Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Blog Identity - Blogs and Business

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Anthropologists believe that Man was originally a gatherer of whatever he could find, that like the apes he sought out food and materials to make shelter by gathering. Thousands of years later, we are still gatherers of a sort, but now it’s information, and the rewards are much better.

Most people work as employees for some kind of company or boss for a living. It limits how wealthy you can become, but there is the comfort of a steady paycheck. To make extra money, you either get a second job, look around for a better position, or work for a raise at your job. Companies pretty much do the same thing, looking for ways to get more production, more customers, or else simply find a better way to compete for market share and profitability. ‘Corporation’, after all, is nothing more than a word to describe the ‘embodiment’ of a concept; ‘Ford’ for cars, ‘IBM’ for computers, ‘Microsoft’ for software, and so on. And almost every company is looking at the Internet, as a potential tool to invigorate their operations and strategy. The blogs represent the latest hope in that quest.

Hope springs eternal, but it also leads to mirages. I still remember a Business lecture in college, where an ivory-tower type assured us that offices would be paperless by 2000. If you are anywhere near a desk, you know that didn’t work out, as much for psychological reasons as for legal reasons (I once worked for one of those ‘modernizing’ types, who actually thought throwing out all our signed contracts and source documents for billing would be a step forward in our debt collection process). So, there needs to be a ground attached to these theoretical considerations of what blogging can do. With that in mind, I now turn to some interesting articles on how some businesses have addressed blogging and their corporate strategy.

To start, I have to begin with Google. If you started in on-line during the 20th Century, you have some idea of just how revolutionary the concept of web searching is, but in blogging terms, the ‘Gutenberg’ of our time may well be Blogger. People like things simple, and a free, push-button blog service is as simple and easy as you can find. What’s truly amazing, is the ease with which Blogger accepts its place, matching ease of use with a truly open-door policy. You can leave anytime, and take your stuff with you. Google can do this, because its ease of use, wide acceptance by so many users, and because they understand the demographics of consumers. This doesn’t mean Blogger is perfect – waddaya expect for free? – but it’s very, very smart. Google is going to replace Microsoft in terms of Web Services in a matter of four to five year, and that includes Office and Mail services, as well as IM and E-mail. More on that when I get to Darth Bill.

As I look at the landscape of business blogging, there seem to be three categories to consider: Corporate Blogs, Product Blogs, and Personal Blogs with Business applications.

An obvious early question for a company is why bother? The answer is ‘innovation’. An article at Reed Electronics notes that

“blogs work best internally as a knowledge management tool, because information can be made so easily accessible.”

So, besides advertising the name, products and services for a company, a blog can be valuable as a form of Customer Service, Research & Development (how many of use have received a free version of a product to ‘beta’ test it?) . A company needs to plan carefully, but a blog can make a company stand out from its competition.

More than that, the article quotes sources at Intel Research, who said "If someone was doing something with mobile phone software and someone else was working on planetary-scale computing, we could informally put things in the blog, referring people to other links and recommending sources," he says.

"I would definitely consider building a blog to generate dialogue about the product, so I could keep a bird's-eye view of what people are saying about it." In addition, beta testers could post problems on a blog and bring them to light sooner, and the blog could also quickly disseminate the solution.”

That effectively describes the blogs I would call Product Blogs, That is, they bear specifically on a product, its operation and questions about it. Even Microsoft, the giant best known to for ignoring customers during most of the 1990s, now agrees. A Fortune magazine article observed

“When Macromedia in 2003 released software that was maddeningly slow, the company bloggers quickly acknowledged the need for fixes, helping ease some of the tension. "It was a great early-warning system and helped us frame the situation," says senior vice president Tom Hale. "It accrued a huge benefit to us."

But Microsoft wouldn’t be Microsoft, if they didn’t trip over themselves from time to time. When Microsoft tried to compete with Blogger, by creating a new service called MSN Spaces, online software that allows people to easily create and maintain blogs, they also installed fickle censoring filters that did a lousy job of screening offensive material, but did a great job of annoying bloggers by blocking their choice of words and topics. Microsoft has promised to fix the problem, but the first impression is already there, and Bill blew a big chance. In a section about new Microsoft guru Robert Scoble, Fortune’s best comment for the man was his posts produced “nothing too profound or insightful, yet Scoble has given the Microsoft monolith something it has long lacked: an approachable human face.” So, note to corporations – if your best claim to success is that you don’t look that much like a monster, but you are neither memorable nor instructive, the plan is not working.

The question every business has to answer when considering blogs, is who to let blog, and who will retain control? A pure blog is the creation of a writer, and while a company should expect reasonable control of its own name and is entitled to present its name as it chooses, if and when a company tries to play a corporate advertisement for a real blog, the results have been disastrous. Fortune magazine wrote about Mazda’s attempt this way:

“Those who have tried to game the blogosphere haven't done much better. Mazda, hoping to reach its Gen Y buyers, crafted a blog supposedly run by someone named Kid Halloween”


The blog featured pics and videos of Mazdas doing, well, things that looked a lot like Mazda commercials. They got busted fast.

