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Why (Almost) Every Company Should Stop Procrastinating and Start Blogging NOW
The time for equivocation, waffling, and procrastination is done. It is time to get blogging.
Ten years ago, people used to ask me: “Should we get email?” Then eventually everybody got email. Next they asked, “Do we really need a website?” Eventually, once search got good and their customers started to go online, the answer became “yes” and many businesses (but not all of them) went online. Nowadays, whenever I give a talk on blogs, wikis and Web 2.0, I get this question: “Should OUR company blog?”
My answer to that is absolutely, unequivocally, “YES”. There are a few exceptions that I will cover here, but for the most part, the time to ask that question is now over. In order to make that point, I will cover here the high-level value of blogging, the risks inherent in not blogging, address common fears that prevent companies from blogging, offer up some cautions, and finally, provide a summarized list of tips and tricks on how to “do” blogging well.
IS BLOGGING REALLY THAT IMPORTANT?
I’ll let Tom Peters say it better than I ever could:
“Biz Blogging…WORKS. It is of…MONUMENTAL IMPORTANCE. (Or can be.) Listen. Please. If you don’t you’re a damn fool.”– Tom Peters in the foreward to Naked Conversations
WHO SHOULD NOT BLOG?
Before we begin, let’s be clear that there are some organizations that shouldn’t blog. If your company is closed and can’t handle transparency it shouldn’t blog. If you are a military contractor and your business relies upon non-disclosure, you shouldn’t blog (at least not externally). If your employees are unhappy or can’t be trusted, don’t blog. If you don’t want to know the truth about what the market thinks about your product, don’t blog or read blogs. If your PR communication approach is command-and-control, you probably shouldn’t blog. If your people and your story are boring, then you probably shouldn’t blog. And if your reason for blogging is “because everybody else is doing it”, then you definitely shouldn’t blog.
“If you don’t have genuine faith that you can evolve a better company by listening to what your customers, prospects, investors, vendors, and partners have to say, then a blogging effort will not provide you with its full value. If you don’t want to listen – REALLY listen – then blogs will be thorny for you and your culture. If you can’t be candid about your company’s dirty laundry, then blogging probably isn’t for you. If you insist your company doesn’t have dirty laundry, then your company may be too boring to write about. Every company has its share of problems. If you aren’t willing to discuss them with some degree of openness, then you’ll be missing a huge amount of power that the blog could bring to your company. People are hungry for companies that have conversations with them – warts and all. They tend to distrust companies that try to say ‘everything’s perfect here.'” (Naked Conversations, Page 146)
WHO SHOULD BLOG?
Everybody else. If you have something unique to say to the world, your business creates something of value to people, you trust your people, you can be open and transparent, and you have a thick enough skin to have brutally honest communication with your ecosystem, then YES, YOUR COMPANY SHOULD BE BLOGGING! If you can tap into your “great vision”, the thing that most motivates your employees and that excites your most loyal customers, then yes, you should be blogging! If you want to stay relevant as your customers move online, then yes, you should blog.
If you need some examples, Microsoft had 10,000 internal and 3,000 external bloggers by Summer 2006. IBM had more than 20,000 registered bloggers by the end of 2005. Sun had 1,000 bloggers by 2004, a year after beginning their initiative. If you need more examples to prove that this is not “bleeding edge” communication technology, how about Wal-Mart, General Motors, Chevron, Ford, GE, HP, Verizon, Dell, Boeing, Wells Fargo, and many more listed in the Fortune 500 Blog Project Wiki.
WHAT’S THE VALUE OF BLOGGING IN BUSINESS?
Corporate blogs can impact almost every part of your business – internal and external, all departments, all functions. Instead of simply being JUST a corporate communications channel, they can also be used to impact almost every aspect of your business. Let’s look at some of those areas by exploring what companies have done in the real world.
Google Rank: Blogging gives the writer good “Google rank”, more than almost all other search engine optimization tricks combined. This is a result of the way blogs work mechanically – they ping the engines and ask to be re-indexed when you post something. This results in higher ranking on the search page. This one reason alone should be enough to encourage any company to blog. If you don’t, who knows how many disgruntled employees have blogged about you and are on the front page of Google or Yahoo! when prospects search for you.
