Blog to the Future

An early take on the potential of blogs as a corporate marketing tool.

By Fred Hapgood

Last summer a Pasadena marketing strategist named Sally Falkow started a blog. Of course she did. Who didn’t? Blogs became a certified Big Story in 2004—in part because of the presidential election—and experienced an enormous surge in usage. And what entertaining fools they made of those of us who get paid to spot Internet trends.According to the well-regarded Pew Internet Study, by the end of the year, 32 million Americans (27 percent of people online) were reading at least one blog regularly, and 8 million had started writing one or more. Figures gathered by the blogging site Technorati suggest that on average the number of blogs has been doubling every five months over the past year and a half and shows no sign of slowing down.Not many saw this coming, and frankly, even if some Nostradamus had gotten the prediction right, who would have cared? How important could the “online diaries” be of people with so little to do that they had the time to write them in the first place (and without any compensation)? The very silliness of the name, shorthand for “Web log,” caused one to lower expectations.

The blog that Falkow started was devoted to a major interest of hers: managing online public relations. (The simplest way to find it is to do a Google search of “Sally Falkow website content.”) Every day she surveyed reports, articles, conference proceedings, newsletters, lectures, panel discussions, announcements, studies, news stories and websites that were both germane to the theme and had appeared on the Net (including from other blogs on the subject). She picked items she thought people should know about, wrote a few lines summarizing each and published her commentaries together with a link back to the original resource. In effect, she was writing a daily newspaper about online PR strategies, except that items were organized in the canonical blog style: a single column format with the most recent item on top and the resources just a click away.

Like most of us, Falkow occasionally does searches for terms relevant to her own business to see where she stands in the results. As she wrote her blog, she found herself rising steadily in these listings; people entering terms associated with Internet marketing (“e-commerce,” “Web marketing” and so on) were increasingly likely to see Sally Falkow in the list of results. (Falkow believes that search engines also care which blogging platform you use. She uses Myst from Myst Technology Partners.) In the terms of the trade, Falkow was becoming an “influencer,” and entirely without help from the conventional media circuit. As sometimes happens, what had started out as a labor of love had ended up driving her career.

Dancing with Elephants
With the initial blogging experience still reverberating in Falkow’s mind, a client of hers called with a problem it wasn’t sure how to solve. Chicago-based BTI Communications Group sold enterprise VoIP services, and the market, it seemed, had decided that the idea of sending phone calls over IP networks had come of age. (VoIP was another big technology story in 2004.)

On the face of it, that might sound like a good thing, but the very acceptance of the technology meant that a long list of very big companies, such as AT&T, were making announcements about new VoIP products. Suddenly, a field that for years had been a straight geek-to-geek experience—where expertise and technical reputation were all the marketing you needed—was being driven by huge media buys. How could BTI hope to match the footprint of these elephants? How could it possibly compete? “We needed a little guerrilla action,” Falkow says.

Falkow started to write a blog for BTI that did for enterprise VoIP what her own site had done for Internet marketing. Every day you could log on to blog.btigroup.com (or if you preferred, get updates pushed to you) to see what BTI (that is, Falkow) thought was worth noticing about what had happened in the previous 24 hours on such issues as VoIP regulation, market dynamics, technology trends, applications, security issues, patent suits and migration management.

The common idea that blogs are hostile to marketing tie-ins gets no support from the BTI blog, which is perfectly open about its auspices. The company’s logo is flying in the upper left-hand corner, and links to the BTI homepage, media room and news releases are conspicuously and conveniently available. All these connections were duly counted by the search engines, and by last winter, BTI was landing in the first page of results generated from search terms such as “VoIP small business,” “VoIP benefits,” “VoIP business phone” and so on. Traffic to the website increased 50 percent, and serious customers began to show up unsolicited. At least for the time being, BTI had found a way to dance with the elephants without being crushed underfoot.

Becoming an Evangelist
Corporate blogs such as BTI’s are far from the only marketing application of the medium. Another is to encourage a wide range of employees to start blogs. Sun Microsystems has taken that road, and so far close to a thousand employees have accepted the company’s invitation. One group of these blogs is tied directly to existing Sun products, such as Solaris or Java. They tell readers the most important things that have happened in the world (in the opinion of the author, of course) since his last posting about a given product or product application. Other examples include the blogs on Solaris security, storage management issues and “predictive self-healing” (a Sun network maintenance feature). There is even a blog devoted entirely to Solaris blogs. “People who read my blog are my target demographic,” quips marketing manager Mary Smaragdis, whose blog on the Java developer community gets several thousand unique visitors a week. (It carries the head “Explicitly and without apology a marketing vehicle.”) “I want people to know about our products and buy them,” she says. Smaragdis thinks these product-oriented blogs are especially useful in addressing niche markets that corporate marketing could not justify devoting a lot of time to. “Blogs let everyone become an evangelist,” she says.

