Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Does Your Company Belong in the Blogosphere?

11/28/2005
Bloggers have damaged a number of companies, but it's time to think of the blog as your friend. Skillful blogging can boost your company's credibility and help it connect with customers. From Harvard Management Communication Letter.

When Bob Lutz, the vice chairman of product development at General Motors, wants to get quick feedback from consumers on the company's latest product launch, new strategy, or something as specific as the quality of the sheet-metal fits on the latest Chevrolet, he knows where to go: his corporate blog, http://fastlane.gmblogs.com.

Lutz is among a small but growing number of corporate executives who have started to experiment with blogs—Web-based commentary sites usually written in a first-person, conversational manner—to connect with customers online and advance corporate communications and marketing goals.

Typically, a blog (a contraction of Weblog) is created with easy-to-use software that streamlines the process of creating and updating a professional-looking Web page, giving users a low-cost platform from which to express their thoughts on a particular subject. Written material made available on a blog is called a post and can be linked easily to other information on the Web, such as other blogs, a company Web site, news articles, photo images, or video and audio files. This allows information on a blog to be indexed and swiftly accessed by popular search engines such as Google or Yahoo and disseminated far more quickly—and, in some instances, far more prominently—than other, more traditional forms of corporate communications.

There are sixty-plus blogs produced by large corporations—and many more if, for example, you count the approximately 2,000 individual blogs written by Sun Microsystems employees that are then aggregated into one group blog at www.blogs.sun.com. Besides General Motors and Sun Microsystems, companies that encourage blogging activity include The Boeing Company, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Red Hat, Edelman, Stonyfield Farm, and Yahoo. These blogs are part of a constantly expanding blogosphere that, as of the end of 2004, had some 32 million readers, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

What Lutz and other executives recognize is that a blog is an incredibly effective yet low-cost way to:

What follows is advice from experts to help your company realize the full benefits of blogging.

How bloggers connect
Bloggers are somewhat like constantly circulating guests at a very large cocktail party: They don't all talk directly with one another, but each of them talks to many others, thus forming a richly interlinked network. According to David Sifry, founder and CEO of blog-focused search engine Technorati, there are almost 18 million blogs, spanning over one and a half billion links.

Blogs allow us to get our message out to the world in a direct, unmediated, and unfiltered way.
— Tim Bray, Sun Microsystems

Technically, conversations among bloggers can occur in two ways. Blogging software can be configured to allow blog visitors to post a comment that others visiting the blog can also view. The GM FastLane blog featuring Lutz's comments is a corporate site that invites visitors to post their thoughts as well.

Other corporate sites do not permit posts from outsiders but do communicate on a blog-to-blog basis using various tools (such as the search engines Technorati, PubSub, and Google Blog Search) that allow users to monitor what is being said about themselves or their blog in cyberspace. These corporate blogs, like the vast majority of other blogs out there, use RSS (for real simple syndication) feeds, a tool that allows people to subscribe to blogs and thus be notified when the blogger has posted something new.

"If you are going to do a blog, you should always have an RSS feed of your own, which then allows people to subscribe to your publication," says Tim Bray, director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems.

Take a lead in the conversation
This ability to engage with others is what gives blogs their power. "Blogs are all about conversations," says Sifry. A corporate blog allows a company both to keep an ear to the ground to hear what's being said about it and, if necessary, speak up with a correction.

"If you're not blogging, you're missing out on the chance to contribute to the conversation taking place in the blogosphere," says consultant Debbie Weil, creator of the BlogWrite for CEOs blog (www.blogwriteforceos.com) and author of The Corporate Blogging Book (forthcoming in 2006 from Penguin/Portfolio).

You're also missing out on the chance to reach the journalists who write about your company for more traditional media outlets: a Euro RSCG Magnet and Columbia University Survey of the Media in 2005 found that 51 percent of journalists view blogs regularly.

Boost credibility and get closer to customers
Not surprisingly, many of the early adopters of blogs have been technology companies eager to leverage blogs' ability to position a company executive for recognition as an expert in a given industry or on a specific topic. With his blog, Jonathan Schwartz, the president and COO of Sun Microsystems, has established himself (blogs.sun.com/jonathan) as a thought leader on issues pertinent to computer operating systems.

"Blogs allow us to get our message out to the world in a direct, unmediated, and unfiltered way," Bray says. Bray, who has been blogging since February of 2003 on tech-related topics, says that blogging allows Sun to write things that "are read directly by people in the software development community without being filtered by journalists and analysts."

