"People build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon...People come to conclusions about brands as the result of an accountable number of different stimuli: many of which are way outside the control or even influence of the product's owner."
— Jeremy Bullmore, former chairman JWT London, and director of WPP
Changes in online technology have taken what was already a revolution in communication and now morphed the Internet into a real-time forum wherein for the first time, participants are as powerful as traditional controllers of media and public relations messages. Blogs are unmasking improprieties, ending careers, and damaging brands. Yet blogs are also building and strengthening brands. Understanding blogs and their unique culture and voice is imperative; trying to exploit this new format without that understanding will surely end in a vitriolic stoning of your brand. But choosing to ignore blogs will leave you at the mercy of the stone throwers as well.
While the advent of the Web spawned millions of new communicators and content providers around the world, the Web page format still followed the old broadcast model of one source beaming out to many. Granted, chat groups allowed for more of a conversation, but nothing compared to the noise being generated via blogs. The creation of blogs and wikis has enabled a very different approach: the real-time open forum. Blogs may have started as online journals for computer geeks or angst-ridden teens, but now they have become a force to be reckoned with in the corporate and political spheres, many times acting as gatekeepers or even overturning the mainstream media world, ending powerful careers or killing product lines. And yet, understanding and harnessing these new technologies can serve as both an early warning system for what is being said about your company, and as a way for your company to lead the conversation in a manner that positions it as a trusted leader.
The term "Weblog" was coined in 1997 by Jarn Barger, whose site, "Robot Wisdom," was an effort to log various sites he encountered on the Web. But an accumulation of interesting links is only part of what a blog has become. Dave Winer, creator of an early blog called "Scripting News," said:
"Weblogs are often-updated sites that point to articles elsewhere on the web, often with comments, and to on-site articles. A weblog is kind of a continual tour, with a human guide whom you get to know. There are many guides to choose from and each develops an audience."
So a blog is a sort of frequently updated, online journal that mixes personal opinion and daily life with observations and links to other sources, and allows readers to contribute their own thoughts and reactions.
Winer created software called Radio UserLand that made it easy to create a blog. And others, such as LiveJournal, Blogger.com and Xanga, created Web-based blogging templates that allow anyone to start their own blog in minutes, with no knowledge of computer programming whatsoever. The revolution was underway.
When it comes to business, blogs are being used to hold a conversation with customers, with employees, and with media. They can serve as effective vehicles for marketing, idea testing, knowledge management, crisis communication, and thought leadership.
On September 12, 2004 someone posted on a blog that a disposable Bic pen could open the supposedly impenetrable Kryptonite bicycle locks. Word spread via blogs. Kryptonite issued a statement that its locks still deterred theft. The New York Times published the story the next day. Then, according to blog monitoring company Technorati, nearly 2 million people visited blogs to read more about it. In the end, Kryptonite paid $10 million in replacement locks—that's out of $25 million in total revenues.
According to Technorati's April 2007 "State of the Live Web" report, 100,000 blogs were being created every day in the third quarter of 2006. Among the most popular blogs are political blogs like "The Huffington Post" and those that catalog the latest in gadgets and technology, such as "Tech Crunch" and "Gizmodo." (For the latest blog popularity rankings, check Technorati.) But business blogs have amassed large audiences as well. Perhaps the most influential are those written by Fast Company's Robert Scoble ("Scobleizer") and Jonathan Schwartz (President of Sun Microsystems).
Scoble was formerly with NEC and a blogger who never held back in his criticism of Microsoft. In a gutsy move, Microsoft hired him and allowed him to continue blogging.
"Impressively, he has also succeeded where small armies of more conventional public-relations types have been failing abjectly for years: he has made Microsoft," writes the Economist, "with its history of monopolistic bullying, appear marginally but noticeably less evil to the outside world, and especially to the independent software developers that are his core audience. Bosses and PR people at other companies are taking note."
Blogs are anti-establishment. They are personal, candid, irreverent, and informal. You will find a personal comment about last night's restaurant right in the middle of a serious analysis of software, a gossipy joke in the midst of an industry overview. Blogs are no place for so-called brochure ware or the official line. They are the insightful aside by Shakespeare's fool. The Blogger, while acerbic, is also humble in that he or she is quick to give credit to the writing and thinking of others by way of embedded links. Here's a checklist of Blog attributes:
While the earliest blogs may have been either tech or politics, they have taken root in many industries from autos to airplanes, from yogurt to appliances. Here's a look at several examples:
Blogs can be read like any other Web site by going to its URL (ex: www.autoblog.com). However, about all blogs offer another option via something called RSS. RSS stands for "really simple syndication." It is a form of programming that allows users to shop for, or subscribe to content, and bundle it together into a custom kind of browser called a feed aggregator or Newsreader. RSS or another similar technology called Atom, pushes or feeds the updated content automatically so all the user need do is open their Newsreader and all the RSS feeds will deliver the absolute latest content from Web sites or blogs.
This means the reader need never check back with or visit the original Web site where they found the content. And they need not register for an email newsletter, nor risk being spammed. Most
RSS links look like this:
The signature orange rectangle contains the letters "XML" because that is the programming language used — a sort of Rosetta stone of Web languages. But now you may also see custom links designed for specific Newsreaders such as these:
Using RSS means a constant, automatic stream of headlines, updated blog entries, or press releases. Soon media will come to expect companies to provide all releases in this format. Here are examples of aggregators and readers:
Some of the readers are free, Web-based services while others require downloading software and may require a subscription fee. The best allow you to bundle like content into custom folders. Some will integrate directly into MS Outlook.
