Imagine the scene. Friends of Facebook member Brandee Barker receive a newsfeed on the website, telling them their pal has struck up a friendship with a fellow called Adam Sohn. It's the sort of message Facebookers receive every day; hardly the kind of thing to raise eyebrows. Except that Barker is the head of Facebook's public relations, while Sohn leads global sales and marketing PR at Microsoft.
What's the reason for their sudden acquaintance? Could they be working together on a deal for Microsoft to take a stake in the social networking giant? Is it worth speculating about on a blog?
At least one of Barker's Facebook friends thought so when he received such a message in October 2007 and, due to the efficiency of RSS feeds, the story was soon on global financial news wires. So when Microsoft announced its $240 million (£160 million) investment soon afterwards, it didn't exactly have the element of surprise.
Then there's the story of how media speculation of the takeover of Bebo by News Corporation was prompted by diligent bloggers in Bebo's office who recorded online that they had just spotted its chairman Rupert Murdoch in their office.
Both stories have become blogging legends and there are plenty more. The social networks universe and the Blogosphere now demand to be taken very seriously and any corporate communications office that doesn't invest resources in understanding and engaging with them fails to do so at its peril.
'Everyone is a journalist now,' says Jeremy Thompson, managing director of media planning, monitoring and evaluation agency Durrants. 'If social media is not understood and engaged with, it can have a significant impact on corporate reputations and brands.'
SCALE OF THE TASK
It's a problem that has spawned a new industry of web monitoring and evaluation firms, providing what amounts to an online cuttings service.
Digital marketing and e-commerce specialist E-consultancy forecast that the UK online reputation and 'buzz monitoring' market would rise by 30 per cent to about £60m last year, and was likely to keep on growing.
The problem is the sheer size of their task. According to Andrew Bernstein, president of Cymfony, the blog analytics arm of market research group TNS, there are now estimated to be about 70 million blogs in the US and a similar number in the rest of the world, although only ten per cent are reckoned to be actively maintained.
Readership of leading blogs is rising too, with JupiterResearch claiming that monthly figures show 300 per cent growth over the past four years.
So the issue for corporate communicators is this: with so many social media out there and with the online library mushrooming daily, is it really possible to accurately monitor and evaluate coverage in blogs and social media sites?
'No,' says Andrew Muir, managing director of web monitoring group Vocus. 'It's a huge challenge. There are more than 100 million blogs out there. How do you sort the wheat from the chaff, and the stuff that's important from the stuff that just isn't? It's important not to get hung up because someone somewhere is writing something negative about your company, if it has absolutely zero visibility. But if someone writes something and it is read by some reasonably influential people, you need to be able to monitor that.'
Vocus chooses to monitor only about two million blogs, using automated tools but also human research that Muir believes delivers a proper assessment of how blogs are viewed and by whom and how influential they are. The company then provides a daily 'web clippings' service to more than 1,700 corporate customers, for whom it also issues 'social media' press releases that go to bloggers through two million RSS feeds, enabling clients to target blogs and engage with them, as well as review and track their posts.
Muir's view is not universally shared by other executives of social media monitoring firms, however. In particular, some of the bigger operators firmly disagree. Cymfony, for example, has been monitoring for four and a half years, serving more than 100 clients. Bernstein claims its searches cover 90 per cent of blog and discussion board universe.
'The service that we provide monitors and evaluates social media very accurately,' he adds. 'We provide a social media clippings service across the whole internet and we can give clients a very accurate social and economic profile of the bloggers who are writing about their company and which are worth bothering about and which are not. We use automated text technology so it doesn't matter whether you're tacking 100 blogs or one million because we can process the information very quickly.'
Similarly, Jennifer McLean, vice-president of marketing at US blog monitoring group Technorati is confident of the comprehensiveness of her company's service, which is free to users, relying on advertising for revenues.
'I think you can do it pretty accurately,' she says, adding that the company's website indexes close to one million blog posts every day and that users can join and set up sophisticated searches that bring up blogs that mention a company name in conjunction with a number of key words.
If you work for Hewlett-Packard, for example, she says, you might wish to see not only blog posts about the company but also specifically those that mention both the group's name and the word 'laptops'. Similarly, companies can search for blog posts that mention them in connection with named rivals.
Others are more circumspect. 'It depends on what you mean by 'accurately',' says Marcus Gault, managing director of the evaluation and insight division of media intelligence company Precise Media. 'The key word for us is 'influential'. Is the blog that you are talking about influential? You can track all the mentions of influential blogs or social networking sites across the whole of the internet and yes you can do so accurately. If it needs tracking, it can be tracked accurately.'
Gault says Precise Media, which works with 85 of the FTSE100 companies and 210 of those in the FTSE250 index, looks at the traffic, interactivity and credibility of blogs to sort out the ones that are relevant to its clients.
