March 2007 Archives

I'll post about my developing model of the social media analysis value chain soon, but today, the first link in the chain—content aggregation—is making news. Tailrank launched Spinn3r, a blog aggregator that anyone can use (via Matt Hurst).

Here's the short version from the Spinn3r blog:

Spinn3r is a web service that companies can use to index the blogosphere instead of having to write their own spider.

Instead of spending months designing a scalable backend infrastructure and fighting spam you can just start using our spider tomorrow.

Spinn3r is quicker and probably cheaper than building and running your own spider, but it's not free. There's a monthly license based on the scope of your search, with discounts for non-profit, research, and education.

From talking with companies who are doing their own data collection, I was about ready to start a pool on when people think spider and crawler traffic will become a majority of Internet traffic (kidding, people, really). If the aggregators do a good enough job, maybe the analysts won't feel the need to compete on aggregation.

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Making news the weird way

I live in Apex, North Carolina, a small town that grew. We don't make the local news all that often, but this week we made the national news again. Last time, it was the little explosion over at the toxic waste facility nobody knew was here (after that fire, it's not). Today, it's a little more... well, weird. It turns out that one Apex house was inhabited by one man and more than 70 sheep. Given headlines like this, I'm starting to think that our town needs its own online reputation/SEO plan.

It was a weird little story on local TV and in the paper. Now CNN has the story on the man who keeps 80 sheep in his house. The house is easy to pick out in the satellite photo at right; it's the only yard with no grass. Oh, and the sheep in the picture are a good hint (click for the wider view).

Hollyweird has Britney; we have indoor sheep. At least they didn't explode.

The neighbors are presumably pleased that the sheep have left the neighborhood:

"All I want is to be able to sit on my front porch and not smell sheep poop," said Angie Fowler, who lives across the street.
My family had a brief experience with sheep when I was a kid. Where I grew up, we knew to keep them in the pasture.

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The usual list

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Some companies are harder to write about than others. The problem is, I want to avoid writing "X offers the usual services"—even when that's what they do. It's no more a criticism than to say that an airline provides the usual airline service. But it does make it harder to write an interesting profile.

Some approaches are showing up enough that I'm starting to think of them as the Usual List:

  • Word/brand associations
  • Topic detection
  • Sentiment analysis
  • Influence analysis
Add trend analysis, regular analyst reports, and perhaps a dashboard or alerts on urgent items, and you've described—well, a lot of companies. There are differences to consider, but it's interesting how often I'm tempted to write "the usual services."

Having a Usual List is a good thing. It helps clients and agencies up the learning curve faster, and it frees vendors from explaining every bit of what they do for every prospect. When clients understand the Usual List, vendors can focus on what makes them different. And that's where it gets interesting.

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Measure blog comments

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Around the time of the TNS/Cymfony acquisition and NewComm, Katie Paine commented on the lack of tools to measure blog comments. Since I'm making the rounds talking to the tools and analysis folks, I started asking about comments. It turns out that the tools are out there, if you have a budget.

Actually, you don't need a budget, if all you want to do is find comments; Google search can help you with that. But if you want to measure comments (which is what Katie is looking for), prepare to spend some money. The free blog-monitoring services—and most feeds—miss the comments.

The seemingly simple question about tracking and measuring blog comments turns out to be a little tricky. Some of the companies rely on human analysts to interpret what the automated systems find, so asking what the software measures misses the point. Others focus on qualitative analysis, so measurement really isn't the deliverable, anyway. Some of the companies don't measure blogs, preferring online communities as a source of insight.

CoreX, Integrasco, Radian6, Umbria, and Visible Technologies track comments. As I catch up on the big writing project, I expect to write more about the companies here, and I expect to learn that more companies include comments in their analysis.

The bottom line is that the vendors are aware that tracking and measuring comments could be useful. There are interesting questions about monitoring comments (how many times do you go back for comments, and for how long after the original post?), but the measurements are available.

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Fear and loathing in media land

I have no intention of turning this into a media blog, but the symbiotic—or is it codependent—relationship between the media and advertising businesses provided the day's best reading, again. Friday, it was the IBM paper on media strategies, predicting divergent strategies for content and media distribution. Today, Bob Garfield lit up the advertising world with Chaos Scenario 2.0, an Ad Age cover article on how mass media and mass marketing are threatened by the same trends.

