Companies, vying for an edge, are tapping into social networks, blogs and video sharing to gauge consumer sentiment.
Take, for example, the new business usages for blogs. While only 3 percent of North American consumers last year published or maintained a blog, these bloggers can bear a disproportionate influence on a company's brand, according to Forrester Research Inc.
"In the early days of consumer-generated content, people dismissed it as a lot of adolescent diaries from bedroom philosophers who lay in their beds looking at their belly buttons while writing about the meaning of life," said Peter Kim, senior analyst at Forrester Research.
"The posts on blogs and social networking sites are beginning to really influence customer decisions, and that will have a ripple affect on consumer purchases," he said.
Traditional methods for collecting consumer feedback fall short because they are too bias, expensive, slow, and often misdirected, the Forrester Research analyst suggested.
"Bloggers and social networks keep ideas in the public mindset," Kim said. "Think about the influence that can have over brands."
Some Intuit Inc. executives have begun to pay close attention to blogger comments. For more than a year, Jana Eggers, Intuit QuickBase general manager, says she has been monitoring certain blogs. "I personally monitor customer feedback on about 100 blogs, and for the QuickBase business there are about 25 that I find important and relevant," she said.
Intuit changed a feature in the dashboard for QuickBase based on feedback in a blog, Eggers said.
People are more casual in blogs, then in focus groups that are meant to provide product feedback. With blogs, "You're getting people who are more passionate about the product rather than people willing to get paid to give their opinion," she said.
Zalpha, the planning arm of WWAV Rapp Collins, could launch a service that allows companies to locate the chitchat consumers write about their products or service in blogs, chatrooms and message boards. "Free-Text analysis is something we have only just started looking at," wrote Zalpha's chief executive officer Matthew Eccles in an e-mail.
Similarly, Shanghai-based CIC Data LLC listens to the Internet for clients, taking the pulse of Chinese consumers by monitoring posts and conversations on bulletin boards and blogs used by China's 111 million Internet users.
CIC Data says it helps companies analyze conversations among the 40,000,000 bulletin board users and 6,000,000 bloggers in China. Once banned and still closely monitored, bulletin boards provide an opportunity to take the pulse of China's wired consumers.
In another novel Internet tactic aimed at listening to customers, Warner Home Video and Amazon.com, for example, on Tuesday launched an online DVD poll asking consumers to vote for the next popular movie titles they most want to see released from Warner’s library. The Web survey posted on DVD Decision 2006 will collect customer feedback on 30 movies.
The two companies will name the winning 10 movie titles on Aug. 8. The five most popular movies will begin selling in early December at just less than $20. The studio will release the next five most popular DVD movies in January 2007.
Film buffs will have an option to vote for their favorite movies in categories ranging from action and adventure to comedy and musical to drama. Consumers vote by clicking on the movie title, enter an e-mail address, and then click the Go! button. They also can view trailers and movie stills, and read synopses and customer reviews.