Adriana has participated in a BBC Radio 4 discussion about the use of blogs for businesses and how it is part of the way New Media is challenging entire business models.
If you are curious what blogs mean to the commercial world… or just want to hear what a great sounding voice Adriana has, you can listen to her here (requires Real Audio Player).
WebProNews.com author Shel Holtz misses the whole ‘blog thing’ on several levels with the following remarks:
Study participants-selected because they weren’t blog readers but were otherwise web-savvy-were taken to the blog and asked to react. Most didn’t know they were looking at a blog at all and were surprised and confused when told they were. Many said they would expect a blog to indicate clearly that it’s a blog. (As I look around the PR blogs I read, few use the word “blog” prominently in their titles, subheads, or other identifiers.)
Well Shel, that is because it really does not matter in the slightest if a person reading a blog knows they are reading ‘a blog’ rather than ‘a website’. Frankly in a few years I expect we may stop using the term ‘blog’ in any case, not because blogs have vanished from the world wide web but rather because what we now call blogs will pretty much be the world wide web.
Also, the article says “Most participants couldn’t figure out how to navigate around the blog”. Far be it from me to question the aptitude of the people behind the Catalyst Group Design study quoted but are they seriously saying that test subjects could not scroll down a page? What does one make of that?
Oh, and yes, I suspect within the next few years blogs are indeed going to put rather a lot of PR people out of a job, namely the ones who do not ‘get’ blogging and the implications of new media. Sorry Shel.
Did you miss us? The folks at tBBC have been away, scattered to the four corners of the earth on.... shock horror… holiday! Still, with the terrible events of a few days ago here in London, methinks we picked a good time to be out of town.
But upon return it was interesting to see a lot of blog related news in the media. Obviously the UK political and commentary blogosphere went crazy in the aftermath of the terrorist atrocity but this item also caught my eye on Market Watch called Newspapers urged to be blog-friendly:
“Up until 2000, newspapers regarded Internet media as a ‘pet,’ and would not mind much even if they share some news articles with portals,” said the Korean Press Foundation. “Today, the pet has grown up to be a tiger that eats up much of newspapers’ power in both revenues and impact,” the researchers said, according to the Taipei Times.
Indeed, but in truth there are a few newspapers out there who are treating this as an opportunity as well as a threat. It may not appeal to me politically but the Guardian has been quite enlightened regarding blogs and new media generally and as a result has positioned itself very well as one of a small number of global rather than just national ‘papers of record’. Now if only they would start adopting blog style best practices regarding external linking…
Just as with RSS syndication, it is a sign that things have taken hold when the non-technical mainstream media start writing about innovations which were once the preserve of hardcore techno-geeks. Podcasting is the latest ‘next thing’ to get noticed in such places as the Wall Street Journal.
Podcasts are yet another of those emergent activities that spring out of nowhere with very little warning. Much like blogging, no one ever sat down in a corporate office and thought up podcasting, the component technologies were there and it just ‘happened’. It is just another way in which the internet is both enabling and disintermediating. It also shows that merely analysing the technologies is a pretty ineffective way of seeing what is coming down the road: a high proportion of mainsteam analysis of the internet is rather like studying how cars work and then expecting to understand where people are going to drive and why. Podcasting, like blogging, are made possible by technological developments but they are not ‘technologies’ themselves so much as social phenomenon. This is also probably why IT consultants are usually the last people to understand developments like these because you cannot understand how such innovations come about by just looking at underlying technology.
I have thought for some time that when Adriana does her presentations to various conferences, we should be podcasting her remarks for people who cannot attend. But even though we do this sort of thing for a living, even we have difficulty actually finding the time implement it all some times!
Podcasts from tBBC, coming soon
As we have been predicting for some time, RSS syndication is heading out of the techno-geek ghetto and cruising into the mainstream. Microsoft will be building it into their next operating system (codenamed Longhorn) and version 7 of its browser Internet Explorer (out this summer) will be following rival Firefox by incorporating easy syndication functionality. Perhaps even more importantly, the merits of on-line syndication as a way of ‘creating your own newspaper’ are appearing in the non-technical media.
