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the big blog company | Art of blogging
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Art of blogging

So you have a blog... now what? The trick is to know what to do with it

Why There’s No Escaping the Blog
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It is worth mentioning here the Fortune article that list blogging among the top 10 trends of 2004/5 and says:

Freewheeling bloggers can boost your product—or destroy it. Either way, they’ve become a force business can’t afford to ignore.

Nice. These are the juiciest bits:

The blog—short for weblog—can indeed be, as Scoble and Gates say, fabulous for relationships. But it can also be much more: a company’s worst PR nightmare, its best chance to talk with new and old customers, an ideal way to send out information, and the hardest way to control it. Blogs are challenging the media and changing how people in advertising, marketing, and public relations do their jobs. A few companies like Microsoft are finding ways to work with the blogging world—even as they’re getting hammered by it. So far, most others are simply ignoring it.

That will get harder: According to blog search-engine and measurement firm Technorati, 23,000 new weblogs are created every day—or about one every three seconds. Each blog adds to an inescapable trend fueled by the Internet: the democratization of power and opinion. Blogs are just the latest tool that makes it harder for corporations and other institutions to control and dictate their message. An amateur media is springing up, and the smart are adapting.

And this bit made it to the quote to remember on tBBC blog:

Unlike earlier promises of self-publishing revolutions, the blog movement seems to be the real thing. A big reason for that is a tiny innovation called the permalink: a unique web address for each posting on every blog. Instead of linking to web pages, which can change, bloggers link to one another’s posts, which typically remain accessible indefinitely. This style of linking also gives blogs a viral quality, so a pertinent post can gain broad attention amazingly fast—and reputations can get taken down just as quickly.

Lots of examples of blogs doing some wonderous (or horrible) thing… Scoble and Microsoft, Dan Rather and fake memos, Kryptonite and Bic ballpoint pen, Mazda and faux blog, Jonathan Schwartz blog, Manolo’s Shoe Blog, GM Smallblock Engine Blog, Stoneyfield Farm blogs, Macromedia blog etc, etc.  Read the whole thing.

Blogs, Blogs Everywhere
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A weblog or blog is a web site where an individual records his ideas, observations and opinions, inspires comments from others and links to other web resources. The format is flexible (a personal journal, an interactive information management) and its style is informal - immediate and with personality. Blogs are public and searchable on the Internet. Blogging has revolutionised traditional on-line communication and is proving its tremendous potential to do the same in marketing.

Business-blogs offer organizations a platform where information, data, and opinion can be shared and traded among employees, customers, partners, and prospects in a way previously impossible: a two-way, open exchange.

A blog is what all “websites wanted to be” updated on a regular basis, contains content that is of interest to a select or target audience and is easy to update and change. Blog technologies can be described as “content management made simple.” Much has been made of the potential of blogs to renew involvement of people in politics and reinvigorate public live, especially in the UK by well-intentioned groups like Vox Politics and the Hansard Society.

Blogs are not democratic. Readers of blogs get value out of the content provided by the author, otherwise they would not visit it repeatedly. Participatory journalism and participatory democracy enabled by blogging does not make much sense to me since blogs are anything but democratic. I decide what goes on my blog, you don’t get to decide about it. What the readers and other bloggers decide however, is whether it is worth their eyeball and further involvement in comments. If you want to participate more, start a blog. The only ‘democratic’ feature of blogging is that anyone with a computer and internet connection has access to it.

Blogs are tools. Even if 99% were boring, self-indulgent blogs where feeding their cat was the highlight of the author’s day, one effective blog is enough to demonstrate that it can be a potent tool put to other uses. The fact is, there are many, many blogs that demonstrate just that.

There are two distinctive features to a blog:

- the format & style: elements such as permalinks, TrackBack, comments, blogroll and archives
- the social network: the blogosphere, including the niche(s) of the blogosphere into which an individual blog may fit

The network is a natural byproduct of the format and style. Therefore, we believe that these are the minimum criteria for defining what a blog actually is.

As a rule of thumb, we say that if you cannot link to individual articles, it is not a blog. Permalink rules. Otherwise, the format is that of a blog, but only at the most rudimentary, superficial level.