Print it now, before the article goes behind the subscribers-only wall.

Online distribution appears to be the future of entertainment video, from the open distribution of YouTube or the paid download of iTunes. Garfield paints a challenging, but ultimately positive, picture for marketers, while advertisers will need to get on their interactive game if they want to be part of the emerging system. The biggest challenge appears to confront traditional media outlets.

You can hardly turn around without bumping into a prediction (observation?) of the death of the newspaper. The current environment is equally threatening to TV and radio. Garfield lists examples of media companies losing value and otherwise experiencing pain as he leads to a conclusion that the advertiser-supported model is failing. The IBM model suggests a movement toward very low-cost content and micro niche targeting, but what if the revenue model has to change?

Garfield mentions The Digital Consumer: Examining Trends in Digital Media, the January 2007 Oppenheimer report on trends in media and related industries. That one requires a bit more commitment, coming in at 92 pages. Garfield pulls a quote that summarizes the challenge for media companies: content "is not likely to be ad-supported."

If that's not the starting point for a very interesting strategy session, I don't know what is.

New strategies in media world

Boy, talk about Internet time. A couple of hours after I read a recent paper on strategies for media companies in the world of user-generated content and open distribution, one of the predictions starts to play out. If you're interested in media business models, you have some assigned reading for the weekend.

"Navigating the media divide" (PDF), arrived via Paul Gillin in the morning feedstorm yesterday. This paper from the IBM Institute for Business Value looks at the strategic challenges that new content sources and distribution channels pose for companies in the existing content and distribution businesses. In addition to useful background and strategy suggestions, the paper includes a series of questions that should be helpful for starting internal discussions.

Here's a key excerpt on their predicted strategies for media incumbents:

Content owners will be increasingly interested in new open distribution channels that lead to greater licensing volume and potential disintermediation. Media distributors will want to incorporate community content experiences to strengthen subscriber loyalty, lower content acquisition cost and combat competition from new platform aggregator entrants.
Within hours of reading the paper (and forwarding it to some friends in media), I found myself reading about content owners pursuing "new open distribution channels." TechCrunch had the confirmation that News Corp. and NBC Universal are planning a competitor (as yet unnamed) to YouTube. Whether this venture succeeds or not, it confirms the expectation that content companies will look to benefit from the new distribution channels.

If you're in or near a media business, get the IBM paper and read it this weekend. It raises serious issues that companies will have to consider, as well as some strategy ideas that may form the core of future success.

What do you get when you combine the scale and elusive nature of a distributed denial of service attack, the purposeful approach of social media spam, and the rapid spread of a viral marketing campaign? I don't have a word for it, but we have a real-world example, and a lot of people are going to see the results tomorrow.

Bum Rush the Charts is an effort to put an indie band at the top of the iTunes charts—tomorrow. Eric Eggertson writes about it as a case study in word-of-mouth promotion. The details are worth considering, as is Eric's comment:

Note the blatant manipulation of the various voting sites, to create a huge bump in links and attention for the Black Flag song Mine Again.

Now, take those tactics and apply them to an election campaign, a word of mouth marketing campaign, a WTO protest—you name it.

I'm not quite sure what to call this. It's not exactly spam, since the participants don't benefit directly. The effort is apparently transparent, and it doesn't ask anyone to do anything improper. It's an effort to coordinate votes and buying behavior.

So, what is this? Consumer-generated spam? Distributed social media marketing? Viral activism? It's not just word-of-mouth marketing, because of the goal of gaming the ranking systems.

This is a slick idea, and I agree that others will try it. And while I've used the language of some very undesirable behavior to understand it, I don't see anything particularly wrong with it. BRTC may be manipulating outcomes, but they're going in through the front door.

It's just that tomorrow, the rankings will show what happens when a group of people get together to demonstrate their numbers and purchasing power.

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Ethics, open sources and CI

Are the ethics of listening culturally specific? A conversation with a European CEO got me wondering about the limits on using information found online, but when I talked to an American lawyer, he suggested that there are few—if any—boundaries about such information. The bottom line in the US? Once it's on the web, it's no longer secret.