Syndication is one of those things that may appear to be just a small feature until you realise that things which enhances network effects usually have an impact far greater than expected. RSS is almost certainly going to be one of those things.
Last night a Geek Dinner was held in London at the ‘Texas Embassy’ at Trafalgar Square, attended by over 200 people and with the guest of honour being none other than Microsoft’s A-list blogger, Robert Scoble.
After everyone had gorged on Tex-Mex food, he talked about how blogging has significantly changed the way that Microsoft develops its products by giving their people the ability to explain what they are trying to do and quickly get useful feedback from users. He also described how Microsoft’s ‘chain of command’ protected MS in-house bloggers from undue pressures from vested interests in the company, enabling people like Scoble and others to become very credible sources and thereby putting a human face on the corporate leviathan from Redmond.
All in all, an interesting event.
It is always gratifying to see level headed articles about blogs in the mainstream media that neither hype them absurdly nor dismiss them as irrelevant. John Naughton has a well through out article in the Guardian (who it must be said have always been the most blog-aware newspaper in the world) that injects a great deal of common sense into the discussion of the subject.
Update by Adriana: Speaking of mainstream media, The Sunday Times has a mildly informed article about blogging - Golden rules for blogging clever.
Yes, blogs are the tool used to enable what is nothing less than an bottom up ‘emergent revolution’ that will shake the very core of the advertising and PR industries (not to mention politics). That does not mean that bloggers are revolutionaries, just that that a consequence of what blogs enable (an explosion of information and, more importantly, insights on-line), the way people perceive businesses, amongst other things, is going to change compared to a just a short years ago when mass media was the only way the vast majority of people received the information upon which they based their decisions.
Of course many (perhaps even most) bloggers are not motivated by a wish to revolutionise anything and many are just using blogs as a way to follow old advertising supported publishing models, clueless about the broader impact of the tools they are using. In fact, some professional bloggers are pouring scorn on the whole notion of blogs being revolutionary, perhaps intending to generate traffic driving attention to their blogs, knowing that their message of ‘blogs-are-no-big-deal’ will be joyously received by the many journalists who are starting to get an inkling that their entire professions is in danger of being dis-intermediated out of existence over the next ten years or so.
Yet the irony is that regardless of the fact a few pro-bloggers are using their blogs in decidedly non-trail blazing ways and babbling about the usual site traffic metrics (well they would do as that is the basis upon which they flog their ability to show advertisements), they are, perhaps even unwillingly, helping to propagate awareness that the internet really does change everything. The real interesting stuff is not mere advertising but the fact blogs, or more accurately ‘internet version 2.0’, is going to give top down marketing, PR and many notions of branding a kick up the arse comparable to what followed Johannes Gutenberg in 1455. The people who cannot look beyond the direct monetization of blogs (i.e. advertisements) are welcome to keep saying “what’s the big deal?” because in truth advertising supported blogging really is no big deal… frankly the knowledgeable commentators talking up the revolutionary potential of blogging were never talking about those guys to begin with. The un-making of old style marketing and branding is just starting and so it is hardly surprising that many former journalists and marketers are unable to join the dots and see where this is all headed, even if some of them are helping the process along themselves. Like the Cluetrain said, the internet really does meant the end of business as usual, it will just take a while for people to figure that out.
American Attorney Bill Singer has set up a blog called Broke and Broker on which he writes in very ebullient bloggish style about issues of self regulation of financial markets in the USA. Mr. Singer’s get the tone just right and lays into people with what sure sounds like an ‘authentic voice’ to me… no mistaking this for part of some anodyne press release that has been carefully vetted to make it opinion-free:
Remember the old Westerns? The bad guys ride into town. Guns blazing. But the Sheriff doesn’t hear them and no one tells him. They blow up the bank’s vault. No one hears anything and the Sheriff doesn’t leave his office. They ride out of town with all the loot. About two years later, a few townsfolk mosey on down to the Sheriff’s office. They tell him about the robbery. The Sheriff quickly arms himself and puts together a posse. The posse goes to the saloon for several rounds of drink and a few cappuccinos (and some espressos --- a few folks order decaf)
Mr. Singer clearly needs no advice regarding his ‘blog voice’. His blog design on the other hand needs not just a beauty makeover but some significant surgery. That the articles are not easily permalink-able is a really major failing. In order to get the link to the article containing the rather splendid passage I quoted, I had to go to the archive page of this young blog and get the link from there. This is a mistake and if Bill Singer attracts the attention his interesting articles deserve, then it would be a great shame if his articles did not get linked to and thereby disseminated across the blogosphere as they deserve to be just because his blog’s design leaves much to be desired.