A second category of employee blogging is not about current products but, among other things, the R&D paths under way at Sun—speech recognition, computing for the disabled, grid computing, the development of translation portals (the last being a knowledge management system that can support many languages). While not focused directly on Sun products or even on specific R&D programs, the company gets mentioned a lot in the blogs. From a marketing perspective, these blogs can be thought of as organizing client constituencies in advance of possible market introductions. They leave a reader—presumably someone already interested in that market—thinking that if and when Sun does announce a new product, it will be cutting edge.

Many of the rest of the employee blogs are on subjects of general interest—albeit to a technical audience—such as home automation, science fiction or the progress of UBL (Universal Business Language, an XML implementation optimized for business documents and transactions). These subjects might not translate directly, now or in the future, into Sun products, but they leave no doubt that Sun employs a lot of fearsomely bright people. They work to raise confidence in the enterprise as a whole and refocus it from one more faceless corporate profit maximizer to a living community of real folks. According to Smaragdis, multiplying the relationships people have with Sun employees also increases points of entry for people with questions about Sun products and services.

Finally, a lot of the blogs at Sun are in other languages and, as such, advance all these functions in regions of the world where corporate marketing might not have much of a presence.

So Much Noise
On the downside of blogging, postings must be updated too frequently for the copy in them to be edited or supervised, let alone vetted by legal departments or marketing. This is true even for a corporate blog such as BTI’s. That’s partly what makes blogs work; the authenticity and therefore effectiveness lies in the very informality of their voice. Eventually some blogger is bound to push that too far. “We’re about to acquire X Corp., but rumor has it we’re not going to pay more than $Y,” or “Frankly, if it were up to me, I’d fire all the women.”

Perhaps such incidents will blow over, but sooner or later an employee of a public corporation is going to post to his blog the forecast of next quarter’s results. When—not if—that happens, the SEC will likely make a call that no one is looking forward to. So draws the line between companies such as Sun and Microsoft who see the benefits of corporate and employee blogs and those who prefer to wait to get a better handle on the risks. (The latter usually feels more comfortable using blogs internally.)

Even for companies forgoing employee or corporate blogs, the medium has much to offer marketers. The transparency and selectivity of the domain makes it easy to find smart, up-to-the-minute commentary on clients, competitors, developments in the client’s subject field and even new twists in the art of marketing itself. Bob Geller, a senior vice president at Fusion PR, thinks blogs are critical in technology marketing, where a marketer who is not ahead of the curve is on his way out the door.

These same features can be used to identify possible marketing partners. Recently, Near-Time Flow, a collaboration software maker, used blogs to identify opinion leaders in knowledge management, distributed advance copies of a new product to those leaders and was able to use the comments that appeared in their blogs in its marketing campaigns. Prominent blogs are also a candidate for advertising buys (as in Andrew Sullivan’s blog).

Most important, though, is the quick access to a small number of opinion leaders a blog can offer. That can be critical if something needs to be clarified in a hurry, especially since whatever has to be addressed is probably being spread by blogs in the first place. The pace with which rumors fly around the world is increasing steadily, and not many companies can afford to wait for a retraction or the clarification cycle of print media. Blogs get the word out much faster than print.

Technology predictions can be so much noise, but it is hard not to wonder what comes next. Some see blogs adding more video streams, eventually turning into part of the future of television. Reid Conrad, CEO of Near-Time Flow, expects to see more ways of forming and conducting relationships with prominent blog authors. Julie Woods, executive vice president of Products Strategy and Marketing for media analysis company Cymfony, thinks that the very spontaneity of the medium makes it uniquely valuable as a window into the consciousness of the culture. She expects software tools that can read thousands of blogs at once, returning answers to questions such as “What do retired guys want?”

Perhaps the most interesting prospect is the growth of the world of paid blogs, in both the sense of blogging for wages (as Falkow does now) and of deriving revenue from blog sites. Much of what is propelling the blog phenomenon is the idealistic enthusiasm behind a young technology. In a few years, some other technology will be in the center of the cultural stage and people will come face-to-face with the hard truth about blogging—that it is tons of work. When that day comes, a substantial fraction of the blogosphere will start looking for wages.

Those who see blogs as incompatible with a pay model believe that blogging for money will be the death of the medium (on any scale), since blogs depend on passion, authenticity and integrity. But there are probably too many blogs, all watching each other, for anybody to get away long with posting biased results or engaging in games like being paid under the table for recommendations. Paid blogs could work, leaving just the question of the nature of the business model.

The freewheeling nature of the link economy probably eliminates subscriptions as a possibility. Subscriptions only make sense if link copying is controlled, and yet unrestricted link exchange seems intrinsic to the whole blog idea. What remains is advertising and work for hire. In either case, the money available to support blogs is probably going to have to come out of the marketing budget, forcing marketing managers to take a detailed, intelligent look at just what the returns are and making them key figures in the next stage of blog development.

Fred Hapgood is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.

From CMO magazine (a publication of CXO Media, Inc.), May 2005

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