'We have been looking at this for some time,' he says, 'because it is clearly quite challenging for public relations people. We are finding that communications and PR people are feeling a little bit exposed to the whole blogging area because they are not sure what to track and how they should be doing it. One of the biggest fears is that they will get stuck with loads of rubbish blogs that don't really tell them anything and that they will use up time and resources trying to track everything.'
Gault adds: 'One of the telling statistics is that there are more people who write blogs than who read them. The key is to understand and engage with the 20, 30 or 40 blogs in your sector that are actually influential.'
QUALITY NOT QUANTITY
Thompson at Durrants, which monitors about 10,000 websites and 1,000 of what it regards as the most influential blogs for its 2,500 UK corporate customers, agrees that it is best to be selective.
'This is an issue on which opinions are split,' he says. 'My personal view is that what our customers really need is alerting to issues that concern them as and when they come up on social media so that they can respond to them before they start affecting their share prices. The sheer scale of the Blogosphere is the problem and so much of it is fairly trivial. What chief executives want is to be informed about issues on the Internet that are relevant to their companies. Do they really want everything on social media sites about them to be completely accurately monitored and evaluated? I don't think so.'
Nevertheless, all this monitoring represents another expense for corporate communication offices. 'Monitoring the web is not a great deal of fun,' observes Paul Miller, head of digital strategy at Cision UK, the public relations evaluation and analysis agency. 'It's a huge, vast ever-changing canvas.'
However, Philip Lynch, director of social media and evaluation at TNS, says there will be rewards for UK companies that match their rhetoric about being web-savvy with financial investment to be what they claim. 'The US is 18 months to two years ahead of the UK in terms of how clients are using the Blogosphere in terms of engagement,' he says. 'In the UK, it's frustrating that people are still not getting it terms of the commitment needed to engage with it. People still regard social media as an adjunct to supplement conventional media but in the US, there's a different attitude and an integrated approach in marketing and communications. We don't really see much of that commitment here and it is certainly not resourced anything like it is in the US, where companies are not only using it but are also seeing a return from it.'
The need for resources is especially acute because blogging, the area that is easiest to track using automated software, is only part of the new social media universe.
Comments about companies and their brands on social network sites such as Facebook and Bebo can be just as damaging as comments on blogs, particularly when their members utilise the power of web petitions or feel strongly enough about a cause to start or join online groups dedicated to highlighting and rectifying them.
The more popular campaigns quickly end up being mentioned in the conventional media but this presents opportunities too, says Gault, observing how last year's US presidential election showed how marrying channels such as Facebook and YouTube with the Blogosphere, search marketing and traditional media relations can shape public opinion.
Forward thinkers in the corporate world too, he says, are using the insight generated from social networks to create dynamic engagement with online communities. Confectionery group Cadbury, for example, successfully used online chat and nostalgia on Facebook to bring its much-loved Wispa chocolate bar out of retirement.
However, social networks need a different kind of monitoring to blogs, which is why some of the more services that rely heavily on automated software don't claim to track them as effectively. Technorati, for example, doesn't even attempt to track social networks, while Gault admits that Precise Media doesn't yet monitor Facebook.
Indeed, Facebook is a particular problem, says Cision UK's Miller. 'It sees itself as a walled garden,' he says. 'There's a tool called Facebook Lexicon that allows you to see the buzz surrounding different words and phrases on Facebook walls without collecting any personal information about members. But there are public and private areas of the site and you can only monitor certain parts of it. Bloggers are much easier to track because they want to be found and they put tags and links on everything so that it's very easy to do so.'
SOCIAL NETWORKS MATTER
Nigel Middlemiss, knowledge director at corporate reputation analysis group Echo Research, argues that it's possible for corporate communicators to monitor Facebook effectively but it requires a heavy investment in time.
'You can join groups on Facebook very easily and see what's happening on them,' he says. 'The issue is that those monitoring firms that rely entirely on automated tools to track blogs can't get do this very effectively. It needs human intervention. Another area which has grown rapidly is YouTube, where some people are watching video postings more than they watch TV. At Echo we use indices relating to tone of voice, body language, video frame composition as well of course as sound to give a richer and better analysis of the impact of online video. Something similar applies to podcasts.'
The cliché that 'the web never sleeps' is as true of the web monitoring community as it is of anything else online so perhaps as the net evolves, technology will emerge that allows social networks to be tracked as effectively as blogs will emerge.
It's easy to see how this could be useful. Imagine if a Facebook campaign group's crusade against a certain company could be picked up by the corporate communications office when the number of members reaches 500 or 1,000, compared to the much larger numbers that eventually merit press coverage.
Such comprehensive monitoring would allow press officers to respond faster and in a more focused way and to seize the initiative proactively. Is this a pipedream? Don't bet on it.
'It's the next phase of development,' states Gault. 'It's a very good point. I'm not aware of anyone who's doing that yet but it's definitely an opportunity.'