Often companies, institutions and would-be commentators approach setting up a blog as just an IT issue and once their splendidly designed blogs are created; they then haven’t a clue what to actually do with them. However methinks Bill Singer knows exactly what he wants to do, but oh do I just wish he would redesign his blog a bit so that more people would actually get to read what he has to say. There is a great deal more to engaging the blogosphere and the broader internet that putting out a press release on PRWeb. We often write about what makes a blog a blog and why that matters. The permalink lies at the very heart of what makes blogging so effective so please, make it easy to find!
It is better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt
- attributed to various folks
The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper more famous for what happens on page three than its news reporting, has an article on their website called Blogging for your votes written by Corinne Abrams. There are three pictures of young people representing the main parties and under each there is a link to view their ‘blogs’.
Click on one of the links and you get taken to a pop-up window rather like a non-interactive comment pop-up with a single scraggly bit of undated and unlinkable polemical text about their party and views… perhaps I am missing something (if so please set me right!) but that actually appears to be their “blog”!
Is that really what The Sun thinks a blog is? Given the amount written about blogs in the media these days and the number of journalists who have their own blogs, to drop such a clanger seems extraordinary. If ever there was an example of a company in desperate need of our services in order to show them how not to make complete pilchards of themselves…
This blog ‘only’ gets a few trackback spams per week but we are well aware that some folks have been getting hammered pretty hard by those parasitic vermin. The site Samizdata.net, of which I am chief editor, is a high volume site and thus attracts the spammers rather more regularly (as in about 2,600 trackback spams in the last 48 hours alone). Let me pass on a trick that makes using the various forms of Blacklist designed to keep the spammers at bay work more effectively.
If you get a couple trackbacks with ‘payload’ URLs of (say) ‘goatsex.poxyspammer.com’ and ‘texasholdem.bandwidththief.com’, you can of course enter those URLs into your blacklist and all future incidences of trackbacks with those URLs in them will be blocked. Alas, the vile spammers are rather too smart to make that effective, because next time their spambots are sent out to dump their garbage on your blog, the URL may look like: ‘goat-sex.poxyspammer.com’ and ‘texas-holdem.bandwidththief.com’ and next time ‘goatsex.peabrainspammer.ru’ and ‘texasholden.commoncriminal.pl’. So…
When adding to your blacklist, rather than adding the entire offending URL, add the data thusly (using the examples above):
That way just partial matches will trip over the blacklist and minor alterations to the payload URL will not let it avoid detection.
Spam is intolerable, so do not just delete it, fight back and defend your private property (i.e. your blog)! If you do not have anti-spam defences in place, you really must install them… the tools are available but you need to spend the time to learn how to use them effectively.
The Washington Times has a blog called simply Politics Blog that fulfils the bare basics for blog-hood: Reverse chronological order and permalinks to individual articles. It is even written in a suitably bloggy informal style and takes an irreverent look at issues from an unabashedly partisan perspective.
And yet Politics Blog is not really a good blog for quite technical reasons.
Firstly it does not provide readers with useful sidebar links. Secondly and more crucially, it seems to studiously avoid external links in the blog articles themselves. This is a major failing as the whole point of journalistic blogging is to establish ‘accessible credibility’ and the way you do that is by linking to external sources relating to the things you write about.
For example, in this article called Race Hypocrisy by John McCaslon, an organisation called Project 21 is mentioned as well as the fact that left-wing cartoonist Gary Trudeau referred to Condaleeza Rice as ‘Brown Sugar’. And yet Mr. McCaslon just seems to assume people will take his word that what he says about Project 21 and Gary Trudeau is correct because he does not add links to either Project 21 or the offending cartoon by Gary Trudeau.
