Yes, they are joining the blogosphere.
Before you flip the page, horrified at the notion of yet another story on the media sensation of 2003, hold it just a second. Sure, every business publication has weighed in on blogs by now, often in glowing, evangelical terms that usually anoint them as the medium of the not-so-distant future. But in reality, blogs have already in a short period democratized information and opinion to a degree that makes Gutenberg look like little more than a Bible beater, changed the way information is delivered, and for marketers, influenced how word-of-mouth grows and how reputations are built and broken.
"Controlled messages are what these companies have traded in for years," said Steve Rubel, VP of Micropersuasion practice at the independent PR firm CooperKatz. "The bigger a company is, the harder it is to do it."
Microsoft Corp. and Apple have done it. So has General Motors Corp. And, now, American Express Co. and CBS are getting in. All these titans of American commerce have either nodded to the little guy-dropping tips to an iPod blog, paying Clay Shirky and others to talk about small business, an important market for credit cards-or they're opening the proverbial kimono, like having GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz talk about slashed employee retirement benefits or a scriptwriter from "CSI: Miami" discuss plotlines with the unwashed masses.
No more embargo
Just a few years ago, this would be unthinkable. Even in the early days of the Internet, a company's external relations were typically bound by a PR doctrine that was all about putting out consistent, controlled messages about its products, business strategies and reputation. That meant a top-down approach to when and which news outlets got news and often, with controversial topics, lawyered-up interpretations of what would be said. Tech companies, especially, were less doctrinaire, doing buzz marketing and testing with alpha-users, but they were the exception rather than the rule.
"Whether we like it or not, we're dealing with the endangered species status of the press embargo," said Jud Branam, managing director at Publicis Groupe's Hass MS&L, which works on GM's Fastlane blog.
That is in large part due to bloggers achieving critical mass as authentic purveyors of news and analysis, won after they played prominent roles as catalyst and conscience in any number of major news stories. That status has already changed the news cycle. About a year ago, the influential Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker plotted out how the proliferation of user-generated Web sites has grown a long tail of news and content, offering bloggers niches of readers analogous to the small groups of consumers that eBay and other online retailers have carved out of the consumer mass market.
PR people, of course, have jumped all over that, with big shops like Edelman, Ketchum and MS&L forming practices that specialize in, among other things, communicating with bloggers. But the first to recognize the elegance of Ms. Meeker's model was CooperKatz's Mr. Rubel, who posted tips on how to pitch into that long tail on, natch, his own blog. Among them was advice to invert the news food chain, giving bloggers scoops before the mainstream press, heresy for a traditional-minded publicist.
A year later, Mr. Rubel would make only one addendum: "Use [blogs] to get advanced feedback to incorporate into product development or marketing," he said in a recent interview.
That's already happening.
Microsoft, for instance, runs Channel 9, an open forum for the company's employees. On a recent day, a reader could sample a serious interview where Microsoft blog guru Robert Scoble grilled MSN Search developers on why the product is lagging Google-or follow a thread titled "Girl Geeks are Hot." On GM's Fastlane, the reader gets a different kind of conversation. There, Mr. Lutz is focused on the corporate issues faced by the struggling automaker as well as product news.
The common thread is that all of these uses for blogs allow a reader to peer inside a company, allowing for an emotional connection that is key to inspiring loyalty and advocacy.
For the past few years, Jake McKee, as global community relations specialist for Lego, has lived this mission as the chief liaison for the toymaker's all-important adult enthusiast. While that group is responsible for only about 5% of Lego sales, its brand advocacy produces untold value in PR. These hobbyists are the types who build huge Lego displays and get extensive local media coverage and keep the buzz going. To keep up with them, Mr. McKee travels a bunch, has an instant-messenger buddy list of 125 people and runs a blog at BricksontheBrain.com, where he answers questions and fields complaints-often passing them along to Lego departments.
"For the most part, marketers like to see people behind focus-group glass, but the task is to get to know people and understand them and present yourself as a real person," Mr. McKee said. "You can believe a real person. It's hard to believe a company representative. If people get to know me, my interests and what I'm all about, it's an entirely different discussion when I give an answer to a particular question. They may not like the answer, but they're more inclined to believe it."
And it shows. During a recent half-hour interview, Mr. McKee got three different messages from people on that buddy list warning him that an image of a yet-to-be-released toy leaked online. "I didn't have to go out to every fan site every day and keep up with the news because I've formed relationships with people who know why a leak may be bad for us as a company, which would be bad for them as fans," he said.
Now that's loyalty.