Enterprise Toolbox: Online Sleuths

SAN MATEO (05/01/2000) - For most people, thinking about detective work tends to evoke age-old icons, including trench coats and utterances such as "just the facts, ma'am." These days, however, many online sleuths are trading their trench coats for keyboards in the name of spying online for (and against) your company.

NetCurrents Inc. (www.netcurrents.com), with offices in Beverly Hills, California, and Burlingame, California, offers a variety of services that monitor online communities and other Web locations, gathering information about your company and/or your competitors. This is the first service of this kind that I've located, and undoubtedly, its management has only the best intentions.

However, I think that as a group these types of services may be inherently prone to litigiousness and have the potential to become engaged in the purposeful dissemination of misinformation.

What's more, these services attempt to control and shape online conversation, which flies in the face of online culture. It is far better to join an online conversation than to attempt to control it from afar. Companies that adopt a full community strategy will learn their customers' opinions and the public's perceptions far more accurately than they could using third-party reporting.

Spies for hire

NetCurrents' service offering comprises InvestorFacts, CyberFacts, and CyberPerceptions. Both InvestorFacts and CyberFacts monitor more than 50,000 Web locations, discussion groups, ezines, and Internet newsgroups and sort for specific, client-defined criteria.

The InvestorFacts service helps a customer gain insight into how the online community sees its company and its financials, products, and services.

InvestorFacts results are reported to clients in real time so that they can determine how to respond to negative or erroneous activity.

The CyberFacts service goes further. Instead of reporting immediately to clients, results gleaned from CyberFacts are filtered and prioritized by NetCurrents personnel. Clients are notified promptly, however, when unusual activity takes place.

NetCurrents identifies online conversations about your company and categorizes them as positive, negative, or neutral. The information is presented to you via weekly reports and analysis of the results. CyberFacts also helps companies respond to inaccurate online comments, including support for message removal.

Options that can be added to the basic CyberFacts service include competitive intelligence, strategic information dissemination, and an "emergency task force." CyberFacts' competitive intelligence includes real-time tracking of rivals' online activities and two competitive intelligence reports.

NetCurrents assists its customers with strategic information dissemination by creating appropriate information, which NetCurrents will then release to key Internet locations and monitor the results. The emergency task force option provides merger/acquisition analysis, litigation assistance, and other types of monitoring. Fees for these services are charged on a case-by-case basis.

The third service, CyberPerceptions, is similar to CyberFacts and InvestorFacts but allows customers to define more criteria. In addition, CyberPerceptions clients receive monthly competitive intelligence reports about two rivals or other topics of their choosing.

What's wrong with a watchdog?

What are the ramifications of policing online conversation and community? I foresee several unsavory outcomes.

Employers may try to limit what their employees say online by instituting policies that limit speech regarding the company or its business. Or, employees may sue employers for free speech violations upon having their inaccurate messages removed. Employers also may decide to expend a good deal of energy and time pursuing legal remedies against current and former employees based on the material in their online posts.

Furthermore, I see a sharp upswing in countercompetitive intelligence efforts.

Companies may plant inaccurate information online specifically to throw their rivals off track.

The dynamics of online conversation and community are far different than traditional corporate communications. I believe attempts to control or manage online discussion will have negative and potentially counterproductive outcomes.

I believe it far more beneficial to fully embrace online community through active participation. Implementing public or private discussion groups, Web casting, content rating systems, and two-way mailing lists will let companies gain a firm understanding of public perception. Companies can then take direct action based on their discoveries.

I'm sure there are many companies that might find value in NetCurrents' services, and others similar to them. However, I think these types of services may ultimately lead to more trouble, and legal fees, than they are worth. Would you hire an online detective to monitor perceptions of your company's and your rivals' online activity? Write to me at maggie_biggs@infoworld.com.

Maggie Biggs is director of the InfoWorld Test Center.

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