word-of-mouth" that still occurs face-to-face.
Not everything bloggers have to say about brands correlates to the real world. Last summer, Umbria, working for a fast-food client, was monitoring Burger King Corp.'s Angus Burger and found it got some bad reviews from bloggers. Some were deriding Burger King's tongue-in-cheek TV ads that called the burger a diet food. Bloggers notwithstanding, the Angus Burger has become a hit.
Blog-monitoring services typically charge big companies $30,000 to $100,000 a year. They say their technology goes beyond basic tools, such as keyword searches or counting links from one Web site to another, both features available at no charge from online services such as Technorati.com and Yahoo's Buzz Index.
Intelliseek, a Cincinnati firm started by veterans of Procter & Gamble Co., has a free Web site, BlogPulse, where users can enter up to three keywords and see how they compare. Before the latest "Star Wars" release, mentions of Natalie Portman briefly topped those of Paris Hilton, indicating the movie's pre-release marketing was making an impression.
Intelliseek and most other blog-watching services combine technology with some human analysis. They say their full services provide more insight than a simple keyword count. Some companies have developed text-analysis techniques as the result of funding or contracts from the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence services that monitor newspapers and other media. The technologies make use of software technologies known as "natural-language processing" and "unstructured-data mining" to understand even ungrammatical writing.
Bernice Cramer, vice president of market intelligence for Polaroid Corp., a unit of Petters Group Worldwide, says she uses Intelliseek's service. "If you look for it manually, you'll spend months searching through a lot of junk," she says. Polaroid recently found that consumers online frequently discuss photo longevity and archiving, making that an important issue in product development.
Sometimes blog watchers spot trends before they emerge in mainstream media: Pete Blackshaw, Intelliseek vice president, says blog mentions last summer of the Swift Boat Veterans ads against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry indicated their claims were a big issue three weeks before the Kerry campaign finally addressed them.
Mr. Blackshaw says companies used to dismiss vocal complaints from one or two consumers as an aberration. But now, they have to pay attention because now those complainers may have blogs. "Those folks have influence with others via the Internet," he says. PR firms are hiring Intelliseek to monitor their clients, he adds, because once-obscure consumer issues are surfacing at awkward moments, such as CEO interviews with "reporters who go to Google and type in a brand and [then] ask tough questions."
Umbria, with clients including Sprint Corp. and Electronic Arts Inc., says its natural-language analysis can determine blogger demographics based on language, subject matter and acronyms. OMG ("oh my God!") or POS ("parent over shoulder") are expressions defining Generation Y girls, or those ages 10 to 25; FUBAR ("fouled up beyond all recognition") is often used by male baby boomers.
Such analysis can be important. Umbria says Laker guard Kobe Bryant has lost his cachet with most bloggers, but he is still the No. 2 National Basketball Association personality, behind LeBron James, among the boys of Generation Y, important buyers of videogames, sneakers and basketball jerseys.
David Rabjohns, president of blog watcher MotiveQuest, calls the field "online anthropology" and says he regards his firm as "almost a mouthpiece for the consumer." The Evanston., Ill., firm's clients include Motorola Inc. and Citigroup Inc.
For a Japanese auto maker, Mr. Rabjohns says MotiveQuest studied online postings about minivans. Soccer moms said their young children love minivans, which they regard as "a playhouse on wheels," but teens regard them as lame and want SUVs. MotiveQuest recommended developing a loyalty program to persuade minivan owners to buy the company's SUVs, rather than trying to get them to buy another minivan.