Business Hippos and Blogging Birds

Perry de Havilland • Blogs & Blogging • Trends

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.nethas 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 pioneeredthe 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 Strategywho 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.