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Enter the blogosphere: Justifying and planning a corporate blog

25th Apr 2008
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Corporate blogging can build up branding, marketing and customer relationships. Yet most firms are still to enter the blogosphere, and even those that have may not possess a proper understanding of the practice. So how can you build a case for a corporate blog and assess organisational readiness?

By Neil Davey, editor

Renowned blogger and author Robert Scoble once said that a simple visit to a large company's website could tell him everything he needs to know about how they have assimilated the messages of Web 2.0. For Scoble, a website which is devoid of any named human beings to interact with betrays the fact that the company has yet to understand the value in encouraging its employees to talk to customers.

Attendees to the recently Gartner CRM Summit heard Mark Raskino, VP for the firm of analysts, emphasising the same point. "We have to be prepared to talk to customers," he explained. "There is an enormous shift that has to happen. There is a wave of pressure building up behind this problem and companies will have to start experimenting with far more open models of interaction."

The onus is on modern firms to reach out to their customers. Scoble, of course, achieved just this aim at Microsoft no less. There he served as the chief blogger and presented an honest and frank contact point for customers at a time when the software firm’s reputation was suffering due to its infamous anti-trust court case.

"Blogging can build up branding, and your marketing and sales, but perhaps the most important area is that it builds relationships and engages with your target audience."

Tom Nixon, Nixon McInnes

Elsewhere, Dell was given a wake-up call to the power of blogging when unhappy customer Jeff Jarvis posted a blogged complaint, sparking a flurry of negative Dell comments across the internet. Wisely, Dell proceeded to capitalise on this information by using it to pinpoint problems and respond to disgruntled customers. Subsequently, Dell’s own blog represents a customer outreach programme that both provides business intelligence as well as basic customer service.

"Blogging can build up branding, and your marketing and sales, but perhaps the most important area is that it builds relationships and engages with your target audience," explains Tom Nixon, co-founder of social media agency Nixon McInnes. "It opens things out so that everyone inside the business can talk to customers. It is quite a radical step but there are some companies doing it really well. Sun Microsystems springs to mind – it is very close to its customer base because it allows everybody to blog, which enables conversations with the people that they are interested in."

Entering the blogosphere

But such firms are the exception rather than the rule. In the corporate world, blogs have largely yet to be embraced. Whilst a study by JupiterResearch in 2006 suggested that as many as 70% of firms would have established weblogs by the year's end, the reality has proven somewhat different. In fact, work by the Fortune 500 Business Blogging Wiki indicates that as little as 11% of Fortune 500 companies are actually blogging.

Furthermore, even those firms who have entered the blogosphere may not possess a proper understanding of blogging. "There is a lack of knowledge about how to do blogging correctly in many cases," says John Cass, a contributor to the Fortune 500 Business Blogging Wiki and author of 'Strategies and Tools for Corporate Blogging'. "Many of them don't have many comments on them. Sometimes they don't have a lot of blog posts. There's not always links to other websites. There is a lot of discussion about the products themselves."

"At the end of the process, consider what the opportunities are, consider what the results will be, and then you'll not only have built a justification for blogging, but you'll also have a plan for what it will take to blog."

John Cass, author

So if you're an employee at one of the 89% of the Fortune 500 that are yet to create a corporate blog, how can you build a business case to support the launch of such a weblog? Cass says that to build a justification, firms should undertake a blogging - or social media - assessment. The starting point of this, he says, is to ask yourself "is blogging exactly the right thing for us?".

Neil Morgan, VP marketing for EMEA at Omniture, agrees that as every firm has finite resources, they need to weigh up the opportunity cost of other alternatives. "It may be that it is not the right thing for you to do to set up a blog on your site and the resources that you’re spending should instead go into search marketing or affiliate marketing," he says. "You need to compare it, and compare the investment and anticipated return that you would get from putting it into these other projects – which are very measurable – and make sure that it is going to be comparable or favourable to it."

Kieran Potts, managing director of NeverMind, an internet marketing and web development consultancy, believes that pinpointing the motivation for the corporate blog is critical. "Usually the reason is to fill a gap in your customer service," he explains. "So you might spot an opportunity to improve the communication of updates. Or it might be that you simply want to talk on a different level about the industry in general, not specifically about your company or products. But either way, it must be doing something new that you don’t already do."

"It needs to feed down from the wider corporate objectives," adds Nixon. "Look at what the company's overall marketing plans are and then find out how you can feed off that. So for example, if the company wants to improve awareness of its brand, then a blog – if it is good – can be picked up by other people who link to it and slowly it spreads the word about your brand."

Scoping out the terrain

Once the fundamental justification for the blog is established, it is then important for the company to begin scoping out the terrain. Whether by using some of the free tools that are available, or (if you have the budget) more expensive analytics tools, firms should start listening to the related conversations that are already taking place in the blogosphere.

"Usually the reason for a blog is to fill a gap in your customer service or you simply want to talk on a different level about the industry in general. But either way, it must be doing something new that you don’t already do."

Kieran Potts, managing director, NeverMind

"There may be an existing community in a forum that is already very active but doesn't involve you," Cass explains. "So when you are doing a blogging assessment you should find out how many blogs there are in the blogging community, take a list of them, start reading them, and find out what the top issues are."

As an example, Cass highlights how his research into the auto blogging community revealed three main topics of interest to the community: car reviews, environmental issues and 'bashing' Ford and General Motors. "So if you are a company in the auto industry and you write about those three issues, and you connect with people, tying your public relations strategy to those issues, you are going to get some interest from that blogging community," he suggests.

"You need to find out what is going on out there," Nixon agrees. "Who is talking about your brand, who is talking about your industry and the kinds of key words that are being mentioned. This helps because if you know that there are lots of people out there, already having these conversations whilst you are not involved, then you know there is probably a good business case to join in."

Neil Morgan, VP marketing for EMEA at Omniture, also suggests that firms need look no further than their own website for some insight into the potential scope of the blog. "If you're using web analytics you can see where all the traffic landing on your site is going and what it is looking at, so you know exactly what is of interest to your customers," he says. "The obvious thing to do is then map the content in the blog to that interest. Another good example would be to see what terms are being searched for on the search button on your site. That might be a good place to start because it is probably a question that is being asked that you might not be answering."

As a final requisite of the blogging assessment, firms should also put their own company capabilities under the microscope. For instance, is there somebody on the payroll that can write well? Is there someone that has the time to write frequently? It may even be that the firm requires more than one blog, depending on the sector and community – "if you are in an industry that is very fast paced with a lot going on then you may need several blogs to keep up with what is going on... Southwest Airlines, for instance, has a blog with multiple offers on it."

Companies must also consider the culture of the company. Do the employees want to be open and transparent? Do those employees who blog understand that sometimes they are going to be criticised – either on their own blog or on others – just because they are blogging? If an employee is not prepared for criticism from the community then perhaps blogging isn't appropriate for them.

All in all, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration during the assessment process. "At the end of the process, consider what the opportunities are, consider what the results will be, and then you'll not only have built a justification for blogging, but you'll also have a plan for what it will take to blog," says Cass. "You'll know what resources it will require, and you'll also have the understanding of what the results will be, so the company can decide if it has enough resources. And if it doesn't – the company has to consider whether it is going to commit more because of the potential results that it can bring."

With pressure building for more open models of customer interaction, it seems inevitable that firms will be increasingly willing to commit these extra resources – and step into the blogosphere.


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