Branding: Sun’s CEO Jonathan Schwartz says: “The perception of Sun as a faithful and authentic tech company is now very strong. What blogs have done has autheticated the Sun brand better than a billion dollar ad campaign could have done.” (Naked Conversations, P 55)
Finding, Hiring, and Training Great People: By having your smart and creative people out there blogging, they will attract more smart and creative people. Robert Scoble and Shel Israel wrote:
“Almost every Microsoft blogger we interviewed pointed to blogging’s advantages as a recruiting tool. There are two HR blogs giving advice on applying to Microsoft and demystiying the process.” (Naked Conversations, P 21)
By reading your prospective employees’ blogs, you can get a sense of who they are and what they might be like to have on board.
Additionally, blogs and podcasts can be used internally as excellent, cost-effective training tools. Try Googling “sales training podcasts” and you’ll find a plethora of sales training guides in MP3 format. Will podcasts replace classroom training? No, of course not. But they are an excellent low-cost distribution network that can operate alongside traditional employee training.
Market Research: Lisa Poulson, President of Kirtland Enterprise Group Inc. said: “Watch and learn. There are a lot of people who have a lot of opinions about every corporation, and they’re having conversations. That’s free market research. A corporation that is afraid of the participation that comes with conversation has larger problems.” And rather than just viewing the blogs, you can have your people note them, debate them, discuss them, and extract lessons from them. This is cheap qualitative research! Take advantage of it!
Innovation: blogs can act as a part of a system that sees your company engaging its customers, partners, suppliers, and employees in the discovery, ranking, and application of new innovations throughout the business. IBM has taken this to the extreme and created their Innovation Jam process which allowed IBMers, their clients, business partners, and family members to brainstorm online. Then they will fund up to $100M worth of follow-through on those ideas.
Collaboration & Brainstorming space: blogs (along with their related tools, wikis, RSS feed managers, and instant messaging) can be used as a platform for lightweight collaboration. Andrew McAfee, Associate professor with the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School wrote a fantastic high-level overview of this titled “Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration” which is worth reading.
Connecting to Experts: Letting people blog about their passions, interests, and roles means that people of like minds will find each other faster.
Competitive & Environmental Analysis: By scanning the blogosphere for your company’s name, your product names, your competitors names, and any other piece of information you want to keep track of. This can be done in a myriad of ways but one of the simplest is to use a site like PubSub where you can have it keep a list of keywords and then whenever a blog post is written that contains that keyword, PubSub can send route that post to you.
Find new uses of your “used” data: Do you have a technology or data set and you don’t know what to do with it? Why not get the world to help you figure out how to capitalize on it. Don Tapscott discusses in his new book, Wikinomics, how Goldcorp’s new CEO Rob McEwen had an epiphany that the open source collaboration model might help them find gold. So he released the crown jewels – their geographic data – over the internet to anybody who wanted it. He offered a $575,000 bounty to anybody who could tell him where the gold was located. After sifting and sorting through the myriad of entries from all sorts of people (many of whom weren’t geologists), Goldcorp dug for gold and found $3.8B worth of it. This is not so much a story about blogging as it is about collaboration. The tools matter less than the underlying approach and philosophy so I think this is still a good story to tell here.
Have new markets find YOU: In another case documented by Scoble and Israel, DL Byron had blogged about his invention that allows people to seal anything they want between two sheets of plastic. He marketed it for biking and hiking, but other users soon found him including hazardous waste and nuclear labs, Scuba, aerospace, dairy farms, body bags, and organ donor deliveries, commercial coffee bean packaging, and a great deal more.” (Naked Conversations, P 74)
Get new business ideas from your readers: “Such comments [from readers] may be worth millions, believes Tim Draper, the founder of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson in menlo Park, California. Draper has been using his blog to discover new business ideas worth funding. “It has become a terrific source of leads,” he says. After reading a slew of mini-pitches, Draper contacted three people whose ideas he especially liked to discuss the proposals further.” (Blogging for Business)
Efficient Information Management: I currently have 66 RSS / podcast feeds in my RSS Reader software. That allows me to scan all 66 sites from one place without having to go check out each and every one. because each site is different and you don’t know where to look, most people wouldn’t even try to keep up manually with 10 websites per day. It’s just too hard. Putting them into a feed reading program allows you to be far more effective with your time. Robert Scoble talked about how he was reading 1200+ websites with his blog reader! Most geeks I know have about 100 websites they regularly scan for new material.
