Several days ago, Sam Flemming of CIC, a Shanghai-based online reputation management company pointed me to a news article on Business Week called “Inside The War Against China’s Blogs”.
The article specifically highlighted a company called Daqi.com (in Chinese the name means “Big Flag” which has a certain nationalistic appeal), and cited a case in which it helped Toyota satisfy a customer who had not received his car after three months. According to the company’s CEO, her company, an Internet online reputation management company, helps its customers, mostly western multinationals, to monitor their online reputations and help put out fires with users in China.
Out of curiosity, I then entered Daqi.com into my browser address bar so that I could visit the site and learn more about the company and what they do.
What I found, and what I did not find, were very interesting.
First of all, I thought I was going to find an online reputation management company, or public relations company, or whatever buzzwords they are using now to lure in corporate business.
But I found nothing of the kind. Instead, I was confronted with what I would call a typical Chinese portal website, complete with channels for “Homepage”, “Society”, “Military”, “Strange and Curious”, “Autos”, “Digital”, “Women’s Makeup”, “Pictures”, and “Reputations” (in beta).
(I have uploaded the screenshots of the pages mentioned below to Picasa and you can access them here.)
Aha, I thought to myself, I’ll click on “Reputations” and see what I find. When I went there, I found that it was full of forums divided into the categories “Cars”, “Cameras”, “Notebooks”, “Digital Cameras”, “MP3″, and “MP4″. The page is very long, and like most Chinese pages, scrolls on quite a distance with recommended products in each product category. This page, like the rest of the website, was designed very much to lure Chinese visitors. To visit the page, you can go to http://exp.daqi.com/
My next question was whether they took advertising? The only banner advertising I saw was for Dell, which ran on the two pages I visited. But it would be foolish to think that their only revenue came from banner advertising. Looking at how the page was designed, and the way some of the products were given larger photos and highlighted, it was easy to see that some makers were paying for higher rankings for higher visibility.
But nowhere did I see anything about their online reputation management services. So I thought to myself, “Surely the person who wrote the Business Week story, Dexter Roberts, could point to a website where Daqi offered their online reputation management services, in either Chinese or English.”
I could find nothing of the kind.
Daqi claims that it regularly searches 500,000 forums daily for its corporate clients. I’m sure that it works on many sites which are not related to Daqi. However, it also raises the very uncomfortable possibility that it may actually manipulate online reputations by starting flame wars over product reputation, then charging their corporate clients money to put them out. (I’m not claiming that Daqi does, but the very fact that they run their own portal under their own company name and URI means that they have very little respect for their non-Chinese corporate clients and western journalists’ capability to conduct online research in Chinese.)
The clash of interests which arises from revenue from makers for higher rankings on their own portal site, and then revenue from non-Chinese corporate clients for “research insights” and “firefighting services” into Chinese online behavior is obvious to anyone. The temptation to use their own forums to “seed” opinions must be very great. These seeded opinions would then quickly proliferate to other sites.
There is a simple way to find out, and that is to check timestamps of postings. All forum software includes a posting timestamp, and it’s easy to check the timestamps on a subject to push it back in time to where and when a rumor started. What is harder to find out is the identity of the poster, but this can sometimes be done by checking the IP address of the poster if IP cloaking is not used. Different online identities sharing the same IP would most likely be the same poster.
I wonder how many corporate clients do this kind of checking?
I find the whole practice of hiring Chinese and paying them to post favorable comments on a per posting basis to be an unethical PR practice. According to the BW article, this is a common practice. A Beijing-based PR professional, William Moss, talks about this in more detail.
Online public relations firms will have to draw up and aggressively publicize clear guidelines on what they do, and what they don’t do when it comes to monitoring online behavior in China. Playing multiple roles as player and referee doesn’t make it in my book. I have talked about some of the skills needed in a previous posting.
This is part of the problem which actually slows down Internet growth in China. In spite of it all, there are healthy groups for product discussions.
Of course, each corporate client will have to make its own call as to what it is most comfortable with. And so will their VC backers. (I wonder if they read Chinese?)
But if someone does do an article on a Chinese company, at the very least, the URI mentioned should include, in either Chinese or English, the business they are in which is mentioned in the article.
Nobody likes bait and switch tactics, and I’m no exception.
Is that too much to ask for?