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Creating community

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There's a joke going around: How do you say "blah, blah, blah" on the Internet?

The punchline: "blog, blog, blog."

It's quickly become a cliche that blogs, which is short for Web logs, are marginal things written by wild-eyed malcontents, lovesick teenagers or obsessive narcissists. But at the same time a growing number of blogs-the "Drudge Report," for instance-have become remarkably influential in the mainstream. Additionally, an increasing number of blogs, including many focusing on b-to-b topics, are even garnering advertising dollars, often through ads served by Google, and that is making b-to-b media executives take notice.

Stowe Boyd is president of Corante.com, a site that aggregates a group of technology blogs and sells online advertising, and is moving into producing research and conferences. Boyd, whose own blog, "GetReal," covers collaborative technologies, said bloggers have an advantage over traditional media in that their lack of objectivity is not disguised-as he says it is in mainstream media-and because their voice is "authentic." With this approach and their ability to build communities, bloggers have the capability to build new media brands to rival the old ones, he said.

Nonetheless, few b-to-b media executives appear threatened by blogs, although they do disagree on the degree of influence this form of publishing may have. "I don't think they're a big threat to existing media companies," said Alan Meckler, chairman-CEO of Jupitermedia Corp. He has his own blog but doesn't see the form as revolutionary. "It's like when e-mail newsletters came along. I see blogs the same way," he said.

Rex Hammock, president of Hammock Publishing, who also publishes his own blog, sees the form as providing a future template for b-to-b media Web sites, particularly in the development of community. "I think what we're seeing is a recycling of what happened when Verticalnet was around [in b-to-b media]," he said. "They were not a threat. They were an opportunity."

Weblogs vary widely in format, but, in general, they have the following characteristics: a writer with a defined point of view in a narrow subject area, an RSS (real simple syndication) feed with links to news stories relevant to the blog topic and postings by readers listed in reverse chronological order.

A pioneer in this form was slashdot.org. "Slashdot is the granddaddy of blogging in a lot of ways," said Patrick McGovern, director of SourceForge.net, which is a sibling Web site to slashdot in VA Software's Open Source Technology Group, a network of tech-oriented sites attracting 16 million visitors monthly.

Slashdot, which was created for IT professionals to discuss technology developments on the Web, uses the slogan, "Ever feel like you're not getting the whole story?" which reflects the determination of visitors to the site to get beyond the stories told in mainstream tech media. Ironically, however, even as it preserves its blogging roots, slashdot is flirting with being mainstream itself. Advertisers on the site include Sun Microsystems and Microsoft Corp.

Borrowing much of the template pioneered by slashdot and other Web sites, Rafat Ali developed PaidContent.org two years ago. The site covers paid content on the Web, such as downloadable music, and it includes an RSS feed and postings. A former reporter turned blogger, Ali occasionally breaks stories. He also accepts advertising from marketers that include Javien, a maker of software that allows media companies to charge for online content.

PaidContent.org is an example of how a b-to-b blog can establish a brand with very little investment. Ali, who operates his blog by himself, needs little more than reporting skills and a domain name to begin covering a narrow niche that mainstream b-to-b media overlook as being too small.

"There's no moat anymore," said Steve Rubel, VP-client services at public relations firm CooperKatz & Co., who publishes his own blog at micropersuasion.com. "The barriers to entry are much lower than they ever have been."

Jim Nail, senior analyst at Forrester Research, said the influence of blogs may be overstated. "Blog users are definitely a small, small subsegment of online users," he said. But he added that their "laser focus" may make them attractive to advertisers. "It's a zero waste audience," he said.

Some b-to-b media companies have adopted portions of the blog model for their own properties. At Ziff Davis Media, for instance, Mary Jo Foley's "Microsoft Watch" started as a newsletter but has since adopted many conventions of blogs.

First, it has a narrow focus: the doings of Microsoft. Second, it includes links to other stories about the company. And third, it offers a forum for postings. But it parts ways with most blogs in that it is paid content and available only to subscribers.

Beyond creating specific blogs for narrower target audiences, Hammock believes that b-to-b media executives should study what a blog approach can mean for their Web strategy. For Hammock, the aspect of blogging that offers the most potential for b-to-b media is the ability to create community. Blogs allow comment on stories and not just in a letter to the editor format, but in a genuine dialog not only with the publication but with other readers.

"We as an industry haven't gotten over the psychological barrier to realize that our readers, the members of the industry we serve, talk with one another," Hammock said. He said a Weblog can bring the unheard conversations that occur in the aisles of trade shows out into the open.

By creating a blogging dialogue, Hammock said, a b-to-b media Web site can strengthen the community it already provides for advertisers. Plus, a blog that allows readers to post messages is a tacit acknowledgement that readers often know more than editorial staffers about the business. And a blog can be a great conduit for story ideas.

Jim Spanfeller, CEO of Forbes.com, which has recently created its own blog, "Digital Tool," agrees that blogs approximate the feeling of community at face-to-face events. In fact, he speculated that blogs may pose more of a threat to face-to-face events than to mainstream b-to-b Web sites.

Spanfeller also offered this advice for trade media executives: "I think they'd be foolish not to go whole hog into it."

In his online book, "We the Media," Dan Gillmor, who is a blog proponent and practitioner, contends blogging changes journalism from a "lecture" to a "conversation." In his first chapter Gillmor relates a vignette demonstrating this change.

He was blogging in the audience of a conference listening to Joe Nacchio, then the head of Qwest, speak. In his blog, Gillmor described Nacchio as whining about his problems in raising capital and remarked that the CEO was getting rich while his company was losing market value.

Within minutes a reader of the blog, Buzz Bruggeman, e-mailed a link noting that Nacchio had sold millions in stock as Qwest's share price fell. Gillmor, who said others in the conference hall must have been reading his blog, felt a sudden chill of hostility in the room rise toward Nacchio. Esther Dyson, whose company, Edventure Holdings, held the conference, said Gillmor's blog probably had something to do with it.

Gillmor also noted that this vignette demonstrated the communal nature of blogging. "Bruggeman was no longer just a consumer," Gillmor wrote. "He was a producer. He was making the news."

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