Google, Adobe, and Intuit's Mint.com demonstrate that corporate blogs can thrive.
Corporate blogs are alive and thriving, yet require nurturing to avoid becoming irrelevant and obsolete. Care is needed to ensure they complement, rather than compete, with an organization's initiatives on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks.
"I'm a big believer in a blog publishing platform... It offers direct communication, a one-to-one reach to your current customers, to people who know nothing about you, to your critics. It's a way to establish your digital persona," says Karen Wickre, senior manager, corporate communications, at Google. The company has 150 blogs that attract a total of 10 million unique users each month.
One in three companies in the United States has a corporate blog, according to an eMarketer report. The consultancy estimates that proportion will increase to 43 percent by 2012.
Google, Adobe, and Intuit's Mint.com are examples of companies that remain committed to corporate blogs, demonstrating they are an effective way to connect with customers, promote an exchange of ideas and information, and bring visibility to valued employees and their good work.
Don't look for a one-size-fits-all approach to corporate blogging. That was a key takeaway from a panel discussion at ClickZ BlogworkZ forum in San Francisco last month featuring Wickre; Rachel Luxemburg, group manager, community, at Adobe; and Lee Sherman, editor-in-chief, personal finance group, Intuit.
Let's examine their different approaches:
Google: Team-Driven Approach to Blogging
"We teach a man to fish," Wickre says, explaining the Google corporate communications team's approach to supporting company blogs. She declines to describe her job as managing an army of bloggers. "Inspire them" is what she prefers to say.
When someone at Google wants to start a blog, more than one employee must agree to participate and the topic area must be approved in advance. Once permission is granted, the PR team shares best practices and style guides with the bloggers, builds a template, and adds analytics to the blog. Pre-launch, contributors are asked to do a trial run. (Google does not employ full-time bloggers; bloggers are employees with full-time jobs elsewhere in the company.)
So what makes a good blog post? "Some people at Google say it's about the news announcement. I politely disagree. If it sticks to the news, it's going to read like a wire feed," Wickre says. Instead, blogs are a good place to discuss complex products or provide detailed information about widely used services such as Gmail.
"Email overload? Try Priority Inbox," reads the breezy, yet informative title of an August 30 post on the Official Gmail Blog. In the post, Google software engineer Doug Aberdeen describes how a new e-mail filter promises to identify the importance of a message in a person's Gmail inbox. The 392-word post is also accompanied by a 1:54 video, posted on Google's YouTube, and an image showing how the feature works.
Google, like other businesses, is figuring out how to best tap Twitter and other social networks. "Almost every tweet from us will have a link referencing some other piece of information that's more detailed than 140 characters," Wickre says. Google's 100 Twitter accounts range from @google, which features company news and has 2.4 million followers, to @googleapis, which features information about Google APIs and has 6,400 followers.
More recently, Google has ventured onto Facebook, setting up business pages for Google Translate and Google Maps.
Wickre discusses other best practices in this video interview with me.
MintLife Blog: Following the Money
"Know your money. Live your life," reads MintLife's tagline. And the personal finance website lives up to that credo with blog posts headlined, "When Are Credit Card Rewards Worth It?" and "Dining on a Dime: Half-Off Meals and Other Deals."
With practical articles like that, MintLife Editor-in-Chief Lee Sherman runs the blog much like a consumer publication competing with SmartMoney and Money magazines.
He and MintLife's managing editor assign freelance journalists to report and write personal finance articles published on the blog and partners provide other contributions. In total, MintLife publishes three articles a day.
MintLife publishes an occasional post when there's a new product feature at its sister site, Mint.com, an online service designed to help consumers better manage their finances. "Mint users, like Google's, are loyal. They want to hear about the product," Sherman said. These promotional posts appear less than once a month.
MintLife provides a cost effective way for Mint.com to acquire new customers, Sherman says. Mint's customer acquisition cost on the MintLife blog is $1.50 and on Mint.com, it's $3.
Sherman discusses other best practices in this video interview with me.
Adobe: Blogging With Creative Energy
At Adobe, like Google, scores of employees blog.
Eleven "featured" blogs are corporate or product blogs such as Flash Platform, InDesign, and Omniture; another 10 are "evangelist" blogs featuring contributions by product managers. These are changed depending on a blog's popularity and company initiatives.
A total of 324 Adobe blogs can be found on this roster, although some have been retired and others just launched.
Unlike Google, Adobe has more flexible blogging arrangements. One person can take ownership of a blog, like "John Nack on Adobe," principal product manager, Adobe Photoshop, bringing a voice and personality to the posts.
A look at Nack's blog shows that he covers just about anything involving visual imagery. In one post, he'll marvel about a fascinating video; in another, he'll recommend another company's product - like Alien Skin’s Bokeh 2.0 image control filter.
While Adobe has guidelines for its blogs, they tend not to be overly restrictive. "The rules are obvious: don't violate NDAs [non-disclosure agreements], don't be obnoxious, don't pick fights. Be a good corporate citizen," Adobe's Rachel Luxemburg says of corporate blogging guidelines.
Guidelines or no guidelines, bloggers can still end up in the hot seat. In one notable example, an Adobe blogger challenged Apple's software developer license agreement for the iPhone 4.0 earlier this year. Contending that Apple was using software developers as "pawns in their crusade against Adobe," he ended his post with these fighting words: "Go screw yourself Apple."*
Internally, Adobe executives debated whether to remove the post. Instead, the blogger was told to "make a minor change" to the blog, Luxemberg says. The blogger also added a disclaimer stating that his opinions were not the official views of the company and were entirely his own. "To purge it, it would have been worst. You need to own up to your words," Luxemberg said.
Luxemberg discusses other best practices in this video.
Best Practices for Guiding an Army of Corporate Bloggers
Best practices for corporate blogs include:
Be conversational.That means avoiding "corporate speak." For instance, Wickre's watch list includes words and phrases: innovative, exciting, unique, we're proud to announce, or here at Google…"
Own up to errors. If there's an error in a post, correct it and let readers know what was updated.
Avoid removing posts. Remember, once on the Web, always on the Web. If you delete a controversial post after it's published, you may spend more time explaining why you killed it. Consider creating a system for reviewing posts before publication.
Shutter inactive blogs. Keep the content online, but note that the blog will no longer be updated. Consider referring website visitors to other relevant content.
Share analytics with bloggers. Let contributors know how many unique visitors saw their post or provide other metrics so they can gauge their performance. Wickre, for one, looks forward to when tools permit better analysis across social networks.
Support your corporate bloggers. Someone must be a champion for corporate bloggers. Whether that person has the title of editor-in-chief, corporate communications manager, or community manager, the position requires the chops of an old-fashioned newspaper or magazine editor and the intuition of a new-media guru.
*This column has been updated. This quote in the original version had a typo.
Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.
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