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A Growing Voice

James Cherkoff
Expert Author
Published: 2004-12-22

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As a marketing consultant in London, I get a lot of blank, glazed looks when I talk about blogs, blogging, the blogosphere or even the much more respectable sounding Citizen's Media or the 5th estate. So I've written the article below to try and give (business) people a flavour of what's on offer.

As a result many people reading this might want to click on, but feel free to use it next time you get that glazed over look....

Imagine a room with tens of thousands of your customers talking about your company and your products. That's one way to think about the blogging community (the blogosphere). The choice for companies is whether they want to be in that room or not. And increasingly, staying out is just too risky.

Imagine a room with tens of thousands of your customers talking about your company and your products. That's one way to think about the blogging community (the blogosphere). The choice for companies is whether they want to be in that room or not. And increasingly, staying out is just too risky.

Weblogs or blogs have been around for some time and are generally regarded as a highly geeky pastime. But in the US they have hit the mainstream. Technocrati.com, a blog monitor, tracks almost 5 million blogs, and adds 15,000 every day.

Despite their strange name blogs are actually very simple. They are websites that allow individuals to create their own site and to do so very easily, at minimal cost. (Micropublishing might be a more helpful name.) They are normally a mixture of text and images but recently video has become more common and audio has made it possible to create radio-style commentary (known as podcasts). Which all offers considerable room for individual expression.

However, it's the interaction between blogs that makes them so interesting and influential. A single blog can be akin to a ranting madman on the corner. However, when linked together into massive intertwining communities they have the vibrancy and passion of a massive street market, with information, opinions and whispers exchanging hands at light speed. And it's no longer confined to techy chats. Conversations about every conceivable subject take place from caring for newborn twins, to political discussion or rants about brands and products. And as the quantity and quality of these conversations grows so does the blogosphere's influence beyond the internet.

A key moment for the blogosphere came during Howard Dean's attempt to become the US democratic presidential candidate. Although unsuccessful in his bid, Dean's Blog For America campaign raised huge amounts of funding and support from individuals across the US and is often cited in articles about the reinvigoration of US politics.

The commercial sector is also feeling the impact of blogging. In September of this year a company called Kryptonite (which manufactures super-secure, super-expensive bicycle locks) was forced into a massive product recall when a rumour about a faulty product design raged through the blogosphere, onto San Francisco's bikeforums.net and finally into the New York Times.

TiVo, the manufacturer of Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) has also fallen foul of the blogging community. When a commercial blog called PVRblog.com ran a piece claiming that adverts would be shown on their machines (that people buy mainly to avoid advertising) all hell broke lose in a 75,000 strong, online TiVo community. The company only realised there was a problem when the story hit the LA Times.

While consumer power is not a new thing, the passion that the blogging community creates and the speed at which communities build definitely is. The design fault which led to Kryptonite's problems was a long-standing one which they had been quietly dealing with on an individual basis. It only became a problem when a video demonstrating the fault was posted on a blog. As a result corporations in the US have started to pay attention to how relations with these online groups of highly motivated, super switched-on consumers can be best handled.

One way for companies to join in these huge conversations is to set up their own blog. But when they do it's vital to get the tone absolutely right. Blogs using opaque PR language and corporate style tactics can do more harm than good. Dialogue, transparency and openness are the watchwords.

One well known blogger called Scobleizer (aka Robert Scoble) is a Microsoft employee who writes about technical issues, many closely related to the software giants' business. He does so with the blessing of his employer (Bill Gates is now a blogger) but without their approval or edit.

The idea of an employee publishing at will to the world on any subject he pleases is probably enough to bring many PR executives out in a light sweat. However, Scoble is attributed with bringing a much needed human quality to Microsoft's communications.

Elsewhere, Jupiter Research have set up a group of their analysts to blog about industry issues. "The at-times offbeat journals are stirring sales leads from clients who otherwise might not have contacted Jupiter", says David Schatsky, Jupiter's chief of research.

And at GE the company has set up a blog to celebrate 50 years of the small block engine. The site is aimed at the engineering community and is fast becoming a haven for petrol heads to exchange tips and views.

As well as creating a voice in the blogosphere corporates should carefully monitor issues that are being raised which affect them. A number of tools have sprung up on the web (Technorati, PubSub, Blogdex, Sitemeter) which allow anyone to follow the trends and issues driving the big discussion. Blogging is a grassroots platform and it's vital for even the biggest players to respect that if they are to benefit from taking part. And that means listening carefully.

Many blogs carry advertising, normally in the shape of Google keywords, but sometimes in more sophisticated ways like Gawker which attracts more than 600,000 readers a month. These can be another way for corporates to develop a presence but remember that this market talks back. Don't be surprised if clumsy advertising gets a bad and noisy reception.

Blogs can also be restricted in their audience. Internal blogs or blogs between companies and their key accounts can work very well. But corporates should see them for what they are. Blogs are intended as low-tech and to be launched without fuss. It's the conversations that they carry which are important.

Now that blogging has emerged from its technical origins and become part of the mainstream other terms are being used to describe it. Citizen's Media is one term, and the 5th Estate is another. They both promote the fact that blogging is giving people a powerful voice. One that is only getting louder and more influential.

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About the Author:
James Cherkoff is an independent marketing consultant based in London. When he isn't helping companies like GM and Nestle to get to grips with the networked world he writes articles on the subject for online and offline media, including the Financial Times.


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