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Rethinking the blogosphere

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In May, my column in this space ("Thinking out loud about blogs," May 2, p. 10) questioned the hyperactive news coverage about blogging and the belief among some blog zealots that the technology was rapidly transforming business communications. Last week, while I was in New York attending ad:tech, nearly every one of my conversations-with marketers, publishers and marketing technology vendors-eventually touched on the impact, value and, yes, challenges of blogs and blogging.

Although these discussions didn't compel me to dash back to my hotel room and launch "Booker's blog" nor change my opinion that business marketers need to think long and hard about their goals before joining the 20.9 million blogs out there, my thinking has evolved about the benefits of this platform. For instance, I'm now convinced that the blogosphere provides a valid market research tool, a barometer for how a company's brand, products and services are being discussed-discussed by passionate, growing and increasingly influential social networks. Businesses shouldn't miss this opportunity to listen and respond to the chatter among their current and potential customers.

That's an important point. You don't need to have a blog to use the blogosphere for this kind of research. In fact, there's an emerging category of analytic services specifically tuned to monitoring the blogosphere.

At a minimum, companies ought to adopt the position that some of their customers are bloggers, say observers. "Do any companies try and find out if [their customers calling a help desk line] have a big megaphone or a small megaphone?" asked Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing and customer satisfaction officer at Intelliseek, a business intelligence company that monitors 20 million blogs and millions of message boards. Blackshaw recommends that companies add questions to their CRM systems about whether customers have blogs or participate in Internet message boards or forums.

Like several others I spoke to last week, Blackshaw was adamant that companies should listen to the blogosphere for weeks or even months before jumping into the pool. Otherwise, he said, you run the risk of "embarrassing yourself with a lackluster blog."

A number of people sought to defuse my wariness about businesses unleashing corporate blogs. "They are nothing more than high-flexible content management systems," said Jay Stockwell, senior VP-sales at Intelliseek. "Blog-enabling a Web site for the enterprise makes a ton of sense" because doing so will expand the site's reach (via RSS links), as well as provide a feedback mechanism from site visitors.

The most pertinent discussion of these issues at ad:tech occurred at a session titled "Creating and Distributing a Corporate Blog." (Note to ad:tech: Your conference would be improved by having two tracks, one for b-to-c and one for b-to-b marketers. Last week's event-the largest ad:tech ever, with 8,300 attendees and more than 200 exhibitors- reminded one of the breathless, go-go, good old days, and would have been easier to navigate with two tracks.)

"We're all grown-ups," said panelist Pauline Ores, Web marketing strategist at IBM.com, reacting to the oft-heard worry that blog-equipped employees might spout off negative comments about the company or its products. Ores said IBM is now building an internal blogging system that has some 2,000 active blogs.

Panelist blogger Stowe Boyd, president of Corante, which calls itself the first blog media company, made an even stronger case for enterprise blogging. He said companies with broken products might as well address these problems head-on in their own blog entries, as they certainly will be fodder for blogs elsewhere.

After the session, Boyd told me corporate hesitation about blog-equipped employees was a "red herring," harking back to the days when companies actually debated the wisdom of giving all employees e-mail accounts. "I maintain that companies are out of control of the message," he said.

Peter Hirshberg, exec VP at Technorati, a real-time search engine tracking the blogosphere and one of the best starting points for blog research, agreed. "We live in a world today in which everyone is a spokesperson," he said.

Maybe so, but CEOs remain skitish, with just 7% of them actually blogging and just 18% planning to host a company blog during the next two years, according to the fifth annual PRWeek/Burson Marsteller CEO Survey, which took the pulse of 131 U.S. CEOs between Sept. 12 and Oct. 7.

On the other hand, the survey found 59% of CEOs believe blogs are useful for internal communications and 47% said blogs are effective for external audiences.

Finally, a few ad:tech sessions explored the diffusion of media consumption caused by blogs. (According to an estimate by the Pew Internet Study, blog readership jumped 58% in 2004 and now amounts to about 27% of Internet users.)

"The top 400 blogs reach 50 million people," said Dan Lynn, co-founder and CEO of relevantNoise, a technology company spin-off of Web marketing firm DigitalGrit dedicated to data mining blogs that launched at ad:tech last week. The new company joins several others already in this space.

Will the handful of ad networks now targeting blogs become a significant phenomenon? Will these new networks appeal to b-to-b marketers? I heard opinions on both sides of the fence last week. Take a minute or two from your blogging duties to write and tell me what you think.

Ellis Booker is editor of BtoB. He can be reached at ebooker@crain.com.

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