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Blogs, wikis, and community forums are a new form of business intelligence that can help companies prosper and bloom--or lead them to disaster.

During the Web 2.0 Expo today in San Francisco, Howard Kaushansky, president of the blog analysis company Umbria, said that businesses that ignore what's being said about them are missing out on new opportunities and placing themselves at great risk.

There "are things out there surfacing about your company that can either turn into a mushroom cloud or are just going to disappear," Kaushansky said. The key is determining the momentum of the conversation, he said.

It is important to know what people like about a company's products and services, but it's at least as important to know "what irritates people."

Case in point: A greeting card company that used traditional approaches to figure out what customers wanted (focus groups, surveys, and so on) began to examine what the online community thought about its products. The company discovered that huge segments of the online community hated its Valentine's Day cards, calling them sappy and overly sentimental.

"So [the company] turned it to their advantage and created a sarcastic line of Valentine's greeting cards that did very well," Kaushansky said.

And a pet food company harvested comments from pet owners across the Web and discovered a major problem: People have a very hard time traveling with their pets--not because of accommodations, surprisingly, but because "they had to lug around 500-pound bags of food."

As a result of this discovery, the company is now developing a line of "travel bags" for pets.

New Customers

Harvesting and properly analyzing who is really in a business's community can open up whole new groups of customers, Kaushansky said. He gave an example of a company that makes scissors. The business presumed that Baby Boomer women were its primary customers, but examination of online communities and blogs led to the discovery that younger, Generation-Y women were heavy consumers because of the scrapbooking craze.

It turned out that younger women enjoy creating scrapbooks--and of course, to do that, one needs good scissors, Kaushansky said. "So the company reorchestrated the [marketing] campaign ... and blew away their numbers," he said.


Kaushansky outlined a number of strategies to take advantage of the action online:

  • Understand that it's all about communication, and encourage it. There will be a "lot of ugly discussion," he said. But companies should create forums for their customers to say whatever they want to say--good or bad.
  • Reach out to the most influential members of your online communities, and in so doing, understand that every one of them is an individual. Some like to be contacted directly, while others like to interact only in a forum.
  • Establish consumer advocacy programs by giving the community early information about new products, and even provide members with advance versions of the products. Then let them comment freely about the products.
  • Transparency and honesty matter. Companies or company representatives who get involved in online communities need to make it plain who they are and what they represent. "There is nothing wrong with saying 'I'm from this company and I'd like to know how we can fix this problem,'" Kaushansky said. Pretending to be someone other than a representative of the company can lead to a public relations disaster.

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