He adds that a more subtle benefit is the fact that the blogging by Schwartz and many other employees has made it apparent to the world that Sun is not a faceless corporate monolith but a community of people who are passionate about software and information technology, and eager to engage with customers. He mentions one instance when a blog reader was trying to figure out how to obtain a type of software licensing approval from Sun. Several employee bloggers volunteered to assist, says Bray, and "they put the problem on a quick path to resolution."

To get the most from your blog
For now, corporate blogging is a rapidly evolving practice, with much testing and experimentation under way, and yet early practitioners and analysts agree that corporate blogs can deliver distinct benefits, provided they:

Have a distinct focus and goal. For a blog to deliver value, it has to be created with a specific purpose in mind. GM's Lutz, for example, devotes much of his blog to discussion of car-design issues, his specialty. Sun's Schwartz focuses on enterprise software issues in his blog. The blog written by Randy Baseler, a vice president of marketing at Boeing, focuses on commercial aviation topics (www.boeing.com/randy).

"You need to set expectations very carefully as to what a corporate blog is going to be about. People will expect you to discuss everything about your company, but you need to stay on topic as explained and introduced," says Michael Wiley, the director of new media at GM.

Robert Cox, a blogging consultant in New York, says that a company should carefully identify the corporate marketing objectives of any blog. "You need to ask: Are you trying to showcase your employees? Are you using the blog as a recruitment tool as Monster.com does with their blog? Or is it more of a product support tool? You have to determine what it is you are trying to get done."

Organic food manufacturer Stonyfield Farm, for example, chose to launch four distinct blogs (www.stonyfield.com/weblog), each targeting a specific consumer market for its products. One blog features a chatty organic farmer who produces milk for Stonyfield. On another blog, new parents at Stonyfield talk about babies. All four blogs reflect the firm's commitment to environmentalism, good health, and organic food.

"Our blogs are a way to showcase different aspects of our brand and encourage brand loyalty," says Cathleen Toomey, vice president of communications at Stonyfield, who adds that company blogs have helped to more fully engage core customers, who then go on to become brand ambassadors for the firm.

Don't let the PR department write your blog.
— Debbie Weil, BlogWrite for CEOs

Feature an authentic voice. "Don't let the PR department write your blog. Bloggers will sniff it out, and when they do, you will lose all credibility," says Weil. She points to GM's Lutz as a senior executive whose writing style is genuine, conversational, and engaging, and whose blog—like the best executive-written blogs—eschews corporate-speak.

In your blog, express your enthusiasm and passion for your work and your company's product, with occasional asides on topics that reflect your personal interests. The latter will keep your voice authentic and increase the linkability of your blog.

Are open to comment. Permit both positive and negative posts on your blog, and reply to comments made on other blogs pertinent to your area of focus. Respond in a professional and businesslike way. If you don't want to hear from your customers and critics in a public environment, don't blog.

"Blogs that don't feature comments from readers are missing a large part of what makes a blog interesting," says Weil. "They are not meant to be a one-way conversation," she says, adding that companies can easily configure the comment function so that it is delayed and can be reviewed.

A final word
For a blog to accomplish its multiple purposes, it has to be updated regularly, at the very least once a week. Advises Pete Blackshaw of Intelliseek, a marketing intelligence firm: "If your legal department requires three weeks' review time before you turn around a posting for your blog, you are not a good candidate for blogging."

Reproduced with permission from "The Blogosphere Beckons: Should Your Company Jump In?" Harvard Management Communication Letter, Vol. 2, No. 4, November 2005.

See other Harvard Business School Publishing newsletters.

Katherine Heires, principal of MediaKat LLC, is a business and technology writer based in New York City.

Playing Ostrich: It's a Dangerous Game

Ignoring the existence and reach of blogs, says Heidi Cohen, principal of Riverside Marketing Strategies and an adjunct professor of interactive marketing at New York University, can leave a company vulnerable to serious damage. "With blogs, the ostrich approach doesn't work," says Cohen. Companies need to monitor what is being said about them and their products in cyberspace.

Take, for example, the case of a lock maker whose products had been marketed in traditional media as offering excellent security for bicycle owners. Unbeknownst to the company, an individual posted on a group discussion site for bicyclists the observation that the $50 sturdy metal lock could be disabled with a thin, plastic Bic pen. Days later, several blogs posted videos that demonstrated how this could be done. Subsequently, the information spread like wildfire on the Internet.

The company, which was not monitoring Internet postings about company products, was a little slow to respond. Eventually, to stave off the bad publicity, the company offered rebates for replacement locks.

The estimated cost to the company for replacement locks has been put at $10 million, though the reputation loss is clearly beyond measure.



Reproduced with permission from "The Blogosphere Beckons: Should Your Company Jump In?" Harvard Management Communication Letter, Vol. 2, No. 4, November 2005.