The b-to-b blog backlash has begun

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IT analyst firm Forrester Research reports that the number of b-to-b blogs started by corporations fell by nearly half from 2006 to 2007 and that the decline in new launches is expected to continue this year. It appears marketers are running into the reality that blogging isn't a cure for uninspired communications.

Before shooting the patient, however, listen to what else the Forrester report says. The reason many b-to-b blogs fail is that marketing treats them like just another PR service. The content consists mainly of new-product happy talk, recycled press releases and customer success stories. But publishing the same old blather in a new medium doesn't make it more interesting, and it's not surprising that readers don't respond. One of the reasons they go to blogs in the first place is to get away from institutional messages.

Rather than discarding corporate blogs, Forrester advises marketers to try again, adopting the best practices used by successful individual bloggers: "[B]uild conversations and engage community members in sharing their experiences with their online peers." In other words, treat social media as a conference call rather than a billboard.

The fact is that some big companies such as HP, General Motors Corp. and Marriott are redoubling their commitment to corporate blogs. That's because these companies have figured out how to use the tools to their best potential. They're using them to circumvent the media gatekeepers and engage in honest and open dialogue with constituents.

This philosophy is embodied in what I call the STRAIGHT principle. STRAIGHT is an acronym for the critical elements of social media content: It must be succinct, transparent, responsive, accepting, insightful, genuine, humorous and timely. A blog is a place to have personal conversations. Your contributors should have names, faces and biographies. They should speak in the first person and tell stories. They should invite response, demonstrate humility and respond openly and constructively to criticism.

Take a cue from successful corporate bloggers like Southwest Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration. These organizations let their employees do the talking. Corporate PR maintains a code of conduct and a watchful eye, but doesn't infringe on the personal conversations. They know that customers and other constituents relate better to people than they do to institutions. That's the value of this medium. If this whole idea terrifies you, then you're not yet ready to adopt these tools.

The blogging backlash is inevitable. Nearly all new technologies follow a predictable pattern of hype and inflated expectation that gives way to disappointment and retrenchment. It's after this second stage that people discover value, however. Once people discard their delusions of new technology as a panacea, real business applications emerge. Just remember to keep it STRAIGHT.

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