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With most media companies and information publishers now fully embracing the Internet as a distribution channel, the Internet has emerged as today's most effective tool for marketing professionals to gather news, market intelligence and “buzz” (consumer insight) about companies, products and business issues.

News: Today, most news is published first on the Internet. Most news organizations publish more content on the Internet than in their traditional print publication or broadcast. Most news organizations also maintain archives of past news articles as part of their Web site.

Market Intelligence: Commercial, academic and government Web sites provide ready access to key data about most any company or product.

Otherwise hard-to-find corporate or product information is almost always available somewhere on the Internet. That information is for the most part remarkably up to date; information gems are out there on the Internet waiting to be mined by marketing professionals to gain competitive advantage.

Buzz: The Internet is also where “buzz” starts about companies, products and issues. It is where you can readily find reviews, opinions, and consumer insights, providing key competitive intelligence on product strengths and deficiencies, pricing issues, customer service problems, rumors, attacks and scams, reputation issues, and distribution channel concerns.

That “buzz” consists of straight-from-the-heart consumer opinion with straightforward, unabashed language--unfettered by traditional interviewing processes.

News, information and “buzz” gleaned from the Internet becomes a powerful intelligence tool to identify and correct problems with products or corporate policies, to identify changes in brand perception, to spot marketplace trends, and to anticipate moves by competitors. Its breadth of coverage, timeliness, and ability to deliver consumer insight make Internet monitoring more effective than old-fashioned press clipping services, which often miss key articles, take weeks to deliver clips, and don't include vital resources available only on the Internet.

Success Stories

Here are some Internet monitoring success stories:

• A sporting goods company found an activist group planning a demonstration and boycott months in advance, enabling the company to implement a counter strategy.

• Within days of launch, a software firm found dissatisfaction with specific product features enabling the technicians to write a “patch” that fixed the problem within days instead of the months normally required to obtain customer feedback and implement software fixes.

• A packaging company was able to determine the location, size, and production capacity for a new plant being built by a competitor. The otherwise well-protected information was found by an automated monitoring service in building permit documents within the Web site of the town where the new plant was being built.

• A telco uncovered a competitor's legislative strategy, enabling the company to gain an upper hand in a state-by-state lobbying battle. (Remarkably, the strategy was posted on the competitor's own Web site. Lesson: Assume competitors are watching your corporate Web sites.)

• A fashion company discovered a destructive rumor about the company within hours of its origination, enabling the CEO to dispel the rumor in a national news broadcast the next day.

• The creative team embarking on development of a new video game used the Internet to identify cutting-edge product attributes that game-players prefer. The intensive research uncovered three key “gotta haves” that were not identified in focus groups and had not been included in the original design specification.

Integrated Monitoring Solution

Valuable information for market intelligence often emanates from obscure sources. An effective program of Internet monitoring must cover the full spectrum of Internet resources including:

• Competitor sites

• Commercial, academic and government Web sites

• Corporate attack sites

• News sites worldwide

• Web message boards

• Usenet News Groups

• Information Databases

An integrated corporate Internet monitoring solution needs an integrated set of strategies, tools and techniques. The key monitoring tools are: a) search engines b) information and news aggregation services c) Automated Internet monitoring and Web clipping services.

Search Engines

Search engines such as Google, All the Web, and AltaVista are extremely useful tools in monitoring and mining academic, government, and commercial Web sites including competitors and corporate attack sites.

However, information gathered from corporate Web sites by search engines often tends to be somewhat stale since most search engines pass by Web sites about once every six to ten weeks. Even today, some search engines often miss key information sites. In addition, search engines make it difficult to sort out NEW documents and don't provide an archive for storage of found documents.

For even the most skilled searcher, monitoring the Internet manually with search engines can be tedious and time-consuming. However, for certain parts of the Internet such as attack sites and competitor sites, manual searching remains a crucial element of an integrated Internet monitoring program.

Hint #1: Use the “advanced search” button in search engines to limit search results to more recent postings.

Hint #2: Use highly specific Boolean-type queries to produce more explicit search results and filter out extraneous documents.

Hint #3: Use specialized search engines that focus on specific industries such as health and medicine.

Information Aggregators

For over 30 years, information aggregators such as Lexis-Nexis have enabled electronic access to archived information of multiple publishers and database owners. While lacking in timely Internet monitoring capabilities, the aggregators remain a one-stop resource for archival information from assorted publishers.

Internet-based news integration services such as My Yahoo sift leading news syndication services to deliver customized daily news reports based on your personal specifications. While quite useful for monitoring key topics in major news media, most news aggregation services (especially free services) are unlikely to provide the breadth of monitoring or the highly specific search specifications required in a comprehensive market intelligence program.

Automated Internet Monitoring Services

Automated Internet monitoring services combine the best attributes of search engines (broad Internet coverage), electronic news aggregators (timely coverage of primary news sources), and traditional press clipping services (delivery of all found articles in a wide range of sources).

To assure timely coverage, Internet monitoring services search thousands of news sites each day, including syndication services, newspapers, magazines, journals, TV networks, and local TV stations. The services search out the most recently published articles containing key words or phrases specified by their clients and automatically deliver all newly-found articles overnight via e-mail.

The best of the services incorporate Boolean-type searching capabilities to filter out irrelevant articles. A few of the services provide coverage in multiple languages. Since the Internet monitoring services focus mainly on news publications and broadcasters, the found articles are considerably more relevant and timely than the more diffuse results produced by general search engines.

Many Internet monitoring services also automatically monitor Web message boards, discussion lists and forums, and UseNet news groups each day--the key places where “buzz” originates about companies and products.

Some services also put automatic queries each day to public search engines in order to monitor corporate, academic and government Web sites as well. Unlike search engines, the Internet monitoring services filter out all previously-delivered citations and deliver only newly found articles each day that match the client's search specifications. A few services allow clients to specify custom lists of Web sites to monitor each day.

Some of the Internet monitoring services include a “Digital Clip Book,” a database enabling users to retrieve, annotate, sort, search, mine, and cross-reference the full text of articles found and “clipped” by the system.

These automated Internet monitoring services are far more effective and less expensive than assigning staff to manually find and "clip" what is being said about companies, products, people, or issues throughout the Internet. With fixed, flat monthly subscription fees and no per-clip charges, the services also tend to be less costly than traditional press clipping services, which usually charge a per-clip fee.

An automated monitoring service can serve as the backbone of a comprehensive corporate intelligence program, supplemented by archival database services such as Lexis-Nexis, a daily news alert service such as My Yahoo!, general search engines such as Google, LookSmart, and AltaVista and the specialized search engines for specific content areas.

By utilizing today's highly automated tools to identify and retrieve highly specific news, facts, opinions, and insights from the Internet, a thoughtfully conceived and well-implemented Internet monitoring program can yield an extraordinary return on investment in market intelligence and valuable insight for improved decision-making throughout the marketing program.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Comcowich is president and CEO of CyberAlert (www.cyberalert.com) and has been developing and producing interactive multimedia communications programs for Fortune 500 companies for over 20 years and has 10 years of experience in public relations.