It's a question marketers are still grappling with years after the first waves of corporate blogging flooded the web. But for better or worse, it seems corporate blogging -- and the title of chief blogger -- is beginning to hit its stride. Companies such as Coca-Cola, Marriott and Kodak all have recently recruited chief bloggers, with or without the actual title, to tell their stories and engage consumers.
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"It's a good idea to have a chief blogger," said Mack Collier, a social-media consultant and blogger at the Viral Garden, citing Dell's Lionel Menchaca and LinkedIn's Mario Sundar as examples of a single personality positively affecting a brand.
"At SXSW, [Messrs. Menchaca and Sundar] were getting hugged in the hallway. They were as popular as Robert Scoble! And that popularity is bleeding over into Dell and LinkedIn," he said.
Numbers going up
Today, just more than 11% of Fortune 500 companies have corporate blogs, according to SocialText, and only a handful have a designated chief blogger. The number of corporate blogs has risen slowly and steadily since the end of 2005, when 4% had any kind of blog.
"The period of 'we've got to do this too' has passed, and now people are evaluating blogs as tools. ... It's going mainstream because companies are realizing this is a tool that has utility," said Paul Gillin, media consultant and author of "The New Influencers." He counts about 60 corporate blogs among the Fortune 500.
While the title of chief blogger is seductive, analysts and industry insiders said the title shouldn't be the focus. What's essential is the brand voice, whether it comes from one chief blogger (such as Vice Chairman Bob Lutz on General Motors Corp.'s Fastlane Blog or CEO-President Jonathan Schwartz on Sun Microsystems' Jonathan's Blog) or a group working together, such as those on Southwest and Wal-Mart's blogs.
The reason matters
No one is saying that a chief blogger or blog voice is right for all brands. Bloggers and analysts agreed that brands that want to blog should identify a specific reason to do so, such as to humanize the company (like Microsoft), make the company more open (like Dell) or advance the fun-and-happy company image (like Southwest.)
"Everybody right now wants to or is contemplating starting a blog, but it's the wrong place to start," said Sean Howard, director-strategy and innovation at Lift Communications and blogger at CrapHammer.com. "They really need to start with reading, following their customers, commenting on communities. Then think about creating something."
And, in fact, there can be a downside to corporate blogging with a single chief blogger who can quickly become a lightning rod for online communities' disdain. "The whole idea of having a chief blogger when social media is so grass roots still smacks of companies trying to control this," said Jim Nail, CMO of Cymfony. "There are certainly tensions between social media as a groundswell vs. corporations trying to use it as a tactic."
Dave Armano, VP-experience design at Critical Mass and blogger at Logic & Emotion, in fact, touched off a minor tweetstorm when he posed a simple question to his Twitter crowd for this article: "Any thoughts about the whole 'chief blogger' thing?"
Most of the responses fell into one of two camps: "No way; it's too formalized and a bad idea" or "Yes, it's a dream job I'd love to have."
However, Mr. Armano -- and many others interviewed for this article -- are in a third camp. This skeptical but intrigued crowd thinks the focus should be less on the ctitle and more on figuring out how social media touch points can be used to benefit the brand in general.
"I'm all for the effect that the chief-blogger title creates in saying these are full-time jobs, because they are -- it's hard work. I just think it's the marketing on it that's off," he said. "It's should be a director of community engagement. That takes the focus off the medium and puts it on the interactions."
Geoff Livingston, CEO of Livingston Communications and blogger at the Buzz Bin agreed. "The problem is that too many people focus on the actual tool: the blog," he said. "What they need to focus on is the principles behind social media that make it work, like participating in a larger community works, and not controlling the conversation works."