There! See how easy that was? If you link to the things you discuss, people actually have some basis for judging the merits of your words and in the on-line commentaries of tomorrow, to write a critical article without external links as citations will start alarm bells ringing as to the soundness of your views. It it not enough to have a blog, you need to know how to blog.
Today I was a speaker at 7 Milbank, just across the street from Parliament, where the topic was blogging in the public and corporate sectors. The speakers were Richard Allan MP, who spoke on ‘e-Democracy in Parliament’, Tom Steinberg of MySociety who spoke on ‘e-Innovations in the public sector’, myself who spoke on ‘blogging in the corporate sector’ and Isobel Harding, who spoke about ‘civic leadership blogs in the US’ and also about the ReadMyDay project.
I was quite impressed by the speakers, all of whom grasped that what sets blogs apart from ‘internet version 1.0’ is the network effect of the blogosphere. Tom Steinberg repeated what has been our drum beat for quite some time regarding the importance of the seemingly trivial permalink and the emergent effect they produce.
It was nice not to be the lone voice crying in the wilderness on that issue for once
Flash sites are many things to many people… they are a way to avoid many of the irksome limitations of conventional web pages, something that is particularly galling to people whose background is in print design. And certainly Flash is indeed a splendid tool that delivers remarkable capabilities to artists.
And therein lies part of the problems: how many sites have you seen which looked absolutely marvelous, yet were a nightmare to navigate? Of course clunky sites can be found in HTML as well, but the graphic intensive nature of Flash sites seems to have the effect of making designers do things because they can, not because they are a good idea from a site navigation point of view. Freed from the constraints of HTML, designers tend to think they are also freed from following the conventions of web navigation (as in “Man, it could be so cool if you navigated by mousing over this image and..."). Wrong, wrong, wrong! When a person picks up a boo, in a western country at least, regardless of the content insider they expect the book to open like every other book they have read… just because you can make a book with two spines that opens in the middle does not mean you should make your book work that way. The ‘tyranny of custom’ might affront the web designer’s inner artist but web designers need to be constantly reminded that a web page is a ‘content delivery system’ and not an end in and of itself to show how clever the designer is. Now it might seem harsh to critisise Flash sites just because of the way people use it rather than any inherent defects of Flash itself. I actually think Flash is a splendid thing when used in moderation for banners and other design features, it is just 100% Flash sites I dislike.
However of course there are some serious problem with Flash that has nothing to do with incomprehensible navigation due to impenetrable designs… Firstly Flash sites tend to be slow and people hate waiting. Secondly not everyone uses Flash enabled browsers (sure, most do but by no means everyone). Thirdly and most importantly, the biggest flaw is that Flash sites might as well be invisible to Google and most other search engines, which is a huge disadvantage. In many ways this makes them the polar opposite of blogs because if blogs are ‘websites optimised for the network effect’ then Flash sites are websites which minimise the ability of people to find your content.
And seeing as networking content is what the internet is all about, that makes pure Flash sites… EVIL
So why are there so many pure Flash sites out there? Well my theory is that clients tend not to understand that the whole point of the internet is to use the network to diffuse their content in the best way possible, they see their website as a brochure not all that different to a printed one. As a result, the more visually attractive a site is, the better, right? Now do not think I have anything against good looking sites (and I modestly hold our site up as an example of an attractive non-Flash site), but in the end content rather than eye-candy is king.
Designers like to design and you can just do things in Flash that are much harder or impossible to do in HTML. So they create this wonderful all singing and dancing site and they are happy, the client is happy and the internet end user is… either absent because he could not find the site to begin with or annoyed because he cannot figure out how to navigate to the information he wants.
So please, do not do sites entirely in Flash. Use it for banners and nifty site enhancements by all means but treat it like Cognac: best taken in moderation.