If those sites provide “full feeds” (the entire article), you can also use an offline reader to catch up on a backlog while sitting on a plane or at the airport. I often skim 2000-3000 articles on a flight, blogging some of them as I go or flagging them for later viewing.
For an enterprise or large business, I would recommend looking at something like the Newsgator Enterprise Server which allows people to read their RSS feeds anytime, anywhere, and to keep their list updated at all times. This means that if you read an article on your laptop, then it will be “marked as read” on your PDA or on the web. A lighter, simpler version is Google’s Blog reader (version 2) that also has a mobile version so that you can catch up on your feeds from your phone as well.
Product Design: In an interview Scoble and Israel conducted with Loic Le Meur, EVP and GM for Europe for Six Apart’s operations, Mr. Le Meur talked about “the t-shirt guy” from La Fraise Blog. This guy had a passion for t-shirts and wrote all about good t-shirt design on his blog. People found him, and eventually started submitting t-shirt ideas to the site. He has turned this into a full-time operation where his community submits ideas, they vote collectively on them, and then he produces the ones that the community wants. The consumers are the designers. If you think this is only possible for a guy selling t-shirts….you need to expand your context. This is happening across the board. I read a great quote recently which I can’t seem to find right now and it was along the lines of “when your customer is your product designer, you no longer need focus groups.” That’s what I like about this trend. Poor companies build stuff and then look for customers. Great companies build only what customers want. If you can get the customer to pre-pay you (Dell), and help you design it (the shirt company), you’re even further ahead of the game.
More Rapid Product Development: Even if you don’t buy into the “customer as designer” concept above, it is still possible to simply engage customers on blogs in order to better understand how they are using them, what the issues and complaints are, and to iterate more quickly. Why is this better on a blog than on your forum? Because your customers are not necessarily complaining about your product in your forum, particularly if it’s a poorly designed one. They are writing on THEIR blogs. By using the blog search engines (such as Technorati, Feedster, or PubSub), you can track what people are saying about your company or product, and then connect with them there. Feedback should be able to come back to your product team, no matter where that feedback is posted online. The entire internet should be your product forum.
Marketing: blogs can be used to establish thought leadership. There are a lot of blogs out there it’s true. But we’re still at a stage where a blogger can quickly become one of the leading voices simply by being very focused on their niche. There are probably not a thousand bloggers blogging about how to build great bird houses or how to knit. Even in the business space, there are still relatively few top bloggers in every business category so if your content is compelling and you can market yourself to the other bloggers in your space, it is possible to become well-known in your niche relatively quickly
Building community: Community isn’t a technical infrastructure. Community is a group of people with a shared interest, context, language, and history. But blogs are means to building a community of people. There are communities that emerge around certain subjects, or bloggers, or cluster of bloggers.
Cost-effective communications: Scoble and Isreal write: “Because blogs are also the lowest-cost communications channel, you can reach thousands, perhaps millions of people for an investment of a few cents and some personal time. Blogs are infinitely more efficient than any other corporate communications medium.” (Naked Conversations, P 27)
Public Relations: moving from traditional command-and-control PR to PR being people who understand that “marketplaces are conversations”. This paragraph from Naked Conversations so perfectly sums up this issue that I need to quote it in full:
PR is an absolutely critical function in any company. But good PR people realize that their industry is changing and that new tactics are becoming more useful and some tactics are becoming less useful. What type of PR are your practicing? Command and control? Or conversational? You might want to go and find out.
