Shanghai firm "listens" to China consumers

Measuring buzz on BBS sites and blogs

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SHANGHAI--A Shanghai-based tech company has found a way to help brand managers become a fly on the wall in a market with some of the most desired, and wired, consumers in the world.

CIC Data takes the pulse of Chinese consumers by monitoring their posts and conversations on the bulletin boards (BBS) and blogs utilized by a large number of China's 111 million internet users. Once banned and still closely monitored, BBS provide an opportunity to take the pulse of China's wired consumers.

"There's lots of talk online on BBS and blogs. We help companies listen and learn," said Sam Flemming, CIC's American founder and chief executive officer.

CIC has partnered with PepsiCo, for example, in several ways, according to Chris Pan, the beverage company's Shanghai-based marketing director, interactive, "from tracking general and brand-specific consumer comments on the internet, to providing recommendations on our interactive campaigns."

In the ongoing Pepsi Creative Challenge launched late last month, in which consumers in China are invited to submit ideas for and choose the next Pepsi TV spot, CIC provides ongoing tracking of consumer responses in various BBS and blogs to help Pepsi figure out how much traction the promotion has achieved.

"Their wide monitoring of sites allows us to gauge consumer sentiment towards the campaign, and CIC's recommendations provide helpful input for us to adjust our campaign in real-time and be truly interactive with our consumers," said Mr. Pan.

CIC data is the first company in China to engage in what is known to some as "listenomics," or utilizing internet postings to monitor public sentiment toward a brand, product, or service.

Mr. Flemming estimated 40% of all Chinese iinternet users use BBS on a regular basis, although the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), China's quasi-government Internet overseer, reports that 14% of all Internet users use blogs.

However, those 14% seem to be intense users. According to Technorati.com, a blog search engine, China is home to the world's most popular blogger, Chinese actress and director Xu Jinglei. Ms. Xu's blog is hosted by Chinese portal Sina.com.

Unlike focus groups or market surveys, monitoring BBS threads creates a virtual blind from which companies can see how they are regarded by consumers.

"These are consumers talking to consumers about their experiences and opinions about products and services, and we help our companies listen and learn from those conversations," Mr. Flemming said.

"A focus group may have 10 to 15 people. For certain industries, we'll look at 30,000 to 40,000 individuals and their comments, and 500,000 to 600,000 posts in a month," he said, adding that traffic on a Chinese BBS is often four to five times higher than similar boards in the U.S.

"Because 'word of mouth' recommendations tend to be more trusted than marketing messages or advertisements, we believe it's very important for companies to listen," said Mr. Flemming.

However, while some companies post information designed to influence opinion, BBS administrators will delete overtly commercial messages: "If these messages get through, Chinese consumers are savvy enough to recognize the commercially placed messages."

Commercial messages aren't the only ones that face deletion. Unlike their Western counterparts, all BBS sites in China are monitored, first by an administrator, and more broadly by members of China's estimated 50,000 internet police, employed by China's Public Security Bureau (PSB). Any political outbursts are quickly deleted, and the user potentially tracked and punished.

Mr. Flemming said the company pulls in 15 million BBS posts per month related to its clients' industries, which are then categorized according to keywords for use by CIC Data's clients. They utilize mostly proprietary software for its work.

"We have developed our own natural-language processing text mining tools specifically for the Chinese language. Tools developed for English or other languages by similar companies just won't work well for Chinese," he said.

CIC clients receive reports about their brands anywhere from daily to quarterly, depending on urgency, Mr. Flemming said. "For a mobile phone client, we collect well over a half-million BBS messages monthly about the mobile phone industry, written by over 100,000 individuals. Every message is categorized according to 18 brands, 1700+ models, 10 categories, 150 subcategories represented by around 5000 key terms."

It also operates a "Brand Alert" service to tip off clients regarding a surge in posts or traffic regarding some facet of their business.

He pointed to active boards as potentially the best barometers for Chinese cultural and consumer trends. Baidu.com Inc.'s post.baidu.com BBS was at the heart of many of the sites for the "Super Girl" television show, an "American Idol"-like program that drew 100 million viewers and made singer Li Yuchun an overnight sensation.

Mr. Flemming also said sites like xcar.com.cn, for automotive aficionados, draw about 500,000 posts per month, providing insight into car trends. The company currently employs 15 full-time staff, and expects to expand to 20 over the next few months, said Mr. Flemming.

In the U.S., by comparison, companies such as BuzzMetrics and IceRocket monitor blog buzz and some agencies have created their own tools, such as Initiative's Prophesee. Other companies study web behavior in general. Hitwise, for example, gleans interest in particular products by measuring online searches. Last month, Bill Tancer, general manager of global research at Hitwise, successfully predicted the American Idol winner based on search data.
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