Sean reminded me about a local Seattle company called Visible Technologies that enables organizations to listen and respond to the commentary that is occurring across blogs, social networks and communities.
This is a fast growing niche and one that is fun to watch. Organizations of all types are growing more and more curious about what is being said about them online - and struggling to respond in the appropriate way. While I have confidence that Visible will do well as a company, I think they are playing with fire - the destructive nature of which I hope their clients fully understand.
Here's are some quotes from a recent article about them in the Seattle Times.
If a blogger badmouths the Hummer, for instance, the system could notify GM. Within the console, a PR person can draft a response, inserting key points, then get approval to post or e-mail the nettlesome blogger.
Clients pick an "author" or opt for anonymity. Visible also has a virtual army â€??? thousands of personas registered with online forums.
What? "Thousands of personas in online forums" sounds like thousands of opportunities for organizations to do exactly the wrong thing. If a company really wants to listen and to respond responsibly, there are no shortcuts. Community members call smell bullshit from a mile away and Visible's system appears to make it easy for organizations to manufacture the stuff by the tractor load.
Graziano said the idea is to make it easier for companies to respond and participate, but it's up to clients to decide how the tools are used.
"This is a communication tool," he said. "It's not a pull-the-wool-over-anybody's-eyes tool."
Maybe I'm cynical, but I don't think a communication tool is what is needed. I'm all for listening - companies need better tools for understanding perceptions and I'm sure that Visible has a great tool for listening. However, when it comes to reacting, a better communication system (i.e. a way to drop a response into a forum) is not going to help and could likely backfire in a big, big way.
What is needed is a strategy for authentic and contextual conversation and an understanding of how to work with bloggers and communities, not an easier way to for a PR person to "insert key points". No blogger or community member wants to hear the key points from a PR person and if they see it, they'll blog about it with the headline "Another company that doesn't get it". No company wants that.
I liked the way Sean ended his post:
I guess in debating if this is good, bad or it depends, I almost see this like a weapons manufacturer. The weapons themselves are neither good nor bad - it depends on who ultimately is using them and for what purposes.
I just hope that Visible's clients understand the risks before jumping in too deep. Napalm is dangerous stuff.