The question came up in the context of using social media analysis for competitive intelligence. Should companies look for their competitors' secrets online? The SCIP code of ethics doesn't help much; all it really says on the matter is, "comply with all applicable laws, domestic and international."

So, what's the law? I am not a lawyer (IANAL), so I called one. Richard Horowitz concentrates in corporate, international, and security matters; he also teaches and writes in the area of competitive intelligence and security. He asked that I point out that his opinions here are general observations and should not be taken as legal advice.

A not-so-hypothetical example
I asked Richard about the legal limits on information found online (not including breaking into sites). To make things easier to follow, I used the recent example of an internal Wal-Mart presentation that was posted on Consumerist and later removed in response to a DMCA takedown notice. (If you're interested in the copyright angle on the story, see Jonathan Bailey's comments at Plagiarism Today.)

Consumerist took down the presentation, but it is available through other online sources. The presentation is now in the wild; anyone who wants to find a copy, can. But what of the legal and ethical considerations for companies who would find intelligence value in the presentation?

Our example features four players:

  • Wal-Mart, the company whose material was improperly released.
  • The person who gave the confidential material to Consumerist (the "Leaker").
  • Consumerist, the web-based publisher who received and published the material.
  • Our hypothetical competitor, who may find useful intelligence in the material.
The relevant areas of concern for the leaker and publisher are trade secret law and computer fraud statutes, depending on the details. But we're interested in the competitor who finds the information online.

The usual hypothetical for discovered secrets is a document found in the street, and the recommended practice is to return it to its owner, even if the company could legally keep it. Companies that receive leaked documents directly also tend to return them to their owners, in part because trade secret law addresses that situation.

Published secrets are not secret
Our example is different, because the information has been published. Generally speaking, information that has been published—and thus made public—loses its trade secret protection. If published information isn't a trade secret, trade secret law doesn't govern its use by any member of the public, including a competitor.

Richard didn't see any serious legal risks such that companies couldn't use confidential information that has been published and consequently is now in the public domain. (But you'll ask your own lawyer if you need actual legal advice.)

Ethical considerations
The SCIP code focuses on issues like conflict of interest and honesty, which don't inform the practice of gathering intelligence from open sources online. Once the legal concerns are out of the way, the ethics question seemed to be settled, too.

I asked Richard if he could see an ethical argument against using the information, which led to a discussion of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Essentially, there's no reason to think that other competitors will refrain from using the information, so why would one choose to avoid it?

Different cultures, different laws?
After reading some papers from SCIP and talking to Richard, I was getting a clear picture that companies in the US can probably use confidential information they get from open sources online.

Still, there was that discussion with the European CEO. He felt very strongly that he should not be snooping for information leaked from competitors on behalf of his clients. Are there stronger trade secret laws in Europe, or is this a cultural thing? I know a little (very little) about Europe's privacy laws. Is there something beyond social norms that presents legal or ethical constraints on the use of secrets found online?

I'm still looking for informed opinions to address that one.

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Companies in the Guide

I'm still finding new companies to add to the list, and on my initial conversation with one of them today, a fun question came up: Who's participating? Between the responses and the responses promised soon, it's an interesting assortment. I started with the goal of surveying the services from different types of companies, and it's working.

People want to know if the big companies—the social media analysis names everyone knows—are participating. Yes, they are. Cymfony, MotiveQuest and Umbria are in; the others are scheduled. I'm also talking with the companies that aren't so familiar, like CoreX and Kaava (which we finally learned to spell).

But what about variety? Companies come into social media analysis from different directions. Agencies—Waggener Edstrom is in. Media analysis—BurrellesLuce is scheduled. Technology—Visible Technologies is in; BuzzLogic is on its way. Research—Millward Brown is scheduled. The list grows every day.

Skype is my new best friend, because it enables an international approach without the crippling telephone bills. I just finished talking with Scanblog (France), and yesterday ended with CIC (China). Tomorrow starts in France and ends at a soccer practice (hey, it can't all be work). Others from Germany to Australia are in there, too.

Where's yours?
The biggest and smallest companies are responding, even though everyone mentions how busy they are. If you haven't gotten around to your response, it's not too late... but the clock is ticking.