There is a lot more to the blog format, of course, but that is the minimum. The trick is to explain just how the particular format features and other blog functionality such as RSS gave rise to the blogosphere phenomenon and to many other aspects of online communication. Most people tend to judge a new medium according to the old one it may be vaguely replacing, no matter how different the new medium actually is. It takes time for them to see the full extent of the difference.

Further reading: Why Bill Gates backs blogs for businesses

PR is a solo voice, a blog is a choir
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So we come back to one of the main uses for a blog - medium. If PR is the art of spreading and managing a company’s messages across other peoples’ media by proxy, then blogging is using your own medium to disseminate those messages yourself.

It’s not like PR and marketing does not need some serious re-thinking. There are some seismic shifts occurring in the industry:

  • Micro media is changing the PR practice (i.e. weblogs and RSS news feeds and the Vanishing Mass Market)
  • Fortune 500 companies are bandoning “the Universal Message” (McDonald’s marketing shift based on the idea that no single ad can tell the whole story)
  • Use of many stories rather than one message to reach everyone (McDonald’s new strategy of brand journalism)

The real potential of blogging is to give branding a new meaning. Blogs can be the perfect tool for an ‘emergent brand’, where the brand is defined by a company’s a behaviour and is an expression of an authentic identity to a degree much greater than current branding and marketing allows. This is not top-down imposition of branding-by-committee, but a genuine brand that comes from the core of the company.

Paradoxically, authenticity is very hard to get right and the entire practice of branding, marketing and PR has been the opposite: constructing an edifice, projecting an image on top of whatever was bubbling and sometimes festering beneath the high-gloss surface. Engagement was a no-no, hiding from the customer routine and style over substance has ruled the day. Fortunately, the edifice is showing cracks and there are things that sprout forth in those cracks. Blogs are just an example of the process. May they long continue ruining the varnish.

Give a shit. Basically, that’s what this boils down to. Consumers are not a vast collection of numbers on a spreadsheet or a nice collection of 5 categories with silly marketing names like “early, suburban adopter.” They are people with real concerns that will, ultimately, lead to a better product. Listen and give a shit. That’s good marketing medicine.

Blogs also seem to attract a valued consumer demographic. A study released by Jupiter Research last year showed that 61 per cent of Internet users who read blogs at least once a month have an annual household income of $60,000 (U.S.) or more. A recent survey conducted by U.S.-based Web ad network Blogads revealed 61 per cent of blog readers are over the age of 30, and more than 45 per cent spend five to 10 hours reading blogs each week. It would be interesting to link this ‘blog metric’ to the concept of ”prosumers”…

...there is a wider group which marketers sometimes call “prosumers”; short for proactive consumers. Some people in the industry believe this group is the most powerful of all.

Euro RSCG, a big international agency, is completing a nine-country study of prosumers, which it says can represent 20% or so of any particular group. They can be found everywhere, are at the vanguard of consumerism, and what they say to their friends and colleagues about brands and products tends to become mainstream six to 18 months later.

Such people often reject traditional ads and invariably use the internet to research what they are going to buy and how much they are going to pay for it. Half of prosumers distrust companies and products they cannot find on the internet. If they want to influence prosumers, says Mr Lepere, companies have to be extremely open about providing information.

Further reading: Blogs and public relations

The network is always stronger than a node
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Blog as a node and blogosphere as a network

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Not every company needs a blog, but every company needs the support of a network. Some companies make the mistake of thinking that their node is strong enough to circumvent or even topple the network - just think back to AOL’s ‘walled garden’ delusions only a few years ago. They thought that their content could supplant or compete with the entire internet.  Blogs are stronger because they are networked digital paper.

The network that each respective company needs in order to succeed will vary. We have had conversations with enough people to know the usual objections - My company doesn’t need to engage with angsty teenage bloggers! Our customers and industry peers are high-level executives in a very specialised area! - so here is the key thing to remember:

The network that each respective company needs in order to succeed will vary. Within the wider network, within the wider blogosphere, there is a more specific (though not wholly identifiable) network, a more niche curve in the blogosphere, where your company should probably be engaged. If the curve is currently unoccupied, be the seed that kicks it all off and watch the flora flourish.

