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Corporate Blogging: Great Liberator or Oxymoron?

  |  August 8, 2006   |  Comments

Corporate blogging gets a road map.

Lest I start to sound like a worn-out record, I vowed this year to exercise self-regulation and constraint in writing about blogs.

After all, my firm butters its bread by measuring blogs and other forms of consumer-generated media (CGM). Sometimes, I feel like a windup doll in meetings with clients, CEOs, and others, talking about the pros and cons of the blogosphere. Moreover, I've already spilled plenty of ink so far on the topic, including perhaps my most popular ClickZ column (measured by blog links and "Google Juice"), "Irrational Blogguberance."

Still, there are always new things to learn, case studies to absorb, and impressive best practices to codify and tack on our foreheads. Which leads me to note there's new book hitting the shelves this month by online marketing consultant and blogger (and former ClickZ columnist) Debbie Weil that neatly consolidates what every marketer needs to know about corporate blogging.

There's nothing terribly novel or catchy about the title, "The Corporate Blogging Book," but this speaks volumes about the book's straight-to-the-point practicality and usefulness. At a time when there's no short supply of soul searching about the "big questions" around the world-is-flat, everything-is-participatory Web 2.0 culture, Weil's book is tight, practical, and smartly focused on the common, sometimes nagging questions we're all asking about corporate or brand blogging. Additionally, the book's organization (especially the table of contents) is so "add water and stir" that you can use it as a face-saving cheat sheet when your manager (or CEO) zips that one-page memo across your desk that reads, "We need a blog strategy -- RIGHT NOW!"

Foundations in Credibility and Authenticity

I first met Weil in early 2005 at the Seattle-based Business Blog Summit. Like Robert Scoble, she projects both authenticity and humility. This comes across in her blog as well. She's a great listener and reluctant to over-preach blog dogma or must-haves until she's absorbed lots of content and conversations about the topic.

As that she's done. With Bob Lutz of GM's FastLane Blog (who penned the introduction) and the blog leaders at HP, Stonyfield Farms, Microsoft, Sprint, and beyond, she's conducted an impressive audit and inventory of corporate-world best practices. And though her bullishness about corporate blogging is as transparent as plastic wrap, Weil wisely, and responsibly, fires plenty of warning shots about blogging's downsides, pitfalls, and liabilities.

Although I can't decide whether to thank or curse her for introducing more buzz phrases into our buzz-stuffed vocabulary (e.g., "return on blog" (ROB)), it's worth noting Weil dedicates ample, critically important attention to a few key issues every brand really needs to think through, among them: "Should the CEO Blog?" (Chapter 6), and "Making the Case for Blogging to Your Boss" (Chapter 9).

The latter in particular is an exercise that bears not only on blog strategy but also on more fundamental cultural change in the organization. She shares quite a few thoughts about dealing with legal, includes a host of hugely practical corporate blogging guidelines at the end, including the excellent guidelines by Forrester's Charlene Li.

Role of Internal Blogs

Far more than other blog experts, Weil makes a very compelling case for internal blogs, often as a precursor to external blogs. She clearly did plenty of homework with companies such as HP, Microsoft, Sun, and IBM to make her case. "Internal blogs -- for improved collaboration and communication -- are the first, largely silent wave of corporate blogging," she writes.

I generally agree, especially for more conservative companies. There's clearly something to be said for nurturing conversational confidence in a safe environment. Of course, the biggest miss with internal blogs is that incredible rush one feels when searching Google, Technorati, or BlogPulse for the presence of your blog commentary or criticism by others. It's just not the same searching within the corporate firewall.

Gaps and Opportunities

My biggest issue with Weil's book is one I continue to hit hard in most of these columns: talk about blog conversation is divorced from the operational conversation. Though corporate blogs can serve as a powerful catalyst of organizational change, perhaps triggering a domino effect across other conversational touch points, they simply can't be credible in a vacuum.

Whenever I'm asked whether a company should blog, my answer is simple: "Look in the mirror, or call your toll-free number." Indeed, though Weil gets it right about the power and importance of authenticity, she misses some key opportunities to discuss the conspicuous disconnects between a corporate blog's "come talk to me" welcome mat and the typical customer service department's unmistakably grim "don't talk to me" sign.

It's just not enough to highlight brands like Intuit, which leverages the Quickbooks blog to provide a "blend of customer service and useful tidbits of information." The harder question is how well Intuit's base listening operation synchs up with the aims, aspirations, and lofty rhetoric of the corporate blog. Consistency and credibility go hand in hand.

Indeed, what are powering the most viral discussions today on the Web aren't corporate blogs, but horrific failed conversations with consumers via customer service, contact us, or other listening pipes. Consumers are already initiating conversations, but many of us have left the phone on the hook while we dress up our blog strategy.

Dell figured that out the hard way with the infamous Jeff Jarvis incident, but interestingly the experience appears to have catalyzed an important brand breakthrough. Because the brand has fully internalized the critical connection between bad service and negative buzz and the power of influencers in shaping CGM, it now has one of the most interesting and promising corporate blogs, Direct2Dell.

There's no question Dell is using its blog to tackle core pain points that contributed to viral embarrassment. It's already reaping encouraging "conversational dividends." Weil doesn't discuss the Jarvis incident, but there's no question his Google-stuffing action reset the playbook on building corporate blogs based on a deeper appreciation of the symbiotic relationship between customer service and conversations.

Final Thoughts

Weil offers a few thoughts at the end on the "future of authenticity," but she doesn't go very far on the point. If another book is to be written, this topic needs to be thoroughly vetted. As corporate blogs flood the market under the guise of authenticity and as every department within the corporation sees value in entering the conversation, we risk not only deceiving ourselves about what's truly real or authentic but, more important, confusing or alienating our consumers. We're already seeing this with word-of-mouth marketing. Carefully metering and measuring perceptions around our blog initiatives is paramount.

In the end, we're all trying to come across as more trusted and credible -- or at least on parity with how consumers trust one another. In the process, we're raising the bar of expectations. Expectations in the age of consumer cynicism and control are hard to meet.

Weil's book won't guarantee success or trust, but if you take the highway, or even a country lane, into the blogosphere, you can't go wrong with a good road map.

Meet Pete at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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