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Bill to Curb Online Predators Criticized

Kim Hart, Washington Post (
Wed, 31 Jan 2007 21:22:50 -0600

New Media Strategies' 'Online Analysts' Scour the Web for Mentions of
Opinion-Sensitive Clients

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer

Moira Curran starts her day at the office by skimming several dozen
blogs, occasionally firing off instant messages to her co-workers with
links to juicy bits of celebrity gossip.

Then she listens to podcasters chatting about the latest episodes of
"Grey's Anatomy" or "Lost." In the afternoon, she keeps an eye on soap
operas on the television set that hangs above her desk.

About 70 colleagues, scattered across two floors of an Arlington
high-rise, spend eight hours a day doing much of the same. Some of
them are also playing video games, watching movies and cruising around

That's exactly what the clients of New Media Strategies, an online
marketing company, pay the employees to do. Companies ranging from
movie studios and television networks to automakers and burger chains
hire these professional Web surfers to scour the Internet for any
mention of their brands. Over the past few years, the "online
analysts" have helped the companies track their reputations, found
ways to get their products noticed and joined online conversations to
help steer them the way clients want them to go.

More recently, as the explosion of blogs, social networks and
video-sharing sites has driven big companies to recognize the role of
Internet image in protecting their bottom lines, traditional media
companies and private investors are seeking to buy Web-savvy start-ups
that have a toehold in cyberspace.

That's what happened to New Media Strategies this month, when it was
acquired -- with two Los Angeles-based online marketing firms -- by
Meredith Corp., a Des Moines-based media company known for its sturdy
lineup of traditional magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens and
Ladies' Home Journal.

"I see the Internet as the world's largest focus group," said Pete
Snyder, a former media consultant and political pollster who started
the company out of his Capitol Hill apartment eight years ago. He had
received a few casual offers to buy the company, but interest spiked
in the past year. "So many companies have been so deeply entrenched in
old media ... Now they're looking to plow into the Web 2.0 world."

Evidence of that world abounds in the Arlington office, brightly
painted in red, orange and yellow. A podcast studio occupies a corner
office, and conference rooms are named ".com," ".net," ".gov" and

Posters from the movies the company has helped promote line the walls
-- so many that passersby sometimes ask if the office doubles as a
theater. Framed albums from Black Sabbath and several seasons of
"American Idol" hang next to a flat-screen television reserved for
"product viewing."

Many of the online analysts wear headphones all day and chat with
bloggers via instant messages. Their job is to be the clients' eyes
and ears online, said Clay Dunn, 28, a brand manager who monitors what
is said about video games and movies.

He watches for rumors and alerts his Hollywood clients if online
coverage goes awry. Once, for example, backstage photos from a movie
set surfaced and spoiled a sneak preview already in the works.

Curran, another brand manager who trolls the Web on behalf of
television clients, corrects errors published in blogs. If rumors
spread that someone's been fired from the cast of HBO's "Entourage,"
for example, she's there to set the record straight. If an angry
viewer bashes a network for a violent scene in a prime-time show,
she's there to post a rebuttal. She watches soap operas so she'll be
able to chat knowledgably with the rest of the online audience.

"Every day, I'm an absolute sponge," said Curran, 25.

Curran said she is careful to acknowledge her connection to clients
when it's required. All online marketers have to walk a fine line when
they work the blogosphere. Federal Trade Commission rules require them
to identify their roles when they're making a point on behalf of a
client, but if they're gossiping about the latest episode of
"Desperate Housewives" they can legally be as anonymous as anyone

The New Media Strategies employees are young, self-identified tech
geeks whose goal is to know the Internet inside and out -- an
increasingly daunting task as hundreds of new blogs and Web sites crop
up every day. They try to stay a few strides ahead of online
developments -- or at least only a step or two behind.

"The Internet used to be our oyster," Curran said of the days just a
few years ago when there were only chat rooms and message boards to
monitor. "It still is, but we have to reassess the things we pay the
most attention to."

New Media Strategies' entertainment practice was the first to take
off; Hollywood has long been willing to spend money to influence the
online world. Over the past few years, Coca-Cola, Burger King, AT&T,
Dodge and Ford joined the client roster. Most recently, public affairs
has become the fastest-growing area for the company.

"Before, we could barely get a politician to spend money on a Web
site, let alone a massive Web campaign," Snyder said from his
Arlington office. "The world across the river is waking up to this."

So are buyers and investors. Media companies are starting to show
strong interest in adding interactive firms to their portfolios, said
Seth R. Alpert, managing director of AdMedia Partners, a New York
investment bank that facilitates deals between advertising and
marketing companies. AdMedia represented New Media Strategies in its
recent acquisition.

"Serving advertisers is now seen as being more broad than putting ink
on paper or building Web sites," Alpert said.

British marketing giant WPP Group, which includes established
advertising firms Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam, has acquired
several interactive-media firms. Nielsen Media Research combined three
online-research companies to create Nielsen BuzzMetrics, which
analyzes online markets.

In the Washington area, private investors recently put money into
another start-up -- Clarabridge, a Reston company whose software
crawls Web sites, recording what people say about specific products or
brands and tabulating the occurrence of positive or negative words to
help clients assess their cyberspace images. For example, it tracks
recommendations and criticisms about certain airlines on travel sites.

The company calls the process "online intelligence." It is currently
working for pharmaceutical companies to get a sense of how consumers
feel about the drugs the clients make.

"This can shape how they spend that million dollars to launch a
product," said Sid Banerjee, co-founder and chief executive of
Clarabridge. "There are enough mainstream consumers making decisions
on the Internet that they represent a meaningful sample of the

Last week, the company took in $7.2 million in venture capital funding
from Intersouth Partners, based in Durham, N.C., and Reston, bringing
its total financing to $10 million since it started in 2005.

Cymfony, a Boston interactive-media firm and a competitor of New Media
Strategies and Clarabridge, has received $24 million in venture
capital cash in the past seven years.

Cymfony got its start doing research for intelligence agencies but
decided to use its text-mining software to monitor the
consumer-generated Web. Its business has doubled as advertisers take
to the Internet, said chief executive Andrew Bernstein.

"There's too much media online and no one knows where to turn," he
said. "So they turn to us."

Copyright 2007 The Washington Post Company

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