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Marketers join the blogging dialogue

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If you don't believe in the power of Weblogs, ask Dan Rather.

The CBS anchorman found his journalistic reputation in tatters after several blogs helped expose as forgeries the documents Rather used on a "60 Minutes" report questioning President George W. Bush's National Guard service.

Bicycle lock manufacturer Kryptonite also had a first-hand experience with the nascent power of Weblogs after bloggers played a big role in exposing how one of its locks could be picked with a ballpoint pen. Kryptonite was slow to react, underestimating the power blogs have in allowing a company's customers to communicate with each other, according to some observers. The bottom line is that companies no longer control the flow of information as they used to.

"My interest in blogs in general flows out of my perception that society has become massively connected," said Simon Phipps, Sun Microsystems' chief technology evangelist, who has three blogs himself. "I agree with `The Cluetrain Manifesto': Markets have become conversations."

The implication is that markets, prior to the rise of the Internet, were essentially monologues. Today, with the rise of technology in general and the Internet in particular, markets are increasingly becoming dialogues, and blogs represent a perfect example of the trend.

Sun, Microsoft Corp. and other b-to-b marketers are developing their own blogs to join the conversation in the markets they serve and, of course, influence them. In fact, many observers believe that the blog format is ideally suited for b-to-b marketers and their long sales cycles.

"Wherever there's education involved in the sales process, they're ideal for that," said Rick E. Bruner, who, before he took a job last month with DoubleClick, was a consultant who wrote a blog about blogs: Businessblogconsulting.com. "On the one hand, they allow you to be as thorough as you can about your product and, on the other, you can form a level of trust with your individual voice. You can get the nuances of the story across over time."

What is a blog?

While a blog can take many forms, it usually includes the following: a column-style commentary by the blogger, generally on a specific, narrow topic; an RSS (real simple syndication) feed that allows readers to link to stories and other Web sites related to the topic; and a format that allows readers to post replies to the blogger and to each other.

Phipps' three blogs are: SunMink about Sun, a blog about the Java programming language and a personal blog, where he discusses music and politics among other things. He estimates that Sun has about 850 employees who are blogging, "It's not about getting on a soapbox," Phipps said. "It's about being part of the conversation."

Among the Sun employees blogging is Jonathan Schwartz, the company's president-COO. In a recent entry, he wrote about a dinner he attended and the discussion that resulted with the IT executives there (and in the process demonstrates great sympathy with Sun's customers): "A few surprising things arose from the discussion-my favorite: the CIO who said, `There are two issues really keeping me up at night. No. 1, I'm out of space in my datacenter-computing equipment and storage have filled it to the gills-and real estate's not getting any cheaper; No. 2, I can no longer supply enough power to, or exhaust heat from, the place. I feel like I'm running hot plates, not computers.' "

Microsoft's unlikely blog stance

It's not surprising that Sun, which has long been a proponent of open source development, encourages its employees to blog. More surprising is that Microsoft, a company that some perceive as bellicose and private, has embraced blogging by its employees.

A prominent example is the Scobleizer blog by Robert Scoble, Microsoft's chief evangelist. Scoble is just one individual, blogging on his own. With its Channel 9 Web site, Microsoft is using the blog model for a portal Web site aimed at software developers.

In quietly launching the site on April 5 of this year, the Channel 9 team members wrote: "Welcome to Channel 9. We are five guys at Microsoft who want a new level of communication between Microsoft and developers. We believe that we will all benefit from a little dialogue these days. This is our first attempt to move beyond the newsgroup, the blog and the press release to talk with each other, human to human."

A unique aspect of the site is the regular posting of videotapes of Microsoft employees discussing what products and upgrades they're readying for developers. "It's all done with a $300 video camera," said Lenn Pryor, Microsoft's director of platform evangelism. The ultimate effect, Pryor said, is that Microsoft creates a conversation among software developers. The conversation's impact can be tracked when the topics raised on Channel 9 drift into other blogs elsewhere on the Web. "We have tracked the conversations we started appearing on about 500 to 2,000 blogs a day," Pryor said.

Channel 9 isn't revolutionary, Pryor said, noting the back and forth of conversations about Microsoft software has also occurred at events orchestrated by Microsoft, such as the company's developer conferences. What Channel 9 enables is that this conversation will take place 24/7.

Some observers, however, believe that Channel 9 and blogs do have revolutionary potential for b-to-b marketing. For Microsoft, it's especially different, because it gives a glimpse behind the scenes of a notoriously standoffish company.

The name Channel 9 itself refers to the channel on a jetliner through which passengers can listen to the communication between the cockpit and air traffic control. This glimpse behind the scenes can be reassuring, and perhaps that is what the peek behind the curtain is doing between Microsoft and its developer community.

Steve Rubel, an executive at public relations firm CooperKatz whose own blog can be found at micropersuasion.com, said Channel 9's glimpse behind Microsoft's façade is a dramatic change for the company. "Remember Darth Vader at the end of `Star Wars' when he took off his mask and you saw that he was a regular guy?"

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