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Befriending bad blogs

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Negative blogs can impact a company's reputation. That's no surprise. What's less talked about--and a pleasant surprise for marketers that have embraced the blogosphere--is how frequently marketers have won over constituents by listening and responding, particularly to influential bloggers.

Just ask Dell Inc.

Last year, media veteran Jeff Jarvis took Dell to task regarding what he viewed as the company's abysmal customer service.

Not your average Joe Blow, Jarvis has a journalism pedigree that includes stints as TV critic for TV Guide and People; creator of Entertainment Weekly; and Sunday editor and associate publisher at the New York Daily News .

Jarvis chronicled his dissatisfaction with Dell customer service in his highly ranked personal blog, BuzzMachine, with his original post, "Dell lies. Dell sucks." He continued to fuel the fire with ongoing complaints, based on Dell's "head in the sand" approach to the problem.

While Jarvis has been the most visible kvetcher, a Google search on "Dell sucks" last week kicked back 3.9 million results. Legions of customers continue to blog about customer service run-ins. The company has had a reputation for poor customer service for some time; it's just that the blogosphere serves as a megaphone for those grievances.

Even when Dell launched its own blog dedicated to customer service in July, bloggers weren't impressed.

"The Dell blog reads like a corporate brochure," said Steve Rubel in his Micro Persuasion blog. Rubel is senior VP of the Me2 Revolution division at Edelman, a PR agency. Rubel said Dell's "lack of candor" will set it back, exhorting Dell to "Be real. Walk the talk."

Whatever its motivation, Dell is finally doing just that. In a dramatic change in behavior, it reacted quickly when pictures from a business conference in Japan of a Dell laptop in flames spread like wildfire across the blogosphere this summer.

The company issued a voluntary recall last month of 4.1 million Dell-branded batteries manufactured by Sony and quickly erected a Web site (dellbatteryprogram.com) with details on laptop models affected and instructions on how to order replacements.

Significantly, it publicly thanked bloggers for helping spread the word about the recall.

"We know these conversations are happening around the world," said Bob Pearson, VP-corporate communications at Dell. "If people have negative issues, we want to be right in the middle of it. We're getting a lot of benefit from hearing what people like or don't like. Is that a change? Yeah."

These overtures seem to be having a positive impact. Customers are blogging nice things about Dell, and even Jarvis has changed his tune. He reported receiving e-mail from a Dell staffer eager to "dig into the case" and mend fences.

"Now they are listening," Jarvis wrote in his blog. "This will yield real dividends: happier customers, better reputation, stronger branding and more learning."

'Kudos to microsoft'

Patrick O'Rourke, senior product manager, Windows Server Division, at Microsoft Corp., also had such an experience. Microsoft recently launched high-performance computing servers, a product group that has well-entrenched competition from UNIX/Linux, which has the lion's share of that market.

O'Rourke spends time with the high-performance computing community on the "Windows Server Division Weblog," responding to questions and addressing criticism, as well as actively monitoring the blogosphere.

In June, InfoWorld posted an item about Microsoft's announcement of its Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003, with the headline "Where's the beef?"

O'Rourke replied to poster Greg Nawrocki 24 hours later with such an extensive e-mail addressing his list of criticisms that Nawrocki ran the reply in a three-part series.

"Patrick produced some very good and very complete answers to my questions," Nawrocki posted. "Kudos to Microsoft for such a quick and complete response." That's a far cry from his original gripe.

Another marketer, 37signals, which provides Web-based applications to small businesses, agreed with that approach.

President Jason Fried regularly monitors mention of 37signals and its products across several blogs and drops in on comment boards "to thank people for their feedback."

"Even if people are upset, simply dropping in and letting them know you are listening changes the whole tone of the dialogue," Fried said. "We've won people over who thought we were evil or horrible, particularly because we took the time to talk to them on the message boards."

Jim Nail, chief strategy and marketing officer at Cymfony, does this, too.

Nail responded in detail to a negative blogger who cited a Cymfony white paper as being a thinly veiled piece of marketing propaganda. Like Fried, Nail won over the blogger.

"If you can take an angry customer or prospect and answer their objections and turn them around, they can be greater proponents of your brand than the brand loyalists," Nail said.

"We monitor online media, blogs and forums for both positive and negative comments," said Gary Spangler, platform e-business leader, Electronic & Communication Technologies, at DuPont.

But Spangler said DuPont is deliberately not joining these conversations because it cannot commit the resources needed to do it well. Not doing it well is "fairly risky," he said.

"If you don't join conversations carefully and very transparently, you create a negative word-of-mouth about how your company might be adversely trying to influence those conversations," Spangler said.

If marketers would only cede control, they'd find their customers can help them market, support and even help design products, Jarvis told BtoB.

"I get the best support for my Treo from other Treo customers," Jarvis said, noting that he recently upgraded to the Treo 700p based on a recommendation from a poster at Treonauts.com, an enthusiast blog.

"If you hand over control to your customers, great things can happen," Jarvis said. "This conversation is happening about your company with or without you."

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