Ignore the network at your peril. Engage it and reap the benefits.

Further reading: Netflix flicks off a blogger, Netflix regrets flicking off a blogger; TrackBack comes of age; Macromedia Blogs and the Death of the ‘Official Story’

Metrics, Schmetrics
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In an article that was passed around our curve of the blogosphere recently, MarketingSherpa tries to validate blogging for businesses using metrics.

Looking at blogs from that perspective misses the most important aspect of blogging: The only ‘metrics’ associated with blogs for now should include in-bound links, velocity, feedback and stickiness.

Neither businesses nor blogs have reached consistency in the measurement of their influence and authority. By applying the current metrics - as understood by ‘interactive media’ types (hits, clicks, etc) - they are not only one-dimensional, they change the way people see tools such as blogs and other communication media. This is the problem of understanding what communication is all about. Just because you cannot measure something the way you are used to, it does not mean it is irrelevant or even intangible.

Technorati is measuring in-bound links and using it as a “vote” for attention to understand a blogging site’s influence. With a database of 3.2 million bloggers, A-list bloggers move to the top of Technorati’s list based on the blogger’s number of in-bound links. But even this novel approach is considered crude by no less than Technorati CEO David Sifry, who told a BlogOn audience:

Only looking at the number of in-bound links is too blunt. We need a measure of relative authority. We’re closely watching velocity - the change in the number of a blogger’s links in one hour divided by the blogger’s total number of links.

For myself, I find the metrics discussed in the article only a starting point. What constantly amazes me about Samizdata.net is not the number of unique visitors but the fact that so many of those visitors are ones who return each and every day. We need metrics for affinity and loyalty.

Blogs and employees
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Sun is encouraging use of blogs to communicate directly and efficiently with people as different as bankers and hardcore Linux users, Jonathan Schwartz explains:

What better ambassadors than our own employees? And what more efficient vehicle than a network connection?

The social networking company Friendster fired one of its employees, Joyce Park (aka TroutGirl), when they found out about her personal blog - despite the fact that she had revealed no trade secrets or did anything else to damage the company’s image or reputation. But their image and reputation sure did suffer when they fired her. (Judging by Friendster’s reaction - or non-reaction, to be more accurate - they could really use a crisis blog.)

Microsoft’s approach to blogging employees has been much more pragmatic - and successful. As one commentator noted:

What’s interesting is how truly free-wheeling some of the ramblings on these sites can be. Consider SimpleGeek, a Web site penned by Chris Anderson, who works for the vendor giant. Anderson’s disclaimer reads “...No, I don’t think that everything that Microsoft does and produces is wonderful and perfect...” Despite this, he clearly advances Microsoft’s agenda through wit, humor and even humanity.

One of the Microsoft employees whose blogging has proved most beneficial for the company is Robert Scoble, aka Scobleizer. Particularly for a business like Microsoft, with a monolithic image and a name that is often mud with a large segment of its target market, the value of the human face put on the company by Scobleizer is inestimable.

But quite apart from the company image, the benefits of blogging to an organisation will be felt at the most granular level: in the individual employee.

Our friends and business allies, Adrian and Kate of PeopleFanClub, often talk about the self-determination theory as formulated by psychologists Richard Ryan, PhD, and Edward Deci, PhD - the intrinsic motivation of individuals flourishes when three key human needs are satisfied: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

People feel competent when they get feedback on what they say and do, and when they are able to respond effectively to challenges they face.

People feel they have autonomy when they feel they are trusted - “empowered,” even (it is a word that has been abused by far too many, but it is still appropriate) - to take initiative, to learn and develop their own skills and talents, and to explore and expand their horizons. 

People feel relatedness when they can tell that others are sitting up and taking notice of the fact that they are doing good work and thinking interesting, clever thoughts.

These three needs are all met when a company opens itself up and lets selected employees use a blog to talk to the world about what they do, what they think about what they do, what they think about what others in their field are doing, and about the new things they would like to be doing. The benefits of blogging are not just felt in the areas of a company marketing itself and relating to the public; the very people who are producing those benefits will also feel the benefit, and - no small matter, this - deliver a tangible commercial pay-off to the organisation when their needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness are being satisfied in this way.