The ethics of listening

Ethics is such a fun subject, or perhaps it keeps coming up because we're not quite sure which rules apply. Mom's rules (be honest, be nice) don't seem adequate in the commercial sphere, and so we have ethics guidelines. Lots to choose from, actually, depending on who you are and what you're up to. As it turns out, even reading blogs can have ethical implications.

The ethics of writing
Usually when people talk about ethics and social media, they're talking about writing, or creating, online content. Around the time that flog entered the lexicon as a contraction of fake blog, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) came out with their ethical blogger contact guidelines, and we all talked about ethics for a while. Last month, the UK's Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) published their own social media guidelines—more wordy than WOMMA list and with a different slant, but another good source. Flogs, by the way, are still on the naughty list.

Bloggers may or may not have ethical standards, too, depending on who you ask. Reach back in time, and you'll find the CyberJournalist Bloggers' Code of Ethics (2003), although it's clear that not all bloggers are journalists. Caveat lector is the general rule, though some bloggers spell out their own personal codes of conduct.

The Occasionally Wild West of the online universe inspired the discussion on PR ethics and Wikipedia. The guidelines may be a little vague, and the enforcement uneven, but the warning signs are clear.

The ethics of listening
Listening to social media is one of my pet themes, because I'm convinced of the value that people and companies can find online. Listening online, like speaking online, takes many forms, from simple web browsing to high-end social media analysis. What they have in common is that you can collect useful information for a variety of purposes from open sources.

As it turns out, listening has ethical boundaries, too. Maybe.

Katie Paine reported some of Don Wright and Michelle Hinson's research from the Summit on Measurement, including this challenging bit:

While in 2005 79% thought employee blog monitoring was ethical, in 2007 only 27% saw it as ethical.
So even reading publicly available content is questionable—or at least debatable—under some circumstances. There was a related discussion in the HR/recruiting blogosphere last summer over the limits on using information from social media in hiring. The emerging consensus seemed to be that companies should be careful about how much information they collect, but that job candidates should be equally careful with what they leave for employers to find.

In talking with a social media analysis vendor today, I was reminded that the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) has a code of ethics, which can come into play when companies use data mining for competitive intelligence. But that brief code provides no direct guidance on the limits on intelligence gathering from open sources. A CIPR-style note would be useful.

It seems appropriate that some information really shouldn't be collected, even if it is readily available online. Because listening to social media works in multiple functional roles, we're going to see different standards—or at least different standards keepers—for those groups. Marketing and PR have some ideas. HR is thinking about it. Is CI next? Who else needs to update their standards for the new tools?

Update: Here's a legal view from the US.

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RTP 2.0 social

Another opportunity to meet interesting people in the Triangle is coming up April 4 at the RTP 2.0 social in Durham (via CED):

RTP 2.0 and the Council for Entrepreneurial Development are proud to present the first RTP 2.0 Social. Sponsored by RTP 2.0, CED, and Broadwick, makers of IntelliContact, this event will be held Wednesday, April 4, from 7-9PM at Tyler’s Tavern in Durham (located in the American Tobacco Campus).

This event is open to everyone interested in meeting other technologists, innovators and entrepreneurs in the area. The goal of RTP 2.0 is to bring individuals together for meeting, sharing ideas, and having fun. Friends are welcome, of course.


Details

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No pay to play here

I'm sometimes asked if companies have to pay to be included in the Guide to Social Media Analysis. The answer is no. The vendors in the Guide are not paying to be in it. It has no sponsor and no advertising. The money will come from sales to the clients and agencies who are the intended audience.

Companies in the Guide will be able to buy a copy on the same terms as everyone else, but there is no connection between buying a copy and being in it.

Virtually Vegas

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The New Communications Forum started today in Las Vegas, and here I am on the other side of the country. Although the conference came highly recommended, the timing wasn't right this time. The funny thing is, the blog coverage has been so good that it almost seems like I'm there.

Summaries of David Weinberger's opening keynote started appearing within minutes of his presentation. With writeups like these from Shel Israel, Joseph Thornley, and Paul Gillin, I almost felt like I heard Weinberger speak. (Photo by Josh Hallett)

Just a little later, Thornley was back with his notes from John Bell's session on corporate social media strategy, including a downloadable copy of the presentation.