Correcting the media: If your company does a one hour interview with a reporter and that reporter does a 3 minute piece or a 500 word column – and makes a mistake – what recourse do you have? In the past, you had none. Now it is a simple matter to correct the journalist right after the error is made. This is a definite power shift.
Reputation/Perception: Tom Peters wrote: Robert Scoble, single-handedly at first, has given the EVIL EMPIRE (Microsoft, who els?) a “Human Face”…thanks to his blog.” Scoble did this by being himself, calling it as he saw it, which included praising the iPod, and slamming Microsoft when they screwed up. That honesty gave him huge points with his readers so that they knew when he said he saw something positive in Microsoft, that he wasn’t just parroting the company PR. Microsoft has over 10,000 internal bloggers and over 3,000 external bloggers so Scoble wasn’t alone in shifting the tide of public opinion but he was a big part of it.
Direct access to your customer: Blogs are a direct (public) channel of communication from you and your people to your customers/partners/vendors. They are the only channel of this kind that is this cost-effective. This alone is reason enough to blog.
Direct unfiltered communications FROM your customer: Companies are fond of doing customer surveys. You know the ones. They have 20-30 questions that all sound the same and a bunch of multiple choice answers that don’t really capture what you mean. And that number rolls up to the Executive who say something like, “Hmmmm….we have a 7.” So what? Do they know what to do to get an 8? Or a 10? Getting plain, open, honest, real communication from customers or partners is a HUGE benefit to a company. And the way to do this is to be scanning the blogosphere for mentions of your names
More efficient operations: using blogs, wikis, and RSS feeds can provide your company with low-cost knowledge management and project management systems that allow you to more cost-effectively share information inside and outside your company with your entire eco-system;
Coordination: blogs can allow a widely dispersed organization to more effectively coordinate its efforts by letting teams see what other teams are working on. The larger your company is, the more important this accidental discovery mechanism can be in finding duplicated effort (or in combining multiple projects into one project.)
Transparency and Authenticity: blogs allow your company to move from opacity to transparency, from generic corporate speak to authentic humans talking about their work. In an age of corporate mistrust, this is not to be underestimated!!
Write a book, one blog post at a time: In the olden days (pre-blog), the path to publishing was something like write a book summary, shop it around to 100 publishers, and then either give up or self-publish. The new path is: blog your book one post at a time, discuss your articles with people on the internet to get their feedback, revise as you go, and then you look for a publisher or in some cases the publisher will come to you! Some great examples of this are Chris Anderson’s Long Tail (blog, book), Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points (blog, book), and Hugh MacLeod’s How to Be Creative (blog…book not yet published but there is lots of interest!)
Build a website without building a website: Blogs = High Google Rank. Search is now the dominant means for acquiring new customers. Therefore Blogs are the simplest, cheapest, best way to be found on the web so that people can buy from you. If your company is considering building a website, you’re better off to just build a blog and nothing else than you are to build a standard HTML “Web 1.0” website that will have relatively little Google rank. Then start blogging and as Roland Tanglao would say, “Write constantly compelling content!”
WHY YOU FEAR BLOGS AND HOW TO DEAL WITH IT
When asked about blogging, many people and companies have the same base fears. They usually are one of the following:
“Losing control” of what people are saying about you: You never HAD control of the what people say about you. People have been talking about your company for years. And now they’re blogging. You can’t control the message. Get over it. But you CAN join the conversation.
“Losing control” of messaging: In fact, blogs are a great way to ensure you get to deliver your message exactly the way you want to deliver it, unfettered by filters. You have a direct conduit from the company to your customers. Have your CEO or senior Executives talk directly to the market. Your customers will love you for it.
“Somebody will say something bad about me/us/our product.” Ben McConell and Jackie Huba (authors of Creating Customer Evangelists) said: “People are scared to death of anyone, anywhere saying something that might be construed as negative. This, of course, is highly irrational. It doesn’t take into account that your company has supporters, who have a higher level of credibiity and can shoot down unfair and untrue comments.” (Naked Conversations, P 89) Another great point is that if people do say something about your product that is untrue, you have an opportunity to correct it.