That advertising professionals see pushing advertising at people as an inherently ‘good thing’ is hardly surprising. However I often think that whereas it is possible to measure the click-through and sales conversion rates from an on-line advert, how can you measure how many people are annoyed and antagonised by an unwanted advert that has been plopped in front of them? Obviously you cannot know if a person decides not to do business with you because they are annoyed by your intrusive advertising which is trying to distract them. Yet the notion that interruptive adverts are a net good (if you will excuse the pun) in pretty much all situations is accepted as an article of faith by most businesses. So much for the primacy of metrics, eh? Yet just because the irritation an advert might cause cannot be easily measured does not mean it does not therefore matter.
But it seems to me that yet again we need to remind ourselves that the job of an advertising agency is to sell advertising to companies, which is not quite the same thing as the company’s objective, which is to sell its products…
Which brings me to syndication and the bright idea to insert ‘contextual’ advertising into the RSS and Atom feeds. With the advent of a news aggregator built into Yahoo, syndication is starting to reach the mainstream. A certain amount of on-line advertising is tolerable and in some contexts adverts may even be welcomed, provided it is just banners or Google ads and not idiotic intrusive pop-ups or malware (the later of which is clearly quite literally criminal under EU data protection laws).
Yet stop for a moment and ask yourself why is it that many people use the various forms of XML syndication such as RSS or Atom. The reasons vary of course, but in a word, it is all about control. Power surfers like to be in control of what they see and where they will spend their valuable and finite eyeball time and news aggregators offer exactly that control, giving a lordly overview of their favourite sites which is spam and interruption marketing free.
And so how, exactly, do you think such a person will react to someone telling them that far from being in control of what advertising they will be subjected to, adverts will now be fed into the feeds they pull in regardless of their wishes?
Well let me tell you how I will react the first time I see an advert in an RSS feed I have flowing into my aggregator. A single word will do:
Of course in the long run this intrusion by the priests of push will just create a market for news aggregators which strip out the advert that the source of the feed has so ‘thoughtfully’ provided.
Are you old enough to remember the lyrics of that old Simon and Garfunkle song? It is not easy to satisfy people. And in some markets, it is damn near impossible.
The computer games market is ‘one of those’. All you have to do is hang out for a while in one of the many forums set up by games companies to discover as soon as your company announces it is planning to release a patch to improve things, you are reviled for not releasing it yesterday. If you release it promptly, you are criticised for not addressing ‘this’ and ‘that’ as well, but if you wait for that, you are screamed at for not waiting until pet peeve number 289 was also addressed. If the patch fixes the way the game plays, you are moaned at for ruining some favoured exploit, or for not ending that exploit which is ‘ruining the game’. And all of this in the sort of incoherent and intemperate language that only bad tempered teenage old boys are capable of. Moreover dissenting opinions are shouted down and discussions meander off-topic constantly. And yes, they really do think that their £29.99 game entitles them to several thousand man hours of personal tech support, personal player tips and weekly free downloadable new content… which is why I think games forums are a vastly overused tool.
One of the attractions of forums for a company is that on the face of it, they are inexpensive and self-perpetuating. You set them up and the punters just talk amongst themselves without you having to get yet another set of content providers on the company payroll.
Well, yes and no. Certainly a forum is a splendid way to take pressure of fa tech support department by allowing knowledgeable customers to provide free tech support answers to other customers. However I must say that I think ‘general discussion’ forums are more often than not really quite ghastly places where adolescents engage in baseless rumour mongering and peevish behaviour quite literally at company expense. To function well and not degenerate into a hateful stream of profanity, flame wars and racist taunts, you have to rigorously moderate any forum 24/7.
Forums are ostensibly about community building and I am all for that because what is a brand but a label for an affinity group of people who share an interest in a product? But is providing a sandbox which you have to carefully watch to prevent the kiddies killing each other really the best way for that affinity to express itself? The trouble is the once voice which often gets lost in the noise is so very often that of the company itself. There has to be a better way.
Feedback can be good, though it needs to be said that as with most things, there can indeed be too much of a good thing. Blogs can generate feedback when needed via comment sections and via trackbacks from external sites. Moreover, the quality of the feedback tends to be superior as the very format of blogs discourages digression, given that blogs are hierarchical in nature and therefore more focused on the article at the top of a qualitative hierarchy, whereas the more ‘democratic’ format of forums (particularly nested thread forums) actually encourage conversations to shoot off at irrelevant tangents.
