Research… or Eavesdropping?

Though we are learning every day, Internet marketing technology — and our understanding of how to use it — is still (as the cliché goes) in its infancy.

Every once in a while, a technology comes along that gives us a glimpse of the future power of the Internet. Looking toward the future is both exciting and a bit scary, especially when you realize how far technology can take us.

I recently spoke to Jonathan Carson, CEO of a New York start-up, BuzzMetrics. The company’s technology systematically harvests, codes, and analyzes conversations on message boards and community sites on the Internet, allowing companies to understand what’s being said about their products and competitors, giving them the ability to intervene by targeting “opinion leaders” in its product category.

The technology is simple. BuzzMetrics sends out code that scouts the Web, looking for any discussion relating to specific products, companies, or brands (similar to how some search engines work). It then codes and organizes the information. This gives companies the intelligence to target the people who seem to be the most influential.

Is this a good thing? It depends. For companies seeking information about the way people feel about their products and competitors, BuzzMetrics might be a useful tool (depending on how well it works). But if you are someone who posts a comment on a community site, you might not be happy to know companies are listening in.

BuzzMetrics’s Carson says anyone who posts to a discussion board is taking part in a public conversation. He’s right, although I doubt most people who converse in Web communities know just how “public” their conversations can be.

Compared to government technologies such as Echelon, BuzzMetrics is a simple, relatively benign tool. There is risk of backlash, nonetheless. Though many people, particularly those in the United States, are willing to forgo some of their privacy for security, far fewer are willing to let corporations spy on them for nothing in return.

That’s the rub. When people agree to be studied, tracked, and measured, opt-in consumer research is doubtlessly acceptable. But as DoubleClick learned when it announced plans to merge online cookies with offline databases, regulators frown on companies that track and target people online without their consent.

Those who use the Web to market and sell products already face ethical and quasi-legal issues, such as where to draw the line between opt-in and spam, or how to disclose the use of cookies and other tracking devices. As Web technology develops, we’ll face even more significant issues. In many important ways, how we face them will determine our future success.

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