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The Internet is becoming a dominant source of information both for consumers and for businesses.

Indeed, the latest research shows that people now spend more time getting their news online than from reading magazines. And, the use of online discussion forums such as Web logs and message boards has grown by more than 7,000% in the last four years.

Online discussion forums—commonly referred to as consumer generated media (CGM)—are increasingly being used by consumers to ratify or criticize products and brands. Because consumers use these online discussion forums to check out other consumers' opinions and experiences—for pre- or post-shopping advice—they are shaping the perspectives of millions of consumers globally.

These forums constitute a powerful viral medium that needs to be brought into the marketing fold. Clearly, this opportunity presents some unique challenges.

It would be fair to say that most companies don't have their arms around how to gauge the impact that these non-traditional methods have on their brands. That's because there are thousands of online sites and new message boards that can pop up from one day to the next, so keeping track of it all is a huge challenge.

However, accessing this information, interpreting it, then using it to spot emerging trends, manage the brand or monitor competitive activity can keep a business ahead of its competition.

So how do you monitor CGM and use the information to shape future marketing campaigns?

First and foremost, you need to discover just what that information is—what is it saying, where is it coming from, what does it mean? This is all new both to companies and to service providers. No one, up until now, has been able to gather all the information, process it and give it meaning so that it can be used within the organization.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, either. The Internet is too vast. However, there are a few services that provide real-time monitoring of online discussion forums, according to specified search terms. These will enable you to monitor discussion on your company and products and the competition.

Yet the danger here is being swamped with data and therefore being able to draw no useful meaning from it. You need to find a solution that actually analyses the information in real time and presents it in a way that is easy to understand so that communications messages can be adjusted quickly in response to emerging opinions.

And since the speed of news or opinion dissemination on the Internet can improve or damage corporate reputations more quickly than ever before, real-time monitoring is an essential marketing activity.

But not only consumers are using these online discussion forums. Journalists with national, regional and trade media are using them to gain an instant snapshot of consumer opinion. This means it's no longer sufficient to think of the Internet in isolation—eventually, the opinion being shaped online will filter down into your mainstream media, too.

You can use online monitoring tools to spot emerging trends. This could help you gain a market lead in developing a product solution or campaign that addresses the issue. For example, a provider of chocolate that is able to spot the emergence of the obesity debate, before it starts to become a national obsession, can prepare materials that address this issue—statements, market positioning, etc. The power of first to market can never be underestimated.

It can also help make communications programs successful or prevent an unsuccessful strategy from burning company money. By quickly being able to measure the success of a campaign (are key messages being communicated, and is the coverage positive?), you can establish whether the campaign is working.

In many instances, scrapping early enough a campaign that isn't working can potentially save millions of dollars in advertising.

Communications professionals that master the challenge of monitoring online discussion will be able to better manage their company's reputation and brand. In doing so, they can elevate their role to one that provides a high level of strategic business input.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Fergus Hampton is CEO at Millward Brown Precis (www.mbprecis.com), a division of WPP Group (www.wpp.com).