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Blogging Through the (Online) Clutter

Slowly, inexorably, a relentless avalanche of invasive digital marketing is crowding our professional consciousness. 

Between e-mails, feeds, our Blackberries and text messages, businesses find themselves in danger of losing their voices in a market, literally, drowned in noise.  To cut through this clutter, companies are turning to digital tools, such as blogs, to help make meaningful connections with customers.

Having spent the better part of 10 years publishing in many digital forms, I continually enjoy watching friends and colleagues discover blogging.  Numerous, ubiquitous social network sites deliver simple publishing tools to whole societies, scaling what was the domain of geeks into a mass-market proposition.

Making a Case

The business case for blogs is well-documented.  Blogs help companies with customer relationships, media relations, internal collaboration, knowledge management, recruitment, testing ideas or products, and improving search engine ranking.

Yet it’s difficult to write about blogs without at least acknowledging the larger social media landscape they, in part, drive.

During the first stage of the evolving commercial internet, search engines carried the heavy lifting of connecting brands and customers.  Branded web sites and e-mail communications were the most sophisticated marketing activities on offer, making for a non-traditional – in other words: ‘scary, but manageable’ – brand ecosystem for businesses to oversee.

The next phase of innovation capitalised on tipping-point penetration levels of home broadband connectivity.  When millions of newly-minted ADSL customers logged on in 2004, MySpace was ready with free patches of virtual land for newcomers to explore and shape in their images.

Social networks and dedicated publishing platforms – like TypePad and WordPress – provided the right tools for fledgling bloggers as they began uploading and sharing in droves.  Specialist sites flourished providing easy-to-use tools for organising photos, movies, calendars, feeds, e-mail, to-do lists and other everyday activities, giving consumers endless reasons to log on – and stay there.

Blogs matter, not just for digital diatribes and ubiquitous puppy photo slideshows; after all, many offline tools provide exactly the same functionality.  The power of blogs is the infinite link, Alice’s endless rabbit hole tunnelling an unknown, uncharted flight for content creators and consumers alike.

Customer power: a waterfall from a single drop

For businesses, a single focussed, dedicated blog can pierce the heaviest armour, as Dell learned the hard way thanks to a now-legendary blog, BuzzMachine.

Jeff Zarvis, an American editor-turned-media-consultant chronicled his ongoing, horrific customer experience with the computer manufacturer in a series of posts neatly titled “Dell Hell”.  A raindrop perhaps, but his words sparked a deluge of responses – thousands, in fact, mostly from empathetic Dell customers with similar tales of woe – the sheer volume of which demanded the company respond publicly.

Though Dell executives may not have believed it at the time, it was great news for the PC market leader.

First and foremost, it showed people cared enough about Dell to make a stink. 

More importantly, though, it revealed the rest of the iceberg: Zarvis tapped into a bloc of hidden negativity, latent consumer ire drifting silently towards the good ship Dell.  Once given voice, the public’s blistering rancour offered Dell the opportunity to confront these issues directly, bypassing consumer media, third-parties and even other retailers who might distort the message.  After initial hesitation and a stuttering start, the company eventually chose the most appropriate response to address individual customer concerns.

It started a blog, called Direct2Dell.

Company power: the conversation

Businesses are not powerless; there is a strategy in connecting directly to customers through social media channels.  These connections can be ones companies choose – participating in existing communities like Flickr, for example – and ones they create, perhaps through their own blogs.  What’s important is embracing, philosophically, the concept of conversation-based marketing.  Blogs need to be transparent, direct, loyal, credible and honest – ideally, a reflection of you.  Some companies who have successfully explored this territory include GM, Apple and, unsurprisingly, Google.

To those companies considering blogging, the first step is to challenge the notion of linear storytelling.  Throw out the static marketing brochure, abandon the PR calendar. It is a dynamic medium, impossible to map or define.  Credible blogging must occur within the fabric of this environment: a blog is never a destination but only one of an infinite number of links connecting people – people, not “users” or “customers” – across time and space.

Most existing marketing activity is wholly inappropriate for blogging.  Simply digitising and displaying the aforementioned press releases, glossy brochures, television advertisements and other traditional media does not constitute community building.  It is one-way and static.  Never confuse corporate communications with social media.

To help companies feel more comfortable creating their communities, we start simply by asking the five Ws:

  • Why? The most important principle is to clearly define the objective of the blog; it sets expectations and clarifies purpose.  Without a value proposition, people will likely be disappointed and believe time spent there wasted.  Consider: people go to eBay to buy and sell, not discuss politics.  Members of Football365.com forums are there to discuss sport and exchange their views.  Because these visitors have many objectives, it’s unlikely a single web site will satisfy them all; the same with your community.  Some customers will likely experience your brand on many sites, each according to their needs.  Your blog should stick to its purpose and leave the rest.
  • Who? Successful blogs develop a community of people who can relate to one another, be they customers, employees or other interested parties.  Traditional success factors are relevant: identity, trust, reputation and history.  Communities offering mechanisms for assessing the quality of contribution of other members become more valuable.  eBay, for example, signals quality of contributors – both sellers and buyers – using star ratings and histories.
  • What? Rules are important for any community and it’s no secret this is the most delicate area for corporate bloggers.  Unmoderated forums can, and do, careen wildly astray into foreign topics.  Balancing the need for focused (and civilised) discussion with the principles of open, unbiased forums is a constant concern for any legitimate community.  For example, the systematic removal of all critical postings would naturally – and irrevocably – poison any desired credibility within your blog.
  • Where? The mechanisms used for blogging are largely dependent upon the needs of your community.  Chat or instant message (IM) formats are attractive for immediate one-on-one interaction, or for contacting a small group.  However, IM limits the amount of information that can be conveyed and relies on visitors to be online at the time.  Forums, articles, e-mail or RSS feed-based systems have reach and are suitable for virtual communities but can lack the immediacy involved with live conversations.  A mixture is likely required.
  • When? There’s no hard and fast rule as to how often you should post, although consistency is highly desirable.  Larger questions loom when considering frequency, chiefly surrounding resources: who will be managing the blog?  In what capacity?

There is no one right way to blog.  Each is as individual as the people contributing to it.

The first challenge is to overcome the inertia of inaction.  Try it.  Your blog’s voice will emerge naturally, there’s no need to develop a detailed style guide in advance, such rigid planning will stifle the meaningful expression you’re trying to evoke.  Enlist different voices within your company to contribute.  Experiment.  See what others are doing, copy what you like and let the rest go.

Your focus, remember, is on clear communication – cutting through the clutter.  How big you build your community is completely up to you.

Originally published July 2007, London UK

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