“Suddenly Mazda wasn't being hailed; it was being reviled on widely read blogs. "Everything about that 'blog' is insulting," wrote a poster on Autoblog”

A heavy hand shows up fast in blogs, and readers pick it up. That doesn’t mean that companies can’t have official blogs which work, though. Fortune also notes:

“Corporate propaganda almost always drives readers away; real people with real opinions keep them coming back. At the GM Smallblock Engine Blog, employees and customers rhapsodize about Corvettes and other GM cars. Stoneyfield Farm has several blogs about yogurt. Not surprisingly, the earliest adopters have been tech firms. The biggest chunk of the 5,000 or so corporate bloggers comes from Microsoft, but others work at Monster.com, Intuit, and Sun Microsystems—where even the company's acerbic No. 2, Jonathan Schwartz, gets in on the action”

But a company is going to have to lay out the rules early on. An article at Reed Electronics advises:

"Just as with e-mail and instant messaging," warns Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, "you have to follow what we call the three e's: establish a policy, educate your employees about it and enforce it."

The Fortune magazine article went on to note that ”employees have been fired at Starbucks, Harvard University, Delta, and social-networking software company Friendster for blogs the organizations apparently deemed offensive, though none will comment”. That, to paraphrase the Sheriff from 'Cool Hand Luke', is a “failure to communicate”, but it also generates very bad PR for the company which was hoping for a good word.

The Fortune magazine article notes that “Blogs are challenging the media and changing how people in advertising, marketing, and public relations do their jobs”. Great, but how does anyone make it work? The key may be from Greg Brooks, who quoted Michael O’Conner Clarke:

“Blogs are not a threat to business. Stupidity is a threat to business.”

The best rule is to keep a light hand on the bloggers addressing your product, and keep the rules for your employees clear and simple. Above all, be honest and try to avoid the desire to control your audience:

"If you fudge or lie on a blog, you are biting the karmic weenie," says Steve Hayden, vice chairman of advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather, which creates blogs for clients. "The negative reaction will be so great that, whatever your intention was, it will be overwhelmed and crushed like a bug. You're fighting with very powerful forces because it's real people's opinions."

What that all means to me, is that a company may as well present anything it controls 100% as a website, not a blog. That way, there’s no confusion, and the company may still present its products as it chooses. The company may choose to sponsor blogs by its employees, but only after setting up a contract of some kind: If the company tries to micro-manage the blog, it will be stale and boring, but letting employees speak their mind (with strategic and legal intentions agreed to in advance), the company gains some level of connection to its customers, by putting a personality to the logo. A bit like marketing, but less formal and more interactive.

The best option, in my opinion, appears to be the most risky, but is actually the least. Executives and moguls like to control every element possible, but that just creates a false world, always missing reality to one degree or another. Opening a forum to discuss a product line or service to comments from anyone and everyone may seem to lead to chaos, but in actual fact, it can generate support and respect. That is, if someone says something bitter about a company, that can be good whether or not it’s true. If it’s true, the company will have to deal with the problem, which is always better to do before a problem grows. And if the charge is not true? The truth has a way of coming out, and the blogosphere is remarkably quick to ferret out phoneys. Also, in such a condition, the host company will gain the advantage of showing a more open forum than its competition, so that the complaints and bitterness from some will make the compliments and praise more genuine in appearance. Also, true interaction will allow for development in marketing, in troubleshooting, and in strategic goals. Ford and GM lost out in the 1970s, because they did not realize the demand for efficient cars was so strong. With a blog forum, they would learn sooner and correct their course to better effect.

Companies can also educate with blogs. The simple fact is, most people go to blogs for a different reason than to a website. A company can package its ideas differently for a blog, and if an executive is ready for challenges, he can make gains every day he’s online. Then there’s the Human Resources aspect. Earlier in the article, I mentioned the need for companies to set limits and expectations for their employees blogging about the company, but there’s another goal to win here. Everybody knows how hard it is, to get a company’s attention when you’re job-hunting, but the opposite is also true: Companies go nuts trying to find qualified applicants for positions they need to fill. The sad truth is, many applicants can’t do the job, even if their resume promises they can, and other candidates just don’t gel into the team. With a company blog about the company and its work, executives can speak online with all sorts of people, and when someone proves to be knowledgeable and articulate, as well as interested in the company, a blog conversation can serve as the first interview, and both parties win.

The next element is expanding services. Back in the 1950s, companies discovered it was possible to develop video telephones. The question then was feasibility, which came about by 1978. The trouble is, there was no market for a video phone. No one really wanted someone to see them when they called, and the phone evolved for purposes largely confined to conversation. This is how hands-free phones developed, after all; by learning what people really wanted, and then delivering that product. For those who wanted to see their conversation partner, the web cam was developed, which worked because of the nature and habits of computer users. It all keys off listening to people, and providing a service or product that has a real demand. Blogs can be invaluable for that, not only in developing desired products, but also in not wasting money for something which will never sell.

Also, there is brand loyalty to consider. Ever wonder why Google has a free web search engine? Why is Blogger free? Why are Beta products free to try out? The answer, at least in part, is because these companies want you to get comfortable with them, so that later, when you’re choosing software, maybe also hardware, you may see their name on a product, and remember how comfortable you were with their work already. People usually buy books by authors they know, they buy food products from companies they recognize, and yes, they will buy from software and service companies they already trust. Instant Messaging is going to evolve, as are Music storage and player systems, and memory chips, and advanced versions of e-mails. The Internet market is just getting up to speed, and so on. How will you decide who gets your money and attention? Blogs will help you decide, as there are literally millions of analysts waiting to tell you why the new product or service is or is not worth your time and interest.

In 1975, no one had ever heard of Microsoft or Bill Gates. And believe it or not, that may be true again in 2015. Bill is smart enough, but he bet on Old Media, the same way IBM did in the late 1970s, and now he’s chasing the leaders. If he catches up, he’ll do it by redirecting Microsoft’s strategy, but that’s already the game plan at Dell, Sun, and Google.

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