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Wrangling the Blogosphere

  |  May 14, 2004   |  Comments

Bloggers' influence is rising. What can marketers do about it?

At lunch the other day, a PR person from one of the major portals asked my colleague and me a question: How important did we think blogs were?

Until she made that query, I don't think I'd realized how important blogs had become to my everyday routine. I may be hovering at the edge of addiction, but I check my RSS aggregator -- for blogs and news stories -- literally hundreds of times a day.

Besides writing columns, I manage breaking news for ClickZ, so I may be an exceptional case. Still, that's part of the point. It may be only 2 to 7 percent of the Internet population is blogging, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Still, that's anywhere from 4 million to nearly 9 million Americans. The same study found 11 percent of Internet users have read the blogs or diaries of other users.

Folks like me -- journalists whose job is to find news, investigate, and shout it to the world -- are probably over-represented among that 11 percent. Something may start quietly, but an idea with any resonance will soon begin to echo throughout the blogosphere and perhaps eventually reach the mainstream media.

"Influencers really matter," Pete Blackshaw, CMO at Intelliseek, told me. "The whole notion that there are outspoken, expressive, highly viral experts who offer a highly credible point of view should be a really important part of the marketing equation."

Blackshaw points out blog entries such as product reviews, comments on products or services, and rants against brands frequently show up on search engines when people look for product information. Blackshaw's own blog rant about his disappointment with his hybrid car's mileage ended up in a Wired News story. It's currently ranked third in a Google search for "hybrid car mileage."

"Word of mouth is a form of advertising, it's a form of media," Blackshaw said. "This media is getting in front of consumers at these inflection points where they are unsure about how they feel about a product."

The Big Picture

I'd called Blackshaw to chat about his company's new Web site, BlogPulse, which offers tools to measure and rank buzz about memes traveling through the blogosphere. A visit to sites such as BlogPulse should be a marketer's first step. Figure out how your brand or site is coming up (if it is) on blogs. Determine what blogs are most important. Following are some tools to facilitate that research:

  • BlogPulse. The site comes up with its data by performing full-text searches of "more than a million" blogs daily. It offers a search engine along with lists of top links, key people, and key phrases. It also lets you perform trend graphing of search terms to see how a certain word or phrase is gaining or losing currency.

  • Technorati. Technorati is mostly a search engine, but the search results can be very enlightening. Search for your brand name or Web site, and you get a list of blogs in which that name was mentioned or the site linked to. You can then sort by freshness of link or post or by "source authority." Sources are ranked by the number of blogs and number of individual posts that link to them. University of Washington digital media professor Kathy Gill, in a paper (PDF) on the influence of blogs, compares such a ranking system to the way academics count citations of papers. Feedster also offers search.

    The other great thing Technorati and Feedster offer is customized RSS feeds. I created a feed that automatically updates whenever any blog links to ClickZ. You could do that for a brand name, a product name, or any page on your Web site. The custom feeds can, of course, be read in any RSS aggregator, be it NewsGator, Bloglines, Kinja, or Yahoo

  • Daily blog listings. Blogdex, Daypop, and Popdex offer similar search tools, but they're better known for lists of the day's top blogs or blog topics. Blogosphere.us offers top 100 lists of keywords, sites, blogs, and news sites.

  • BlogStreet. This site can help marketers assess the popularity and standing of any particular blog and tap into the blogs to which it links. It has a very cool "Visual Neighborhood" feature that shows which blogs interlink with one another.

  • Google Toolbar or A9 Toolbar. The Google Toolbar lets you see the PageRank of each blog. The A9 Toolbar, which gets its data from Alexa, provides traffic data. Both can help you to assess any blog's relative influence.

Handling News

Once you've used the above tools to determine if a given blog is important and influential enough to command your attention as a marketer, it's time to make your move.

If you, like that portal PR person, want to correct factual errors in danger of spreading, you shouldn't have a problem.

"You take that first step and contact them in a very nonconfrontational way," advises Steve Rubel, VP of client services at CooperKatz & Company. "You have to keep in mind that anything you say in email can go right on the Web in five seconds. You have to take a very positive, conversational tone with them."

Intelliseek's Blackshaw notes a sort of informal peer review process takes place in the blogosphere. People are eager to dispel false rumors. "Blog writers not only like to be the one carrying the big megaphone, but they also like to be the first to correct the misconception with the truth," he observes.

Getting bloggers to say good things about your company or products may be a little more difficult. It helps to understand blogger psychology.

First, as über-blogger Robert Scoble says, bloggers are passionate. "The one common thing I've noticed about bloggers, whether they are writing about quilting, politics, or technology, is that they are passionate. So are the readers. It's a passion chamber," Scoble wrote on (where else?) his blog.

Second, they're often driven by ego, competition, and a desire for recognition.

"What's interesting about blog writers is that there's a lot of emotional gratification going on here. There's an emotional gratification to be heard and also to be validated once you've expressed your opinion," said Blackshaw. "This is an important thing for marketers understand."

That means an approach from your company that offers exclusive, early information would likely be welcomed. A recent Blog Search Engine poll of 610 bloggers found 74 percent of bloggers are open to receiving information from companies and organizations, though 91 percent have never been approached. As with any PR effort, understand you can't control what bloggers say. Their brutal honesty is what appeals to their readers, after all.

Google adopted this approach as it began wider distribution of its Gmail service. After employees, select individuals, and journalists got accounts, the company offered sign-ups to longtime, active users of its Blogger service. Then, those bloggers were permitted to invite their friends to join. People aren't writing only good things about Gmail, but there's still a cachet to having an account (as evidenced by the accounts for sale on eBay).

This isn't a short answer to my PR contact's question, but I hope it's a thorough and helpful one. Let me know about your experiences working with blogs and bloggers.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pamela Parker

Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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