You can use Google to find blogs if you know what they are called. But specialized blog search engines can help you find blogs even when you don't know what they are called. For example, what if you want to find blogs on the topic of autos, but have no idea who writes them or what they are called? Here are some blog search engines:
Blog monitors will display a sort of top hits ranking for blogs. Some may look at traffic, which blogs the most influential bloggers link to, and complicated metrics tracking the pass along viral nature of given blogs.
One particularly interesting blog monitor is Intelliseek's BlogPulse. BlogPulse not only gives a ranking, it uses a trend graphing tool to draw the buzz volume of topics or keywords over time. It will even allow you to input your own items to track. So imagine tracking your company against the competition as an early warning system.
There are three ways to start publishing your own blog.
Each option has its merits and drawbacks. So here is a checklist.
If you want to dabble with non-professional blogging, choose free, advertising supported blog services.
If you want a more professional look that you can slightly customize, choose hosted services.
If you want a very professional service combined with powerful tools, choose so-called "server side" software to be installed in your company.
Deciding whether or not to allow employees to blog is worth some careful thinking. There have been many cases of embarrassment or even firing bloggers. Here is a set of guidelines offered by Gartner's blogger Charlene Li:
The goal is to try to allow for the candor required of bloggers while not compromising the company. Here are some other examples of corporate blogging policies:
While some are a bit laid back and conversational, asking employees to use common sense (Sun, Groove), others are more button-down and legalistic (Harvard Law). It is particularly important that company bloggers understand they may need to comply with such sensitive matters as IPO quiet periods.
"Talking about revenue, future product ship dates, roadmaps, or our share price is apt to get you, or the company, or both, into legal trouble."
— from the Sun blogging policy
"If you fudge or lie on a blog, you are biting the karmic weenie. The negative reaction will be so great that, whatever your intention was, it will be overwhelmed and crushed like a bug."
— Steve Hayden, Vice Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather
Seeing how influential blogs are becoming, it can be tempting to try to co-opt them as part of a public relations effort. Given the somewhat skeptical, anti-establishment tone of blogs, attempts to make them part of the plan can backfire. Here are a couple of examples:
First, Mazda created a blog called HalloweenM3 via a 23-year-old code-named "Kid Halloween" who listed his movie interests as all car chase movies. He linked to what he said were cool videos a friend of his recorded off local public access cable TV (which carries no ads). The videos were of Mazda cars break dancing, imitating skate boarders, and driving on Halloween night. Bloggers unmasked Kid Halloween as part of a corporate PR effort when they noticed the production values and the same videos posted on the Website of the agency that produced them. The response was an angry Blogosphere and thousands of pick-ups and links to the story. Mazda pulled the site.
The Mazda M3 skateboarding video
Dr. Pepper's Raging Cow Turns Blogosphere Sour
Cadbury's Dr. Pepper division created a new milk beverage called Raging Cow with hip, youth-oriented, edgy flavors such as "chocolate insanity" and an angry cow icon. Dr. Pepper hired Richards Interactive to create an obviously mock blog written by the cow. So far so good. Then Richards recruited six bloggers in the target demographic (18 to 24), flew them to Dallas to brief them and work with them and give them product samples. This was the part that angered the blogger world to such a degree that there was even a call for a boycott of the product, with a boycott graphic that spread virally through blogs. Bloggers see the blogosphere as strictly a bottom-up grass roots world and react badly to any top-down marketing efforts.
Now blogs have moved on beyond text and graphics. Moblogs are blogs created by contributions from mobile devices. Some feature photos taken from mobile phones with cameras. The most popular such site is textamerica.
Vblogs add video to the format.
Podcasting is a form of audio blogging. Content creators make radio-style shows or interviews and feed them via RSS. Then you download them on your computer or MP3 player.
Another emerging, collaborative online platform useful for business is the Wiki. It is named after the Hawaiian word for "quick" and perhaps even the Honolulu airport buses known as "Wiki Wikis." A wiki is a Web site that can easily be edited by anyone visiting it. The best example is a giant online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, which grows daily through users' contributions. Now the Wiki format is being used by corporations for internal project collaboration, information sharing and knowledge management.
Here's how the Asia Pacific President of Ogilvy Public Relations, Christopher Graves, suggests companies approach the Blogosphere.
Atom: A form of programming for Websites or blogs that will feed the content to end users rather than require them to return to the site for updates.
Blog: An online journal that mixes candor, informality, opinion and links third-party information. It is easy to update with no programming needed and allows readers to add their own comments.
Blogroll: A link within a blog, usually in a vertical menu along the side, to other blogs.
Moblog: A blog created through the input from mobile devices such as PDAs or phones. They may also include photos from mobile camera phones.
Newsreader: Browser-like window that allows readers to shop for and subscribe to different content providers (using RSS) and then aggregate all the feeds into the browser.
Podcasting: Audio content similar to blogs that can be downloaded to your computer or MP3 player.
RSS: Really Simple Syndication. A form of programming code that allows Website or blog readers to subscribe to them in order to automatically get updates fed to them in a Newsreader. The content can be anything from thin slices to whole blogs or press releases.
Trackback: A piece of programming that shows a blogger who is linking to their blog and delivers the snippets of what they said.
Vblog: Video blog.
Wiki: From the Hawaiian term for "quick," this is a form of Website that allows readers to edit and contribute to the Wiki. It is an open, collaborative site on the Web.
Christopher Graves, President, Asia Pacific, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide joined Ogilvy PR in early 2005 after 23 years in business news. He spent the last 18 years with Dow Jones on both the editorial and business sides. He was one of the founders of Wall Street Journal Television, Managing Editor of Asia Business News (ABN), Vice President of News and Programming for CNBC Asia, Vice President of News and Programming for CNBC Europe, Managing Director of Business Development (EMEA & Asia) for Dow Jones Consumer Electronic Publishing (WSJ.com), and Managing Director of Far Eastern Economic Review.