A New Marketing Medium
A shift is taking place in corporate communications, one that promises to alter marketing strategies well into the future. Marketing has always been about balancing company interest with customer interest, but now it is becoming more about opening dialogue and building trust. Blogs, after having gained widespread notoriety during the 2004 presidential election, have moved beyond individual ranting and into the corporate world, enhancing typical marketing techniques by allowing companies to talk to their customers directly--and by allowing companies to listen to what customers are saying.
Chris Kenton, senior vice president of the CMO Council and blog writer, says, "The whole game is changing. The traditional paradigm is that marketers are predators who line 100 ducks on a fence and hope they have enough marketing power to shoot down 1.5 of them. Smart companies are trying to take them off the fence and catalyze and cultivate a community with that group, inviting [community members] into a dialogue without being [intrusive]. One way to have access to the market is to build it around you. It's all about access, insight, and influence."
Although many companies are starting to recognize corporate blogs as a new marketing medium, few are engaging in the practice. Less than 5 percent of the Fortune 1,000 is using blogs strategically, but that percentage will triple in the next two years, according to Ray Valdes, a Gartner analyst. He points out, however, that even companies that are using blogs are not necessarily using them efficiently at this point--although they recognize that blogs are a significant communication tool. A lack of knowledge and a fear of the risks and repercussions are stopping companies from developing a blogging policy.
Technology companies like Microsoft and Sun Microsystems have product developers, middle managers, and engineers blogging, Valdes says, "[but] the vast majority are still saying, 'What is this? My teenage daughter is doing this, but what are the risks?' It's like the early days of email. They see all the downside and no upside. You worry your employees will spill their guts, but at the same time you allow them to get on a plane and spill their guts to the guy next to them."
A new approach to marketing
Companies can use blogging to indirectly fine-tune their marketing messages through social interactions. With other customer communication avenues, companies may be using the wrong language or addressing the wrong audience, but blogging enables faster feedback and a more strategic understanding of where the market is heading. From a competitive standpoint, blogging demonstrates to customers that a company cares about its products and customers. Many companies also look to blogs for internal communication, whether it's from the CEO, the HR department, or as a discussion tool among employees. They are using them for customer and peer support as well, keeping customers up to speed on products and road maps. Internal communication about accounting and tax guidelines or team blogs is also popular.
"Over the past few years we've seen dramatic changes in the ways marketers creatively approach customers and prospects. The challenge for most marketers is to move from visible to invisible domains of blogs," says Stephen King, president and CEO of marketing automation software provider Marqui. "It's no longer about getting a lead for sales and having them start the conversation. Now marketing starts the conversation. It's about dialogue. [Customers are] interested in your opinion, not so much your sales pitch."
Marqui started blogging in December 2004. As part of its PayBloggers program it set up three-month contracts with 20 bloggers in the United States and Canada to blog about the company, its products, and/or the market.
"That whole program took on a life of its own," King says. Bloggers were paid $800 per month, plus $50 per qualified lead accepted by Marqui, up to four leads per month. To prevent ethical conflicts, bloggers were allowed to write whatever they wanted about the company, but were also required to disclose that Marqui compensates them. Plus, they were required to mention Marqui and link to its site four times a month. At the end of their terms they were invited to continue their role--most signed up for another two months.
As a result, Marqui saw more than 400,000 Google entries. In an age where everyone wants to know the return on an investment, the most measurable result was getting Marqui's message out and getting feedback on products. The entries resulted in a 43 percent growth in customer wins quarter over quarter, and the start of 12 new partnerships. "Blogs have to provide added value beyond what is provided on a company's Web site or press release," King says.
As vice president of client services at CooperKatz & Co., Steve Rubel is known as an expert in integrating blogs into traditional B2B and consumer PR campaigns, and on helping companies launch conversational marketing programs. His own blog on the topic, Micro Persuasion, tracks how blogs are changing PR practices, and Rubel believes a best practice is to marry PR with blog marketing. "Existing CRM systems need to build in those listening and finding tools at some point, because [customers] will be blogging and talking about you," Rubel says.
When companies come to Rubel, he provides them with a four-step formula for success: First is to find influencers in the subject matter. People might not be talking about the product, but they could be talking about the larger space in which the product fits (e.g., people are not talking about ovens, but about home entertaining and cooking). Next, listen to people, recognize their needs, and subscribe to other blogs to hear what customers are saying.
Third, engage people in dialogue through email and have a blog to join in the discussion. Most people stop there, according to Rubel, but the fourth step is giving people authority, which helps bloggers achieve their goals while creating lifelong customers.
