Corporate blogs make personal connection

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B-to-b marketers seeking more direct conversations with their customers have begun turning to that most personal of forums: the Weblog.

Corporate Weblogs aren’t exactly sweeping the marketing world, but early adherents say they offer real power to connect with increasingly message-wary—and message-weary—audiences in a new and engaging way. Weblogs
are described as chronologically organized, frequently updated Web sites that collect and present information and links to other Web content.

There’s no doubt that Weblogs have reached a critical mass. Google’s recent acquisition of Weblog pioneer and waves of media coverage on the subject, plus adoption of the blog format at MSNBC, Slate and elsewhere, have put the blog squarely at the center of the Web consciousness.

For creative b-to-b marketers, Weblogs—especially when combined with e-newsletters, message forums and XML-based feeds of Weblog content—offer what Doc Searls, a well-known blogger and former public relations executive, describes as free-range publication relations.

"Weblogs give companies a way to relate to customers and other members of the marketplace in a truly human way that may be more authoritative than anything public relations organs can produce," Searls said. "They also give companies a living presence on the Web, rather than just a brochure or a replica in pixels of a headquarters lobby."

Yet for corporate marketers, blogs raise questions that cut right to the heart of traditional marketing practices: How do you keep official company blogs "on-message" while giving them a true and honest voice? Who should run the house blog? Do you need a corporate blogging policy? And should a company embrace, or rein in, employees who blog on their own time?

Blogging today is new ground for corporate marketers, just as Web sites and e-newsletters were a decade ago. That means rules are being made on the fly.

"Darn few companies do official blogging right now," Searls said. "Any company that starts blogging today is a pioneer."

Lessons from the pioneers

Software maker Macromedia Inc. may be the Daniel Boone of corporate blogging, the first major company to explore this new territory in an ambitious, concerted way. Macromedia opened corporate Weblogs a year ago and today maintains seven blogs in the DevNet developer relations section of its Web site.

After a year of managing this effort, Tom Hale, Macromedia senior VP-business strategy, has some useful advice for other marketers considering a Weblog launch.

For starters, Hale recommends finding passionate, knowledgeable employees to author corporate blogs. For Macromedia, that meant tapping its evangelists, an existing job title that includes plenty of time spent interacting directly with customers. Adding a blog to the evangelist tool kit gave them one more channel to reach customers, Hale said.

"We have some guidelines as to what they can and cannot post, but, for the most part, they have some leeway as to content and tone. These are voices of individuals, not the company. The fundamental thing is to be honest and truthful," Hale said. Over the past year, he added, the Weblogs "have become mechanisms to very quickly disseminate information. They’ve become a killer application for us."

While Macromedia is a relatively large company, small companies also can use Weblogs to help level the playing field with larger rivals.

Shayne Bowman, media and public relations consultant at Hypergene Media Solutions, produces a Weblog for iView Multimedia, which makes photo management software that competes with major corporations such as Adobe Systems and Apple Computer. "IView doesn’t have the resources a company like Adobe has," Bowman said. "We have to be smart about the way we communicate and compete on different terms."

IView’s investment in the blog mainly consists of a $125 software license and the time and effort to write the Weblog, Bowman said. The main pay-off is increased customer loyalty, to which it is hard to assign a value. "But," he said, "if you can gain loyalty for 30 minutes of effort a week and little or no money, from a marketing perspective that’s a huge return."

Influencing the influencers

One of the biggest challenges for corporate bloggers is balancing their corporate messages with the more personal, ad hoc content flowing from their blogs.

Early adopters say the looser communications style of Weblogs often has a big impact on corporate marketing. For instance, when Macromedia recently launched a redesigned corporate Web site, it detailed early technology problems and their solutions right on the site.

The content was revealing and straightforward, influenced by blog-style communications, and authored by the Macromedia corporate communications department, Hale said. "Companies should have a human voice, as long as it is in line with the corporate voice," he said.

Tom Murphy, public relations manager for Cape Clear Software, which hosts several corporate blogs, echoed Hale’s advice. "While a corporate Weblog shouldn’t contradict your message, if it fails to talk to the reader, it will fail," said Murphy, who also runs his own blog, PR Opinions.

The main Cape Clear Weblog includes contributions from marketing, product management and engineers. In addition, about 10 Cape Clear employees run their own blogs, some with Cape Clear branding, some without. "We take a mostly benign view of these Weblogs," Murphy said, adding that the company does read them regularly. "It is healthy and productive for companies to establish some basic ground rules and support employees who wish to blog."

Weblogs can also help bring exposure to employees and even create corporate "stars." For instance, Cape Clear’s chief scientist, Jorgen Thelin, credits his Weblog with raising his "personal visibility in the industry."

Indeed, customer education appears to be a natural use for corporate Weblogs. Technology vendor Collaxa Inc. spends 85% of its marketing budget on developer education, said Collaxa CEO Edwin Khodabakchian. Complementing traditional vehicles such as white papers and training documents, a recently launched company Weblog provides a more "organic and spontaneous" channel to educate users, he said.

The Weblog, created for a $50 software license and three days of internal Web development time, reaches 1,000 unique visitors each week.

"We do not consider our blog a managed or controlled marketing initiative," Khodabakchian said. "We see it as a tool to push out content and try to influence the influencers."

Be a Pepper blogger

It should not be surprising that many early corporate bloggers are technology companies, since they’re already used to engaging with Web-savvy customers via electronic channels. Indeed, when soft drink maker Dr Pepper recently "recruited" individuals to tout its upcoming Raging Cow drink on their blogs, the blogging community ripped the effort as too transparent, too "markety."

Yet corporate experiments with blogs will likely continue. Weblog expert Searls said that companies of all stripes might do well to consider complementing their formal marketing messages with the more direct connection to customers that Weblogs can deliver—with or without the endorsement of the marketing department.

"It’s a rare marcomm department that will welcome Weblogs or take a lead in deploying them," Searls said. "That’s why corporate blogs need to be endorsed—even enthusiastically supported—from the top. It’s marketing’s job to sit back one level and be strategic. Blogs are tactical, not strategic. They relate. They’re human. They reach out and link."

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