Over the course of the 20th Century, it became clear that brands and reputation had become so valuable that a new form of business "brand management" has evolved. Brand management has been around for some time -- some claim that brand management starting in the 1930's at P&G. But in more recent years, with the evolution of faster communications, brand management has move into real-time on-line mode, with managers tracking what people are saying about a brand almost the minute by minute. One of the pioneers of this approach is a Washington area company New Media Strategies. A recent story in the Washington Post (Tracking Who's Saying What About Whom) describes the process:
Moira Curran starts her day at the office by skimming several dozen blogs, occasionally firing off instant messages to her co-workers with links to juicy bits of celebrity gossip.
Then she listens to podcasters chatting about the latest episodes of "Grey's Anatomy" or "Lost." In the afternoon, she keeps an eye on soap operas on the television set that hangs above her desk.
About 70 colleagues, scattered across two floors of an Arlington high-rise, spend eight hours a day doing much of the same. Some of them are also playing video games, watching movies and cruising around MySpace.
That's exactly what the clients of New Media Strategies, an online marketing company, pay the employees to do. Companies ranging from movie studios and television networks to automakers and burger chains hire these professional Web surfers to scour the Internet for any mention of their brands. Over the past few years, the "online analysts" have helped the companies track their reputations, found ways to get their products noticed and joined online conversations to help steer them the way clients want them to go.
. . .
Many of the online analysts wear headphones all day and chat with bloggers via instant messages. Their job is to be the clients' eyes and ears online, said Clay Dunn, 28, a brand manager who monitors what is said about video games and movies.
He watches for rumors and alerts his Hollywood clients if online coverage goes awry. Once, for example, backstage photos from a movie set surfaced and spoiled a sneak preview already in the works.
Curran, another brand manager who trolls the Web on behalf of television clients, corrects errors published in blogs. If rumors spread that someone's been fired from the cast of HBO's "Entourage," for example, she's there to set the record straight. If an angry viewer bashes a network for a violent scene in a prime-time show, she's there to post a rebuttal. She watches soap operas so she'll be able to chat knowledgably with the rest of the online audience.
This type of brand management grows out of viral marketing - essentially word-of-mouth amplified by advanced communications. This virtual social networking is one of the reasons for the explosive growth in the internet - from blogs to YouTube. Rumors and information no longer spread slowly - they travel around the world with the speed of an electron. Online brand management is one way for companies to keep up with that information flow.
Note that the process is not passive. These brand managers actively intervene in the conversations to set the record straight:
Curran said she is careful to acknowledge her connection to clients when it's required. All online marketers have to walk a fine line when they work the blogosphere. Federal Trade Commission rules require them to identify their roles when they're making a point on behalf of a client, but if they're gossiping about the latest episode of "Desperate Housewives" they can legally be as anonymous as anyone else.
This raises some interesting issues that have surfaced in other venues: how do you judge the information you are getting? Is it one person's personal opinion? Is it planted by the company? By the company's rivals? Is it a paid "statement" or a heartfelt plea? All of these issues have been around for a long time (one might say since humans first learned to communicate). But in the I-Cubed Economy as information flows so much faster, they become even more heightened.
I don't know the answer as to how to deal with this -- efforts at transparency can only go so far. Education and the development of critical thinking is probably our best defense against manipulated information. They used to say, don't believe everything you read in the newspapers. Now, it is don't believe everything you read on the Web.
Ah yes, the more things change . . .