Can Coporates Blog?

    March 7, 2005

When it comes to the blogosphere, companies can be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, so what’s the answer?

For some time, weblogs were seen as the online equivalent of standing on the street corner and shouting incoherently. However, increasingly they are viewed as a quick, low-tech way for people with similar interests to create vibrant communities.

Thanks to search engines and other free listening’ equipment like Technorati and PubSub people can quickly find other like-minded souls and subscribe to one another’s views using feeds’ called RSS (Really Simple Syndication).

This process quickly creates very large meshed’ communities of like-minded people which can develop in all sorts of unexpected ways and take on the vibrancy of a streetmarket, flushed with gossip, tips, news and views.

Not Just For Geeks

And unlike a few years ago when the blogosphere was mainly populated by techies, today’s communities have as much interest in the mechanics of their blogs as they do in cathode ray tubes or the inner workings of their playstations. They just want to talk, gossip and share their passions, be it football, fashion, cakes or cruises.

So the news is that the internet is really no longer just for geeks. The techy layer that meant normal’ people couldn’t quite get their hands on the controls has been removed. This has drawn in a massive influx of new people to create bustling web communities built around every conceivable subject.

Global Reach

The rate of growth is fast and sustained. More than 10 percent of all Americans read blogs, an increase of 60 percent in 12 months, according to Pew Research. Technorati, a company that tracks vital blog linking, says growth is even faster in Asia and the Middle East than it is in North America. The full number of blogs worldwide today is probably about 10 million, up from 100,000 two years earlier in 2003.

Get Real

Aside from the sheer fun of it, one aspect of this new networked, fluid world that people love is its transparency. Corporate doubletalk and the grandiose are not welcome, while the authentic and open are held in high esteem. Despite its vast scale trying to hide anything in the blogosphere’ is proving to be almost impossible. For large businesses keen to interact with these massive communities of potential customers this can create problems. Not known for their transparency or willingness to share information, corporates are struggling to come to terms with a communications medium that they don’t own, can’t buy, and where shouting loudly just frightens everyone away.

Faking It

All of which has sparked a debate about how the corporate world can interact with the blogosphere, if at all. Doc Searls is an A-List’ blogger and co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto (the blogging equivalent of the ten commandements). His views are on web culture are highly regarded and recently he wrote that, “corporate blogging is so ironic it’s nearly an oxymoron”. Certainly, any company or brand that is perceived to be breaking web ettiquette or faking it can find themselves ridiculed and even attacked by huge communities.

McDonalds recent attempt to create a fake blog to promote their Lincoln Fry product was so poorly received that it was taken down almost immediately. Mazda had a similar experience when it tried to pass off of a blog to promote its M3 as a website created by a passionate fan, who happened to have access to high-grade film of the vehicle in action.

However, the blogosphere (or 5th Estate) can treat companies who do nothing just as badly. Kryptonite has gone down in history as the first company to feel the full fury of the blogosphere. The manufacturer of super-secure bicycle locks had carved out a highly profitable niche selling locks that guaranteed peace-of- mind. However, that all came to a grinding halt last September, when someone posted a video in a busy forum for cyclists in San Franciso, showing how to open the locks with a ballpoint pen. Approximately, 3milllion people downloaded the video, shelves were cleared and the Kryptonite brand took on a new, less secure meaning.

Kryptonite’s real crime in the eyes of its online communities was that the video showed a fault that the company had known about for some time and tried to quietly deal with on an individual basis. Today, the chastened company’s website informs the world that it has replaced 40,000 units worldwide. It’s strapline, Passionate, fanatical, driven, consumed. Perhaps we’re the ones who should be locked up’, has been given a new meaning.

Another US company, Verizen Wireless, the country’s second largest wireless operator, recently found itself on the end of a class-action lawsuit taken out by a consumer community. The customers had individually bought a product they felt was unsatisfactory, found each other online, swapped complaints, approached the company, been unhappy with Verizen’s response and decided to pool funds to hire a lawyer. This lead to what the Financial Times politely called, the company carrying out a crisis management exercise in public.’

So when it comes to the blogosphere, it seems companies are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. So what’s the answer?

New Rules

Even Doc Searls admits that companies have to get involved in the big conversation that is the blogosphere, they just need to be very careful about the way they do it. A few rules of engagement are in fact emerging, many of which are attributed to the now legendary blogger Robert Scoble, aka The Scobleizer.

Scoble is first among equals in Microsoft’s 1200 strong team of bloggers. Collectively they are known as Channel 9, which is a reference to the open wavelength that flight pilots use to listen to one another chat, gossip and exchange information. The software giant’s version effectively allows outsiders to tune into what is happening inside the megacorp and listen to an authentic, uncensored exchange of views between some of the world’s most wired individuals. The resulting effect has been that many influential communities eg software engineers, who had considered the company to be on the axis of evil, have found themselves thawing slightly as they tune into the intelligent, human voices on MSC9.

Another prominent business blogger has been the vice-chairman of General Motors Bob Lutz, who has started a weblog called Fast Lane. His first comments included the quote, “After years of reading and reacting to the automotive press, I finally get to put the shoe on the other foot.” This passion has created a vibrant community of petrol heads who all now talk directly to, and get answers from, one of the most senior executives at the world’s largest car manufacturer.

For a company’s PR department the idea of senior directors shooting the breeze online with influential customer communities and stakeholders is often enough to bring on a light sweat. However, it does seem that the public has an appetite for this direct communication, unobstructed by the walls that traditional PR can create.

Listen Up

It’s also vital to remember that this new space is very much a two-way street that can give a real insight into customers and the marketplace. The tools that allow companies to listen to the marketplace, (PubSub, Technorati, Feedster, Bloglines) are just as important as the publishing tools and can provide nervous PRs with an insight into the concerns and interests of different stakeholders as they arise. Like all good conversations, in the blogosphere it’s best to listen before you speak.

It’s safe to say that Verizen and Kryptonite are now tuned in very closely to those sections of the online world which chew the fat about their products.

Handle With Care

There is no doubt that blogs offer great opportunities for corporates interested in taking a tentative step into the blogosphere.

However, it’s vital to remember that weblogs, RSS, podcasts, feedback systems and other emerging low-tech tools are just that — tools. When used carefully and with knowledge they can be very valuable and effective. If used recklessly or without thought and preparation, they can cause problems and even long-lasting damage.

James Cherkoff is an independent marketing consultant based in London.
When he isn’t helping companies like GM and Nestle to get to grips
with the networked world he writes articles on the subject for online
and offline media, including the Financial Times.