“Somebody will divulge corporate secrets”: Do what you would do if they divulged them in person or on the phone or in email or from their webcam – sanction or fire them. Most companies have corporate confidentiality agreements already signed and in place. This is no different, it’s just another channel. “Corporate leaks have been with us for almost as long as have corporate secrets…The fear of leaks on blogs is real, but FUD has amplifed the dangers to far greater level than seems reasonable to us …Out of several million people in business blogging tens of millions of posts daily, we found fewer than 50 incidents in which employers felt compelled to take action and some of the actions taken were quite mild.” (Naked Conversations, P 141/189)
Our competitors may learn something from our blogs: This is true. They might. And your customers may also learn stuff about your company. Or at least they should. Competitors may be paying attention to your blog. But if you are paying more attention to creating stunningly great products for your customers than you are paying to what your competitors are doing, you’re probably farther ahead. I am personally a fan of playing to win (which means following the customer as fast as possible to gain the top spot) vs. playing not to lose (watching the competitor so that you can shadow their every move.) The other comment on this fear is that just because somebody hears your idea, doesn’t mean they have the ability to execute on that idea as well as you. This is why angels and venture capitalists refuse to sign NDAs for companies. Ideas are cheap. Execution is what counts.
“I don’t want my people wasting their time blogging.” Blogging takes time. that is absolutely true. But the reality is that your people are wasting time now in terms of duplicated efforts, not being able to find others in the organization who can help them, giving status updates, and a whole host of other time-wasting activities that will be positively impacted by blogging.
WHY ARE YOUR EMPLOYEES AFRAID OF BLOGGING?
Your employees will be afraid of blogging if there is not a clear policy of support and a clear message from the leadership that this is a positive thing for the company. Oddly, Microsoft has no blogging policy. That approach unfortunately lends itself to having some managers support it and others discourage it. All the while both Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have supported it.
Give your people the trust they deserve, and give them clear guidelines and training if it’s required. Then let them engage your community.
And when people take a risk and say something negative about the company (and it isn’t in contravention of the financial or corporate secrets rules), then address their concerns publicly. As management learns how to respond in public to this sort of conversation, your organization has an opportunity to move towards more open, honest conversation – something that most large companies are not very good at!
I read of one company (and can’t remember which one) that had an anonymous rant-blog where employees could ask the hardest questions or point out the largest flaws in the organization without fear of sanction. And it was moderated so that once the issue was aired, the moderator would then engage the audience again to ask how to resolve or address the issue. This surfaced a lot of issues and made people realize that the organization could criticize itself and learn.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF BLOGGING?
Building a Lame Blog: Some easy ways to build a lame blog include: having a “character” blog, having a ghost-written blog, or breaching the core values of blogs that have to do with authenticity and trust. If you don’t know what a lame blog looks like, then hire somebody who does and let THEM build your blogging program.
Building a mediocre blog: I loved this quote from Scoble and Israel:
HOW TO BLOG WELL IN 100 WORDS
Be passionate. Be authentic. Be human. Take risks. Be the authority on your product and industry. Be transparent. Tell the truth. Use human language, not corporate speak. Link to everybody and everything. Be fanatical about metrics. Praise your competitors when they deserve it. Chastise yourself when YOU deserve it! Be controversial. Avoid the zone of mediocrity and the dire hell of lameness. Listen to negative comments, and address them. If they’re true, admit it. If they’re wrong, correct them! Post quickly about everything! Know who’s talking about you and join those conversations. Engage your community! Most of all, have fun!
Business is the management of risk, not the avoidance of it. The benefits of blogging FAR outweigh the risks of blogging. It is time for all companies to take advantage of this opportunity to cost-effectively connect and communicate with their partners and customers. Don’t wait any longer. Do it NOW!
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND NEXT STEPS
I highly recommend buying and reading these three books which provided much of the material for this post. Reading these books will give you all the ammunition you need to justify business blogging. Good luck!!