The important thing here is not to provide a platform for people to sound off for the sake of reading their own pixels but rather to provide information and receive feedback focused on what the whole object of the exercise really is: building relationships between your company and customers. For a games company, a blog can provide a developer’s diary that gives authoritative information on releases, patches, workarounds and other information of interest to a gaming community in a format that is timely, informal and yet authoritative.
This can be highly complementary to a tech support forum and in many ways replace chaotic general discussion forums, with pre-publish moderated comments enabled on suitable blog articles to allow feedback when that is appropriate.
General gameplay and tactical forums certainly have a role but focusing more on what the company wants to say is more suited to a blog, because game playing customers really do want to hear things from ‘inside’, most notably those deities of the games world, the ‘Devs’ (game developers).
I get the impression many games companies set up a full raft of forums because that is ‘what everyone does’ rather than focusing on what they actually want to do (talk to customers) and what the customer wants (to get rumour-free and timely information ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’. What matters most when building a community is not setting up playgrounds but rather enabling interested customers to hear the authentic non-PR department filtered voice of a games company.
As an avid gamer, I know I do!Go back on the hippo's back...
We got hammered by trackback spammers over the weekend but we have the tools and techniques to fight them off and we do seem to have stemmed the flow. Most likely as more and more blogs set up hard to penetrate anti-spam defences for their comments (such as Turing tests or TypeKey), spammers are forced to resort to other tactics to keep their vile businesses afloat, such as generating trackbacks to their ghastly porn sites.
It is very important that blog administrators stay abreast of ‘best practice’ in the fight against spammers as this medium is far too valuable to allow it to be hijacked by a bunch of scammers, parasites, criminals and fraudsters (do you get the impression I do not like spammers?). Trackback is a very useful tool and fortunately with a bit of care it can be protected against misuses by malevolent third parties.
P.S. please let me know if there are any residual trackback ‘nasties’ let that I missed on any articles. I think I stomped them all but you never know!
Our blog has been rather quite lately for a very simple reason… the Big Blog Company’s band of intrepid bloggers have either been afflicted with whatever this nasty bug is that seems to be afflicting anyone within coughing distance of London… or have been in France on business.
But do not fear, we are all still (more or less) alive and shall be returning to the fray shortly.
Recently a centrally hosted blogging solutions provider called mBlog went ‘belly up’ without warning its users of their impending doom… thereby not even giving their hapless clients any time to back up their sites and move them elsewhere. Such behaviour is simply inexcusable as it is hard to believe that mBlog could not provide a lousy 24 hours warning that all was not well before shutting down its service. Whilst our clients (so far) have all been privately hosted rather than centrally hosted, it does as ever demonstrate the importance of choosing to do business with reliable people who actually think that reputation matters.
To add insult to injury, if I understand correctly it appears that mBlog was running unlicensed Movable Type software to power its blogs. All credit then to Six Apart, the company behind Movable Type, for proffering some good technical advice to mBlog’s marooned customers as to how they might recover their data and even offering them a discounted program to help them find a new home for their blogs.
Now that is the way to do business.
In January of 2002, I wrote an article called Bloggers: the birds on the Hippopotamus of Big Media’s back, which pointed out that comparing big media to bloggers was generally based on the mistaken notion that it was ‘bloggers vs. reporters’, whereas in reality political bloggers are not competing with reporters, they are competing with editorial columns. The pundit bloggers are not about telling people what has happened but rather what it means - ‘big media’ is the hippo and bloggers were the birds riding on its back.
At the time, people generally saw how bloggers benefited from ‘riding on the back’ of Big Media but it is now also clear that Big Media gets something in return from bloggers. The blogosphere drive considerable traffic to conventional media websites and a number of notable bloggers now regularly write for big media. The relationship is symbiotic, not parasitical.
