Embrace the Blogosphere

The noise level in the blogosphere is rising quickly these days. Consider an interesting statistic from a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study: in November 2004, roughly 27 percent of online adults in the U.S. U.S. read blogs, compared to 17 percent in a February 2004 survey.

This is a significant growth trajectory.

Although most blogs are personal, many feature a new category of influencers: savvy consumers with feedback about large brands, ranging from expressions of brand love to rants on the latest product recall. Smart marketers, particularly those selling high-involvement products and services, are trying to figure out what to do about this new medium. Do they develop an early-mover strategy to proactively reach consumers? Or do they develop a defensive strategy, so they’re prepared if the buzz takes a turn for the worse?

The danger is clear. If businesses don’t create their own conversation forum, their brands, products, services, and reputations might be co-opted by others. By telling their side of the story, business can proactively shape preferences and preserve customer loyalty. In its absence, mayhem ensues. One of “The Cluetrain Manifesto‘s” quintessential rules is shaping a consumer’s conversation is critical; if a brand doesn’t meaningfully contribute, marketers lose control.

Great brands actively involve users beyond just the purchase. The best brands extend their products into the consumer’s lifestyle. Consider Harley-Davidson and its Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.). Think of Apple’s iPod and iTunes; a physical product and a service comprise a total experience that’s grown into a thriving community of enthusiasts. Today, people profess their “iPod love” by posting and sharing their play lists, discussing their iPod experiences on blogs, even taking pictures of themselves with their iPods to post online. Third-party brand love testimonials like these are very powerful.

A blog can also quickly become an angry cesspool of misinformation. It’s a tricky medium. To be credible, it must be raw and real. This introduces significant risk for marketers. If you want to control the message, buy an ad. If you want to have a rich (but risky) dialogue, consider a blog.

Our company is grappling with some of these questions. We use email to internally discuss exceptional experiences we see online. We’re Internet evangelists and generally highly opinionated, so we have lively debates that often produce stunning insights and hysterical commentary. People tear online experiences apart, compare them to the competition, and suggest areas for improvement.

As the dialogue is iterative and many diverse viewpoints are reflected in the conversation, we quickly develop a very well-rounded perspective. We’ve been thinking about turning this conversation inside out and making it visible to clients, prospects, and candidates. It would give them a very good sense of who we are and how we think.

This raises a lot of questions for us, as it would for any company. Most postings, but not all, are insightful. A few are politically incorrect. Should we control who posts? Should all posts be public? If so, do we need an editorial board to review them? If we edit the postings, does the forum lose its credibility and honesty? Should people outside the company be allowed to post? Can people post anonymously? What if someone inside the company critically reviews a prospective client’s online experience? Is there any liability?

If the purpose of the blog is a free, open, and candid exchange of opinions, then it probably shouldn’t be heavily edited or censored. We have to ask ourselves whether the benefit of showing how we think outweighs the risk to our brand. Remember the early days of F*&@#edCompany, when every move was a matter of public record? Who wants to return to that? (I’m interested in your opinions on public corporate blogs, so please write in.)

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) is in the process of writing an ethics document addressing some of these questions and hopefully to provide helpful guidelines for the industry to follow. In the meantime, as you start to explore the blogosphere as a marketing medium, here are three things to consider:

  • Monitor. It’s a no-brainer, but monitor the blogosphere to stay on top of public opinion about your brand, product, service, and competition. Start with highly regarded (and trafficked) blogs like Engadget and Boing Boing.

  • Advertise: Consider advertising on blogs. BURST! Media recently announced it’s selling ad space on several dozen blogs.
  • Author/sponsor: Consider creating a blog to help engage prospects in conversations about your brand or product, disseminate product information, and share customer service tips. You can author it yourself or sponsor a blogger who already covers the category. Remember to syndicate the blog to maximize visibility. If you secure a high level of readership, you can sell ad space and use the proceeds to fund the initiative.

The blogosphere is new and unproven in the marketing mix, but its influence is growing quickly. There are several hundred million highly opinionated, wired people around the world who want to share their thoughts. Now, they can. Some very confident marketers will embrace blogs as a way of engaging in, or enabling, a direct (and public) dialogue with customers and between customers. For many, this is too risky a proposition.

Blogs will also provide a new media choice for media buyers as networks aggregate blogs into meaningful media buys. Get started. Google your brand, and see what people have to say about you.

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