Five years ago, an irate customer with a bad attitude would fire off a letter to company headquarters. The letter might as well have been dumped into a black hole. No longer. That same customer now becomes a CEO's worst nightmare simply by electronically spray painting disparaging comments onto the Internet, hitting send and watching the firestorm. Just how quickly does it take for a company's reputation to go from top dog to toast? Mrs. Field's Cookies knows: Eight minutes.
An error-filled story saying Mrs. Field's had supplied free cookies to a victory party thrown by jurors in the aftermath of O.J. Simpson's acquittal on murder was broadcast on the tabloid TV show "Hard Copy." Eight minutes later, the story first appeared in newsgroups. Calls to boycott Mrs. Field's swelled.
Within four days the company's sales had noticeably slumped. And there was no sign of letting up. The company, desperate to find the source, turned to eWatch to help it fight the digital rumor mill, said James Alexander, the company's vice president of marketing and co-founder.
e-Watch, then an independent company and now part of Wavo, a Phoenix-based, publicly held data broadcasting company, tracked the spread of the rumor on newsgroups and identified dozens of Web sites highlighting the boycott, Alexander said.
"So the decision was made to go into the boards and to individuals who had posted to inform them that this wasn't true," Alexander said. "Within about seven days, everything was back to normal, and the rumor was dead."
Alexander's company and others like it are at the forefront of a growing industry making sure corporate America "doesn't get caught with its pants down," said Brady Thomas, CEO of Cyveillance, which bills itself as an "e-Business intelligence" company based in Arlington, Va.
Pick your firehose
These Internet monitoring companies use a variety of computer applications and humans to sift through the hundreds of millions of Web pages, search-engine entries and comments on the 50,000-plus newsgroups that make up the Internet.
Prices range from free, for relatively basic services of Tracerlock, to $100,000 or more for the full range of services offered by Cyveillance.
eWatch provides its clients with a daily update of everything being said about a company. Notices are delivered by e-mail with hot links that, when clicked, take the user to a Web site where they can get a fuller report.
Cyveillance, by contrast, provides only monthly updates. Tracerlock, which monitors only web pages, delivers a daily e-mail with hot links to Web pages.
Thomas says Cyveillance's clients "found themselves inundated" with too much material for daily updates. However, e-Watch's Alexander says daily updates are crucial.
"When you're in response mode, when you're in a 'I have to know what's going online today' mode, you need that report every day You can't wait until the end of the month to get a wrapup," Alexander said. "The news cycle on the Internet is real time, so if you're going to respond to something, you've got to know when that something hits."
When the "IT" hits the fan
Monitoring services serve as an early warning radar for companies, often allowing a strategic response to be formulated before the rumor or misinformation leaps onto the national stage.
"What we do is try to look at where [a problem] starts hitting decision-makers, where it starts getting to a point where it's going to start showing up in the traditional media and to try and identify those issues and address them before they get there," says Ken Deutsch, vice president of Internet strategic communication for the Washington, D.C.-based company Issue Dynamics Inc.
IDI's Internet monitoring service is more of an issue-riented service, not one that scans the entire Internet and though it uses computers to "make the first cut" at information it gathers, the work is done by people poring over the results, Deutsch said. IDI packages its services based on narrowly tailored criteria of what issues are important to its clients.
"What we do is more look at placement (of comments) and trends to see if there are new issues developing that our client should be concerned about," Deutsch said, "It's really looking at the various discussions to find out whether or not it's hitting a critical mass."
BellSouth, one of IDI's clients, finds the service allows it to target specific users on specific newsgroups.
"We try to get a feel for the lists and ignore the people that are known to be hot air so we don't fuel the flames," said Bill McCloskey, a BellSouth spokesman. "But where we find that there's simply a bit of misinformation out there, we have found that by correcting it, we are able to protect our reputation, or, at minimum, have the debate be a factual debate."
BellSouth used such tactics recently to head off another round of "Internet bit tax" rumors, McCloskey said. The company was advocating an issue related to Internet telephony and found its position being unfairly skewed online. The trend line was easy to spot, McCloskey said.
"So that's a case where we saw a flame someway or other that we were trying to do this ugly thing, and we created a Web site based on the facts and then got on that list and explained what we were doing," McCloskey said
Alexander identifies fives main types of potential problems online:
* Legitimate gripes: Someone has a legitimate complaint about a service or product that goes ignored.
* Influencers: "When you have Greenpeace trying to tell Shell Oil to stop drilling for oil."
* Stock manipulation: bogus postings on stock trading boards hyping or slogging a particular stock.
* Revenge: disgruntled employees or customers "who don't want restitution, they want vindication now, they want to get even."
* Dis- or misinformation: where an organization or person posts false information to achieve some end.
Not all bull
To be sure, the services of these companies can help a company protect its good name or simply fend off the mind-numbing amount of B.S. slung through cyberspace about it. But an increasing number of companies are turning to such services as a means of keeping an eye on the competition, formally known as "competitive intelligence." More bluntly: corporate spying.
"As far as competitive intelligence, we need to make it painfully clear in the educational process of our customers that chances are, even if they don't care about what's being said about their products online, their competitors do," Alexander said.
By trolling newsgroups, a company can often pick up on the first wave of complaints or bugs in a product or new service, Alexander said. And that can be a revenue-generating tool, he said, allowing a company to exploit known weaknesses in a competitor's product.
"If a competitor can discover that a certain product is having problems and they can verify that and get that to their sales channels, their salesmen in the field are going to be exploiting that problem on the next sales call, guaranteed," Alexander said.
Perhaps more important, a strategic use of these services might help keep a company from being subjected to the e-commerce equivalent of the blind-side blitz: an upstart competitor's being the first to take your line of business to the web.
For example, Toys 'R' Us could have known that eToys was looming on the digital horizon, says Cyveillance's Thomas.
"Not only that," Thomas said, "I could have told you how eToys was doing it."
Thomas said that such ventures just don't launch in a day and "become a multibillion-dollar organization. As fast as the Internet is, it's not that fast," he said chuckling.
People do "premeditate what they want to do," Thomas said. They place advertisements on the Net, they register Web site domain names and people float rumors online.
"You see all different pieces, and one of the things we do is spend a lot time understanding how businesses work and what pieces matter, what strategies work and what strategies don't," Thomas said. That allows him to tell clients that something big is lurking just below the radar.
Yet despite all this high-tech sleuthing and digital surveillance, you get no guarantees that every negative word or every piece of dirt on your competitor is going to be delivered to your electronic doorstep.
"Data gets lost -- that's an inherent flaw in the (Internet)," Alexander said. "There's nobody that can make a guarantee that every post will be caught. It can't be."