If you tune in to the IRC back channel, you'll pick up juicy tidbits like where tonight's beercast is happening and what color shirt someone's wearing. The little alerts when people enter and exit the "room" add to the sense of being there. The pictures do a better job on the fashion reporting, however.

I know, social media coverage is no substitute for being there. Despite the good notes, I didn't actually see and hear the speakers. I'm missing out on the front channel of personal contact (and the beer channel). But isn't it appropriate that social media are providing such good coverage of a social media conference? I'd rather be there, but since I can't... Thanks for sharing the goods, everyone.

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Pitch policy

During a briefing with one of the companies I'm talking to this week, the topic of pitching stories for the blog came up. We know that some bloggers really don't want PR pitches, and I hadn't made my position clear. Here's the short version: Pitch me.

If your company is doing something interesting in an area I pay attention to, send me a note. I'd rather learn about it from you than from someone else's blog. If I'm interested and have time, I'll write about it. If I'm not interested, I'll delete your note. Fair enough?

This is why you don't make promises about monthly get-togethers. It's been two months since the business bloggers dinner in Apex, and we're ready to do it again. This time, we're going to Brier Creek—next door to RDU airport—for the convenience of everyone coming in from Raleigh and Durham.

    What: Business bloggers dinner

    Where: Uno Chicago Grill
    8401 Brier Creek Parkway
    Raleigh, NC 27617
    919-544-6700
    Map (PDF)

    When: Tuesday, March 27, 7:00 pm

    BYO$

We're about as casual as it gets. If you blog for, or about, business, join us! If you're into social media for business, call yourself a blogger for the evening and be there. No program, no rules, just interesting people with common interests.

One request, though. Please RSVP in the comments so I can warn them we're coming.

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A tale of two banks

Two bank stories crossed my reader this week. On the surface, both are posts from unhappy customers who happen to have blogs, although an important difference affects how the banks can respond. Dig just a little, and you'll also see that these bloggers have more than the usual visibility. Should that influence the banks' responses?

Bank of America
Seana Mulcahy tells how a bank merger started a chain of events that drained her account. It's a typical complaint post, except that Seana writes on a MediaPost blog, so she has an audience.

Months later I finally found a bank manager at the actual branch to help me. After pulling records, I was able to put it all together. Somehow I was being billed monthly for an account that was closed. It was a mortgage for a house I sold in May 2004. When BofA merged with Fleet, somehow my old mortgage payment got activated.

This is a fairly straightforward customer service complaint, which someone at Bank of America noticed and responded to in the comments in a little over seven hours. Now all they have to do is resolve the problem.

But what do you do when an expert criticizes your policies publicly?

AmSouth
Winn Schwartau doesn't like his bank's security policies, and he says so. After complaining to the bank for some time, he's written about it on his blog. Schwartau is a security consultant with a column in Network World, so it's safe to assume that he knows something about poor security:

Suffice it to say, for example, AmSouth uses SSNs as proof positive ID. I have bitched about this to them for 15 years... after all, it's just a nine digit number... but noooooo... AmSouth, in its infinite wisdom... (or should I say Regions) wants my nine digits to make it easier for ID thieves.
Talking to the bank's security people, who apparently don't read Risks Digest, hasn't led to a change. Rather, the bank's response—before the blog post—was to ask him to take his business elsewhere. Schwartau's answer:
So, as I battle them, I will be posting bits and pieces of the conversations etc. from AmSouth, to keep you and others from being victimized as I have been.
This post ranks just below the bank's own security page when you search AmSouth security. It ranks well for Regions bank security, too (Regions bought AmSouth). What will the search results look like as the series continues?

Will the bank even notice before the promised part 2?

Once they notice, how can the bank respond? This isn't a simple customer service complaint. It involves policies and systems that can't be changed overnight.

Should they engage?
I would argue for a fairly high-level contact with Schwartau and consideration of the issues he brings up. After all, the issue is in his field, and there's a good chance that he has a point. Ignoring him is unlikely to make him go away quickly, but a constructive dialog could redirect his energy to a positive resolution. AmSouth could view his post as a form of unsolicited consulting, however unwelcome.

Anyone want to argue that the bank should not try to engage him? What's the case against moving this topic from his blog to personal contact?

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About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Studying complexity and futures.
  • Principal, Social Target

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