A lot has happened in the last two and a half years since I wrote about that. The number of blogs has increased hugely and they have appeared in a vast number of different areas of interest. In 2002 I was writing about political punditry blogs (or ‘warblogs’ as many called themselves, a term now largely faded from use). New categories of blog appear every week: blawgs, biz blogs, k-logs, stripblogs, progblogs, moblogs, vogs (but do not let the whimsical jargon put you off)… and existing ones are now seen in nuanced sub-categories such as filters, essayist, advocacy blogs, etc… and now that businesses are starting to understand how blogging can help what they do, whole new types of blog are starting to appear, from the Calcanis and Denton model of blog-as-advertsing-channel as their raison d’etre, to blogs used as internal company communication systems, to ‘cluetrainesque’ blogs as a way for companies to express themselves to customers and industry peers in an ‘authentic voice’.
The later in particular are closer in both spirit and means to the political punditry blogs because blogs are, above all else, about authenticity and credibility: Blogs are not crafted by a PR department but are written in conversational language and constantly link to sources for whatever they are discussing. It would be no exaggeration to say that a blog used that way is a ‘credibility machine’.
For companies who actually ‘get’ the Cluetrain Manifesto thing (even if they have never heard of it), they realise that if the internet means ‘the end of business as usual’, then it means the unlamented death of PR as usual. For those companies which do not ‘get it’ and who just think blogs are ‘funny looking websites’, well I am sure they will never start blogging. And for companies who just like to jump on any bandwagon without really knowing why, I look forward to seeing them publicly impaling themselves on their shiny new blog once their PR and legal departments have got their hands on it and filled it up with turgid consultant-speak and gobbledygook. But done right, bloggers can indeed be the birds on the back on the big hippo of not just ‘big media’ but also business, big or otherwise.
Face it… the reason pundit blogging took off is that there are an awful lot of people out there, both writers and readers, who see what is offered to them by the mediasphere and their reaction is “What a load of utter bullshit! What they are saying does not reflect the world the way I see it!” The established media has a great deal less credibility than it thinks it does and that is why it is no coincidence that pundit blogging truly exploded as a phenomenon in the aftermath of September 11th 2001 as millions of people saw what the media was serving up as the received wisdom. CNN or Robert Fisk or the BBC or the New York Times could not hear millions of people cursing at their TV screens and newspapers… but guess what? If they care to listen they can certainly hear it now because hundreds of thousands of people are writing exactly what they think on the internet where the whole world can see it. If you think that does not matter, methinks Trent Lott and Dan Rather might beg to differ.
We live in an information-rich age in which what we want to know is the click of a mouse away. We also live in a media saturated age in which people have highly developed mental filters that interpret advertising and PR as noise rather than signal. Old style advertising has always been a hit and miss thing (the often quoted adage being “We know half of our advertising budget is wasted, we just don’t know which half") but increasingly with channel fragmentation and the advent of elective information pull (of which Google, XML syndication and blogs are manifestations) at the expense of interruptive information push (such as adverts on TV and in magazines), advertisng bang-for-the-buck is getting very questionable indeed. Why? Credibility. We trust information we find ourselves and that we can check against other sources far more than that which is ‘pushed’ at us in the form of “information from our sponsors”. In many industries, we are reaching the critical point on what is essentially a marketing version of the Laffer curve, where marketing and PR budgets consume more than they can hope to yeild in benefits, which means something has to give.
We know that it is a lie that changing our aftershave will make women lust after us; we know that not changing our phone for the latest one will not mean social death; we know that confidence does not come from using a certain deodorant; we know our bank does not really give damn about our welfare; we know the government is not there to look after us and that our tax money mostly just vanished down a bureaucratic black hole regardless of who you vote for. Moreover, we know that the people who make those claims to the contrary on the TV adverts and posters are not just wrong, they are barefaced liars who try to deceive us for a living. If we buy their products, it is in spite of the crap they throw at us, not because of it.
So if a company or institution really wants to be believed, they need to speak to us in a genuinely credible voice. The reason pundit blogs have become so popular is because even if you do not agree with what they are saying, you know that what they are saying really is what they think: it is not the product of focus groups, legal advisors and extensive editorial neutering. For a company to do the same requires the same ethos: say it the way you see it. Of course that does not mean a company blog should not have guidelines as to what is and is not appropriate as even very loosly edited political group blog like Samizdata.net has internal policies regarding what does or does fit the blog’s ‘house culture’.
