As useful as that was as a new player in the kids' TV space, Sprout execs soon realized they could do even more than check traffic links and discussion topics, said Lauren Monks, Sprout's senior director of marketing. They started looking at high-traffic blogs to find out which bloggers were into crafts and birthday parties, two things Sprout highlights in its TV shows, and started striking up relationships.
Forward-thinking marketers such as PBS Kids Sprout are going beyond just what's being said, and are hitting reply. They're asking not just what people are saying about their products and services, but also who's saying it and how important that individual or group is to their brand.
In essence, marketers who have been monitoring their brand reputations are now also monitoring their customers' reputations.
Invited to the party
Today Sprout ambassadors invite the company to mom-blogging conferences, ask for sponsorships to regional events, introduce them to local audiences and advertisers and blog about their experiences. In turn, Sprout gives them sneak peeks at new products and VIP treatment on things such as local mall tours.
"BuzzLogic helps us find new targets and monitor the people who are blogging about us," Ms. Monks said. "It helped launch an entire strategy."
By now most marketers have learned that blogs, forums, postings and e-mail campaigns can have complementary -- or disastrous -- effects on their brands.
"Increasingly clients are really starting to take notice of individuals," said Pete Blackshaw, exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services. "With our clients, the influencers -- identifying, analyzing and interacting [with them] -- are at the top of the priority list."
From the PR playbook
Jim Nail, chief marketing officer of Cymfony, part of TNS Media Intelligence, said that kind of thinking has been more common on the public-relations side of the business but is now crossing over to the marketing side.
"Brands and marketers in general tend to think of target audiences as numbers, thinking of them in aggregate and by brand classifications," Mr. Nail said.
But that's changing as PR and marketing move closer together around social media.
"PR comes at it in the same way they deal with journalists: How do we strike up a relationship with this person?" he said. "Social media is this evolving, kind of weird world that lies somewhere between PR and marketing, and they both have something to learn from each other."
More and more companies already in the brand-monitoring business are adding services to help bridge that gap. BuzzLogic launched "Conversation Ad Network," which compensates bloggers who have more influence. Lithium Technologies also recently partnered with Omniture to add web analytics to its social-media and reputation-management system.
Lithium, spun out of Gamers.com by CEO and co-founder Lyle Fong, builds communities of influencers on clients' own websites for marketers such as Dell, AT&T and MTV. Lithium can apply hundreds of factors -- such as number of posts, time spent online and content tagged -- to each individual.
"We have found that reputation really matters," Mr. Fong said. "These people [with the best reputations] are revered and idolized by others in the community."
And that's just the kind of customer marketers are looking for. Of course, there is the flip side. Almost as important is using the data to figure out who the brand detractors are and what their impact is.
"The reality is that we're talking about a whole new fifth establishment of consumer influencers. ... We've been talking about them for years, it's just that science and the ability to isolate has improved greatly," Mr. Blackshaw said.