Blogs and social media: moving from monitoring to networking

In recent years, blogs and social media monitoring have become a fundamental part of the press office operation and many PR agencies' bread and butter services.

As social networking has matured, companies need to engage proactively to ensure their brands are effectively supported.

Traditional media such as magazines, newspapers and TV channels have increasing numbers of journalist-written blogs as part of their online presence, meaning a top tier of blogs are seen as being just as influential in the media landscape as their e-zines and print media counterparts. There has also been an increase in the number of business-led social networks, business users of blogs and micro-blogging tools such as Twitter and Google-owned Jaiku, and multimedia social sites like Flickr.

However, a huge portion of the blogosphere and social media landscape is not professionally produced and individually these sites do not have huge audiences. Collectively though, these smaller outlets comprise as much as 99 per cent of the social media landscape and together form a powerful force that the PR industry is looking to harness. As the majority of blogs and social media sites contain personal content written in the first person, viral issues and stories can spread quickly. The sites connect people and when issues spread virally across social networks, they become big news for organisations that they affect. This is why tracking blog buzz across the whole of the web is critical for reporting on brand image, online coverage, and building a picture of customer perceptions.

An example of how effective a viral campaign can be, was when an online grass-roots campaign was formed on the social network Facebook. Protesting against an overdraft charge that the bank HSBC was imposing on recent graduate accounts, thousands of students joined forces online through a viral Facebook group which generated massive media attention, and forced a u-turn at HSBC. Within just a few weeks of the group launching, the bank scrapped the overdraft charges.

Over the last year, the fact that blogs impact a company's brand image online has become more established. Marketing, PR and communications departments are increasingly exposed to the impact blogs have on a brand's reputation, whether that's negative coverage of a product or an online petition or a campaign across social networks. As this issue has gathered momentum, companies have realised that blogs and social media need to be actively managed not just monitored.

Some progressive brands are already doing this successfully. US retail bank Wells Fargo for example has a team dedicated to responding online to bloggers' issues and complaints in order to increase positive sentiment around the brand online and reduce the amount of negativity that might emerge.

What caused the need to move from monitoring to engagement? Early adopters have led the charge. And the masses have followed. We are seeing social media's evolution in the business ecosystem move from early adopter to mass market status and web tactics are rapidly becoming better understood tactically and strategically as part of the PR mix. The challenge is to turn the opportunity into action.

Hotwire is an international public relations consultancy specialized in technology PR.

Their digital media practice specializes in counselling companies in the Web 2.0 sector, such as web site infrastructure tools and services, digital and internet marketing services and information providers.