To help companies combat negative publicity and even track the good comments, a 2-year-old company called eWorks! offers a service that monitors the Web for any mention of its clients.
"The power is not in the newsgroups themselves. The power for the consumer comes from these amazing search engines like AltaVista and DejaNews and Infoseek" that allow people to find information in any of the thousands of newsgroups, said James Alexander, who with his brother Charles Lukaszewski, founded the New York-based company.
KEEPING UP WITH THE BUZZ
Today, eWorks! monitors 33,000 newsgroups and listserves on the Internet and online services to glean the buzz on client products, identify new trends and discover brewing public relations problems.
More than 200 clients pay a minimum of $295 per month for the company's service, dubbed eWatch.
eWorks! also monitors Web sites for new information -- whether it's the competition's site, activist groups or government agencies. This information is summarized in a report and sent by fax, e-mail or through password on the eWatch Web site.
CATCHING A CRISIS
For clients who aren't sure how to handle negative reactions on the Net, eWatch will post messages to newsgroups with the proper netiquette and tailor a bare-bones Web page in response to a potential public relations problem.
If the situation looks to be a full-blown crisis, however, eWorks! refers clients to business partner Delahaye Group, an image consultancy that specializes in the Internet.
The Net can be especially dangerous for companies that don't sell directly to the end consumer. In these cases, the customer may complain in person to the retail store as well as on the Net, but the marketer has no idea that the customer is unhappy with his product.
One client, an auto marketer, recently ran into such a problem. A customer was having a difficult time with his car dealer. He tried the 800 number and couldn't get through, so he finally turned to the Internet. There he found several newsgroups for the car company and began posting searing messages about his car, dealership and the marketer.
The company received its eWatch report, contacted the dealer and fixed the problem. Not only did the customer quit complaining, he went back onto the Internet and detailed the story of how the marketer solved his problem.
"So you start to see from a marketing standpoint and customer service standpoint how the Internet really does marry those two functions, because you've got folks who are unhappy, and if they're unhappy, they're going to deter other people from buying your product," Mr. Alexander said. "On the flip side, you've got people who are evangelizing products. It works both ways."
Mr. Alexander says he's seen company attitudes change as the Internet has grown. In 1995, the year his company was founded, clients wanted to protect their products and put out potential fires. Now, marketers are realizing the Internet has great value as a source for customer information.
"I think the initial concern really came out of the corporate communications end, and as the Internet has been growing in terms of more people getting online, marketers are getting more savvy to the amount of material that's out there," he said.
Last year, US West, another eWatch customer, targeted sections of Minneapolis for installation of ISDN phone lines. An avid Net surfer found out US West wasn't going to install the lines in his neighborhood and decided to fight.
He set up a Web site and started a grass-roots cyber movement. When US West got wind of the interest, it changed its deployment plan to include that customer's neighborhood.
"They were able to intervene in that case and help a customer out," a US West spokesman said. "We were able to do something for them as well as for us."
CYBER CLIPPING SERVICE
Not all companies take action as a result of eWatch reports.
"We basically use it as a clipping service in cyberspace," said Gail Stull, a media specialist with H.J. Heinz Co. "The Internet is growing by leaps and bounds. We wanted to see what the chat was about."
Ms. Stull said the reports can vary from a few pages to 30 or 40, but she rarely spends more than 10 minutes catching up.
In the next few months, Mr. Alexander said, eWorks! plans to release a new version of eWatch, which will completely revamp the way the eWatch service is delivered. The new service will make it easier for clients to put eWatch on their intranets for employee use.