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Two years ago, as I was preparing for a presentation at the American headquarters of a large German skin-care products manufacturer, I found a couple of this company’s products being mentioned in various Usenet discussion groups.

It was fascinating for me to observe these unmediated and extraordinarily candid conversations. That evening of research flew by. It was like I had discovered someplace where I could watch animals behave in ways not affected by an awareness of my presence.

One Usenet poster, a new mother who was treating her baby’s eczema, wrote about one of the company’s brands: “It’s a lot more expensive, but, so far, it’s working.” Another poster, who seemed to be the resident “Mother” of this particular discussion group, was quite clear in her recommendations of the company’s products. In fact, given her enthusiasm and vigilance, I began to wonder if she was, in truth, a paid company representative.

She wasn’t — a fact that became obvious during my presentation to the manufacturer. The company’s marketing team had no idea that such discussions about their brands were taking place. One of their more hard-boiled types dismissed the research, noting that it was purely anecdotal and too limited.

I didn’t have a snappy comeback at the time. And I don’t have one now.

There has not been, to my knowledge, any scientific study that quantifies the impact of these informal web conversations. But common sense tells me that wherever a web community of interest exists — and especially in cases where that interest is particularly strong or important, i.e., involving new motherhood, medical conditions, or even investments — these public discussions can be extraordinarily valuable and revealing.

(At this point, I need to acknowledge the work of those at It is they who discovered and subsequently popularized the notion of “markets as conversations.” In all honesty, I didn’t know that my thinking was being influenced by their intense and challenging messages, but that doesn’t excuse my debt.)

The plain fact is, if yours is a public company and/or has an established consumer or business-to-business brand, your company and its products are being bandied about in conversations on the web. Right now.

Just how important are these conversations? Case in point: Dallas-based ZixIt Corporation. In what is (I presume) an ongoing lawsuit, ZixIt is suing Visa, the credit card company whose co-owned Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) system competes with ZixIt’s product, alleging that Visa “set out to destroy ZixIt’s ability to market its ZixCharge Internet transaction authorization system.” What’s most interesting is the manner in which Visa allegedly set out to do this.

According to a December 31 press release, a Visa executive was responsible for “the posting of more than 400 messages, under at least seven aliases, on the Yahoo! ZixItmessage board. These messages not only attacked ZixIt and ZixCharge — but also promoted and recommended competitive companies in which Visa has substantial investment positions. Many of the postings were inaccurate, misleading, or absolutely false.”

Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges that, while ZixIt was in the process of negotiating important business relationships, Visa posted “more than 400 messages to the Yahoo! board — averaging more than 3 per working day. The Yahoo! message board is widely read by ZixIt investors, potential investors, and potential ZixIt partners. It is the Internet equivalent of a specialized newspaper that is freely available to Internet users worldwide.”

Obviously, ZixIt Corporation believes that material harm to its business prospects resulted from a competitor’s “salting” the conversation on its Yahoo! investor thread. Perhaps, for purposes of the lawsuit, they are overstating the importance of this one conversational venue. But I don’t think so.

Now what am I suggesting that you and your company do about these web conversations? Maybe nothing. Stealthily butting in and attempting to shape the dialogue to your company’s interests (a) won’t work, and (b) will, over time, be sensed by other discussion participants.

But you should be listening. I know from hanging out on various investor message boards that there are good ideas, suggestions, and legitimate concerns that bubble to the surface. Someone within your company should be condensing these conversations and feeding them into the company’s own dialogues.

More boldly, I would recommend that a company representative, declared as such, should wade into the stream on occasions. Don’t expect a cakewalk, even when sales are robust and share prices are soaring.

And it is especially when things are rough, due to a corporate misstep or a crisis of confidence, that such participation is important. When the inclination to head into the bunkers is the strongest, that is the time to go out into the storm and declare yourself.

This Marketing article was written by Chris Maher on 3/18/2005