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Keeping an eye on the competition through the social Web

Photo courtesy of Rick via Flickr

Photo courtesy of Rick via Flickr

As communications professionals continue to debate strategies for measuring the impact of our presence on the social Web, one of our biggest advantages lies in the openness of the Web itself as a platform for measurement. This actually represents a huge break from how companies have long approached all sorts of measurement challenges: with a wealth of data about themselves, and comparatively scant information about their competitors.

Let’s say I own a hotel, and I know with great accuracy how many rooms I sell. There’s a hotel across the street (isn’t there always?), and while I might be able to eyeball the number of people coming and going, I don’t have the depth of information about their occupancy rates that I have about my own little inn.

I could have a friend walk through that hotel one morning and count the newspapers in front of each door (assuming, unlike many hotel chains, my competitor hasn’t yet cut out that little freebie). But as with many forms of competitive intelligence gathering, I’m treading a fine ethical line by sending him over there, and I have to hope that the clientele doesn’t include a lot of early birds who grab their paper before he makes the rounds. Oh, forget it. I’m just going to do the best I can running my own hotel. Is it the most popular one on the block? I’ll never know, and worse yet, I’ll never know why or why not.   

For PR pros on the social Web, information about our competitors is everywhere, staring us in the face. 

In trying to determine what our share of voice is online, we have access to a wealth of empirical data about how many people saw, linked to, tweeted about, commented on, voted for or bookmarked not just what we had to say, but what our competitors said too. Not to mention what everyone else is saying about us and our rivals. Increasingly, we can wrap information about sentiment and attitude around all of this as well. 

A spin on this that was discussed at the Influence Scorecard meeting [recap]: What will the long-anticipated “Internet of Things” mean for the measurement of influence? The Internet already reaches into a great many devices, from video gaming systems to stereos and refrigerators, and is headed for ever more mundane objects of everyday life. The Internet of Things, enabled by RFID tagging technologies combined with entity recognition schemes brought about by the Semantic Web movement,  will be capable of tasks like telling a restaurateur how long each bottle of ketchup sat on a table before the last drop was used. These systems will understand that ketchup is a type of condiment, and condiments are a type of food, so it may also be time to order more French fries.

Most of this data will be like hotel occupancy rates, very useful to its owners but closed to the public eye. But regardless of what dim, as-yet-unmeasurable corners the Internet may reach into, the Web itself is a different story. There, plenty of measures of impact await our scrutiny, in plain sight.

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