Is Macromedia’s new move to blogs as a communications vehicle an admission the “official story” is dead or just a cynical attempt to manipulate online opinion? For now, it seems to be much more the former than the latter.
For those of you who haven’t been following the news, Macromedia recently asked five of its already blogging employees to become “community managers.” John Dowdell, Mike Chambers, Matt Brown, Vernon Viehe, and Bob Tartar agreed and began blogging about Macromedia’s products. The response has been interesting, to say the least.
Until now, blogs (short for “Web logs”. See Seana Mulcahy’s excellent primer) have been the domain of somewhat narcissistic self-publishers who regaled the Web community with tales of their personal lives, opinions, and cool links by way of daily postings. Naturally, since blogs fulfilled human needs for voyeurism and self-expression, blogging has become a huge phenomenon, with hundreds of thousands of blogs published on a daily basis (see MIT’s blogdex for some good starter links). Blogs are intensely personal forms of expression; after reading someone’s blog for a while, you may feel that it connects you with the writer in a way not possible with any other medium.
It’s these qualities, the trend du jour hipster value, and the blog’s unspoken reputation for candor that appealed to Macromedia. Rather than create mini-sites on the company site where they could post tips and commentary about the products they work with, employees created spaces outside of Macromedia — spaces that would be instantly believable and useful to their legions of fans.
So far it’s worked.
Though the early Web community was often resistant to the “commercialization” of cyberspace, the blog community seems to be fairly accepting of these sites. Even blog luminary Dave Winer has praised the sites as being on the “leading edge” of the blog community, according to Wired News.
In the same article, Tom Hale, Macromedia’s VP of developer relations, said the marketplace will speak out if these blogs are perceived as crass commercialism: “My perception of the blogging community is that it’s self-policing, and if the blog isn’t valuable to you, don’t read it. And if it’s transparent, people won’t read it.”
He’s probably right. But the implications of this move for us marketers go much deeper than mere blogging.
Whether Macromedia knows it or not, what it’s done is merely institutionalize a trend that’s been building up in the consumer landscape for years, a trend that many commercial advertisers are loathe to address: that the Internet now makes it virtually impossible to create a unified “image” consumers will swallow. Sure, you can still create “brands” people can identify, but now, if that finely crafted brand image doesn’t match reality, you’re gonna be found out.
Your brand, as it stands on the Internet today, doesn’t stop with your “official” communications materials. All the press releases you send out, the painstakingly crafted emails, the expensive Web sites, and the ads don’t matter nearly as much as they used to now that your customers can talk to each other at the speed of light. All the work your corporate communications folks do can be brought down in a heartbeat if your disgruntled employees (or disgruntled customers) are instant messaging their friends all over the globe when things go bad. You don’t have to look far for evidence of that.
In a study done by Erdos & Morgan in 1999, only 10 percent of consumers surveyed indicated they can trust Internet advertising, a number that’s probably a lot lower now. Magazine advertising scored highest (44 percent), but still less than half of those surveyed indicated they believe advertising at all.
Why? Because besides becoming an increasingly cynical media-savvy culture, we’re also talking to each other like never before. Blogs are one part of that trend, but instant messaging, email, and the growth in SMS are the other parts (not to mention what goes on in chat rooms, on Usenet, and on the zillions of Internet bulletin boards). Sites such as Amazon.com and eBay have capitalized on this phenomenon, making consumer comments part of the experience in a way that just couldn’t be done off the Net. And now Macromedia’s taken things one step further with its blogging strategy.
Do we all need to look at this strategy? Not necessarily, but we need to recognize that our most effective spokespeople are those who are perceived as being trustworthy. Heavy-handed tactics such as spamming are ultimately doomed to failure because they destroy trust for the long term. The same goes for bait-and-switch pricing tactics, intrusive advertising models, and any other methods that don’t add value to the online experience. They might work once with the gullible, but in the long term people talk, and we might not like what they have to say.
The connected consumer has power like never before, and we as marketers have to recognize this. Bad products, shoddy service, and dishonest tactics will have a shorter shelf life than ever before. As the failure of many dot-coms showed us, it’s not brand recognition that wins in the end but long-term brand loyalty. Being deaf to what our customers are saying is the quickest route to failure.
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