Yet provided an employee does not defame anyone, reveal trade secrets or otherwise do something ill advised, just talking in a genuine human voice about what people really want to know works wonders. Macromedia have pioneered the use of ’product blogs’ in which people with true insider knowledge and expertise talk about their products ‘warts and all’ in ways that customers find both credible and genuinely useful: Macromedia customers read Macromedia blogs because they are offered value-for-value (valuable credible information for their valuable time). Microsoft has also come to the same conclusion and so now encourages some really excellent employee blogs… several hundred of them, in fact (but then MS never do anything by half). To put a credible human face on at least part of the corporate leviathan in Redmond is no small task but people like Robert Scoble manage to do precicely that with considerable success. If ever there were ‘blogging birds’ on the back of the ‘hippopotamus of big business’, surely Microsoft employee blogs are the quintiessential example!
There are already forward thinking people in PR, marketing and Brand Strategy who have seen this future and are rushing to be part of it and I expect to see a great many more new company blogs in the very near future, aimed at radically changing the how companies talk to their customers and industry peers. ‘Social Software’ has been much discussed lately and many people are trying to develop The Next Big Thing based on sundry applications of network theory, but at the moment the only true social software is the blog, because whilst there is lots of software out there trying to be friendly, the only functioning extended social network on the internet is the blogosphere. If you have something to say and you are willing to eschew marketing jargon and PR-speak, then plug and get connected.
Companies of the world, start blogging, you have nothing to lose but your bloated marketing budgets and a whole world to win.Go back on the hippo's back...
There are many annoying things about computing but one of those things that is most likely to reduce me to screaming at the monitor and firing up Google to hunt down the home addresses of certain programmers is rude software.
Yahoo is a particular offender. Download and install their Yahoo Instant Messenger (or better yet, do not) and you get, unasked for, an icon in the taskbar and two more in Internet Explorer, all without so much as a ‘by your leave’. Install the whole suite of Yahoo products and you get even more. This is ‘interruption marketing’ and contravenes the cardinal rule of ‘do not piss off the customer’. If I wanted the frigging icons taking up my screen real estate, I would have damn well asked for them. So if you find that as intolerable as I do, download Trillian and use Yahoo Instant Messenger’s services without actually having to sully your machine with Yahoo Instant Messenger. Hey Yahoo, my response to you trying to shove your products in front of me? Let’s try “Screw you, I am going to use your more congenial competitor”. I am willing to pay to be treated more to my liking.
The same ‘interruption’ ethos can be found all over the internet. The most extreme form is practiced (mostly by porn sites) via complete browser hijacking, persistent pop-up windows and the criminal practice of trying to covertly download diallers and other adware/malware onto your computer. Less extreme but more common are simple intermediate link hijacks. For example if you are a gamer, you might want to check out the well known site Gamespy for up to date news on the subject. But every now and again, you will find yourself confronted not with the Gamespy page whose link you just clicked but rather a bright green page with an advertisement that will eventually release you and send you to where you actually want to go on the site. No doubt Gamespy thinks hijacking some of your valuable eyeball time is a small price to pay for their well informed site.
No, I beg to differ. In fact not just “no” but “get stuffed” is my real reply. If you want to subject me to advertisements, bloody well ask me if I mind first. And my answer will be “No thanks, I mind very much”. Not an option? Fine, then I will take my eyeballs to Worthplaying.com, whose coverage of games is just as good and whose advertisements are far less intrusive.
If popup advertisements and link hijacks do not bother you, all well and good, you see things the way ‘they’ wish we all did. Speaking for myself, my time is far too valuable to waste on information I was not looking for. The internet is filled with many choices and that means there is no need to tolerate that sort of ‘push advertising’ approach. Internet advertising is cheap so the cost of indifference is far lower per pair of eyeballs than, say, a magazine advert. But that is not true if the advertisement has the opposite effect you want. If your company tried that on me, the consequences will be negative value for your money. Not only does interruptive advertising not work on me, it actively makes me your enemy and induces me to spend some of my valuable time to seek out alternative ways to achieve my objectives that will definitely not include you. And I am far from the only one who feels that way… your competitors are only a few clicks away.Go back on the hippo's back...