This effect is not limited to external or internal blogging - you can achieve this with a blog that is either public (a brand blog) or exclusively engaging those within an organisation (internal blog).

The fact is, your customers (and even your industry peers) are looking for a bit of humanity from your company. The reason people in general are so distrustful and jaded about commercial enterprises is because all of the humanity has been drilled or drained out of business. In too many cases, the humanity that people are looking for just is not there. If your company is not devoid of humanity, why not show it?

The fact is that it is entirely possible - easy, even - to retain your professionalism and speak in a voice that rings true with people. When my train is running late and a recorded voice comes on the loudspeaker to annouce that Train Company X “apologises for any inconvenience this may cause in the course of your journey,” I know it’s a scripted line. The general reaction from me and the other passengers will be a collective “Whatever.” When that voice is an actual person on the actual train, who comes on the PA and says, “Sorry about this - we know it’s a hassle, and we’re doing everything we can to get it right, so thanks for bearing with us,” I don’t doubt that the message is genuine. “Well, at least someone is acknowledging what a pain this is, and is willing to talk to us like human beings.”

One human moment can mean a lot - to your customers, industry peers, and employees.

Blogging CEOs
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The trend of blogging CEOs and other high level executives has been taken up with such fervour that an international CEO Bloggers’ Club has been started especially for such corporate bloggers. And a comprehensive list of weblogs authored by CEOs is certainly not short on names or continents.

In a sense, CEOs would seem to be naturals for blogging. They tend to have strong opinions about things - and should not be afraid of blogging them. There is immense value in the knowledge they have accumulated over years in business, and the value to readers of making that knowledge accessible shouldn’t be underestimated. As Sun Microsystems COO Jonathan Schwartz says:

There’s no fundamental difference between giving a keynote speech in Shanghai in front of 30,000 people and doing a blog read by several million people.

A CEO who blogs gives a human face and voice to their company, and can quash the perception that the voice of the company is in fact a fabrication made up of lawyers and spin doctors.

But it’s not just big companies who stand to benefit from a blogging CEO: Small-to-medium sized businesses can reap great rewards from blogging – it gives them greater visibility and levels the playing field with the big boys, allowing them to establish credibility and thought leadership.

Even when the blogger is a CEO, blogging still involves two-way communication: The blogger talks, and customers, industry peers or mere observers all have equal opportunity to talk back, either in comments fields, emails or their very own blogs. Organisations pay a lot of money to find out what people think of them so that they can shift more products or sell their services better. Eavesdropping on and engaging the blogosphere is a much more valuable way of approaching customer relationship management (CRM), and a CEO blog can be highly effective in finding out what the people who matter to your business actually think about you.

And if markets are conversations, then what’s the business case for using other peoples’ media to have your say, but not conversing via your own medium? Sun’s Schwartz gets this all too clearly, if the way he has used his blog to circumvent the traditional PR machine is anything to go on.

But the talk-back element of blogging and the network of blogs and blog readers is often an unexpected bonus to what some may originally have viewed as merely a way to broadcast messages. Thomas Nelson Publishers President and COO Michael S Hyatt told tBBC in an interview:

I got into blogging when I heard a couple of college kids talking about it. I simply Googled the word ‘blog,’ fell down the rabbit hole, and woke up in a whole new world: the blogosphere.

Groove Networks’ CEO Ray Ozzie echoes this, saying:

I feel as though there’s a conversation - many conversations - going on out there. It lets me feel like I’m part of that conversation, and when I get calls and e-mails, there’s confirmation that I’m part of the conversation.

As Hyatt and Ozzie clearly understand, yes, the software that drives blogs is revolutionary, but it’s how the network allows you to disseminate ideas and make connections with people that is truly mind-boggling. Five Across CEO Glenn Reid put it this way in an interview with tBBC:

My take-away is that you can’t predict or control the network effect…

Internal networks shouldn’t be ignored, though. A CEO who blogs in an authentic, human voice to employees is no less valuable than blogging for the consumption of customers and industry peers – especially if a company has a problem with a dissatisfied workforce.

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