Tracking Who's Saying What About Whom

Ashley Duncan, left, Carrie O'Malley, center, and Jenni Collins are among the New Media Strategies employees who comb the Web for clients that want to protect their brands and public images.
Ashley Duncan, left, Carrie O'Malley, center, and Jenni Collins are among the New Media Strategies employees who comb the Web for clients that want to protect their brands and public images. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007

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 MySpace.

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 ".org."

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.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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