General Motors is an example of a company that is doing corporate blogging right, according to Charlene Li, principal analyst and blog writer at Forrester Research. Many GM fans anxious to get their hands on the new Pontiac Solstice expressed frustration at the product not getting to market. So the company had the person in charge of that project blog about some of those frustrations, explaining what was taking so long and recognizing the prospective buyers' feelings. It talked about certain dealerships getting limited early editions of the car and the vast amount of testing needed to help ensure customer safety. "The ROI is infinite--it's the enrichment of people," Li says.
"People have negative comments. They can either post them on your place where you can respond to them or put them somewhere else where you'll never see [negative comments]. People don't want to have marketing pushed at them, they want to have a relationship." Li believes, however, that most companies still want relationships with products, not customers.
Companies should let the people who are most passionate about the products be in charge of the blog, even if they are customers. When companies come to CooperKatz, Rubel often trains people within the organization to be bloggers, but that's not always necessary. Italian moped manufacturer Vespa, for example, already has "armies of evangelists," so rather than have employees be the company voice, CooperKatz found four customers to blog on Vespa's Web site. They don't get paid, but they get to see and test-drive products before other people. "This is a great marketing vehicle for any corporation with fans," Rubel says.
One of the best success stories of a company engaging a passionate customer is Microsoft's hiring of its technical evangelist, Robert Scoble, who Kenton says is one of the top-five influential corporate bloggers. "He singlehandedly, through a blog, put a human face on technology. He's just a normal, average guy who's really passionate about technology," Kenton says. "He [is] doing what he really loves--playing with and advocating technology to an audience that's very interested. Hundreds of thousands of people are entertained by his perspective. His blog was authentic and genuine and it took off like wildfire." Scoble has made such an impact that he recently was the topic of a Dilbert cartoon.
Scoble was blogging about Microsoft independently and the company, rather than shutting him down, recognized him as an authoritative voice, which gave him the freedom to be effective, according to Valdes. "Blogging is the best relationship-building device I've ever seen. It lets Microsoft have a human face other than Bill's [Gates] and Steve's [Balmer], but it also gives customers a way to find people who are working on a product," Scoble says. "In the old world you didn't know anyone important would read your feedback. [Now,] product managers use it to gauge how important a new feature will be. It's a new way to get feedback. I've had a lot of people say it's changed their view of Microsoft and how evil we are."
The Scobleizer Microsoft Geek Blogger runs on an independent Web site, and while the company's executives read what Scoble writes, he says he feels safe to talk directly to customers without worrying about negative corporate consequences, like getting sued or fired. Microsoft also backed him up with infrastructure to allow other employees to blog. Most large companies already have people blogging about them, maybe even employees, they just don't know it, according to Valdes. The CEO or vice president of corporate communication is unlikely to be the best blogging candidate, because she doesn't necessarily have the skill sets, but people down the line might have hidden talent. Of course, there are risks that come with blogging that need to be considered. "Our corporate policy is, be smart. We don't talk about things we don't know about," Scoble says.
When it comes to things like reporting financial results, employees must be cautious not to reveal too much information, according to King. Also, if a company's official release announces positive earnings, but the blog says something negative, or vice versa, there is a potential for lawsuits. It gets more complicated when it comes to accurately translating company information into other languages, or in the healthcare industry, for example, where inaccurate information could prove dangerous. There are tools available like Marqui's corporate blogging module that include approval engines so that information can be monitored before being sent into the public forum. This opens up debate as to what kinds of information companies should allow to be posted, and how closely they should monitor it. In general it's a good idea to have a blogging policy, whether it is that employees can't blog about anything they do in the office or encouraging them to blog along guidelines, such as not writing about products in development or about customers, according to Kenton.
"There's a certain level of control that you lose as a company when you put a blog out there, but there's an illusion that you can't give up some of that control because you're losing it anyway," Kenton says. "There's a huge decentralization of power that's being cultivated by technology. If you go back three generations of society, companies have largely controlled messages, arguably since after World War II, with the rise of brand, advertising, and identifying with products. Technology has allowed individuals to publicize a group [message]. You can attract a group that could identify with a message that's not controlled by some centralized source. It's like pamphleteering on steroids.
"The question is whether [companies will] be part of that discussion where the conversation is taking place or [be] in a defensive position trying to block the arrows coming in, whether you separate from the community and try to convince them to buy what you think they should buy or be part of that community and listen to what they think."
Contact Senior Editor Alexandra DeFelice at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corporate Blogs in This Article
General Motors: GM FastLane blog: http://fastlane.gmblogs.com
Marqui's World: http://blog.marqui.com/
Microsoft: Scobleizer Microsoft Geek Blogger: http://scobleizer.wordpress.com/